Originally Published in Manayunk.com Magazine
By Jane Lipton
Winnie Clowry the owner and friendly face behind Winnie’s LeBus has teamed up with her long time executive chef John O’Brien to bring us Main Streets newest fare; Smokin’ John’s Barbeque. It’s comfort food at its finest, we’re talking pulled pork, ribs, brisket and amazing maple smoked turkey, all paired with traditional sides of macaroni and cheese, mashed sweet potatoes, creamed spinach and baked beans just to get started. For the vegetarians, vegans or health conscious there’s smoked salmon, seitan ribs and their spin on a broccoli slaw. As for the culture, it’s classic Winnie all the way – comfortable, warm, and a place you can easily sit back and relax in. Oh yeah, and if you’re in a rush it’s grab and go style so you can be out of the door in five minutes with a full meal in your hands.
We sat down with Winnie and John to chat more about how this dynamic duo got their start.
MM: Tell me how you got started in the restaurant biz.
Winnie: My father, Joe Murphy was in the restaurant / tavern business and I grew up watching him put great food on the table and a smile on every ones face.
John: When I was 14 years old I took a job washing dishes for two bucks an hour. After a year and a half I got promoted to short order cook, and that’s when my interest really took off. My big responsibility, on the weekend was to make toast. Boy did I make a lot of toast. White toast, wheat toast, rye toast, I made toast by the thousands. Funny, I still love to make toast, I love the smell.
MM: How long have you been working together? You two make quite the dynamic duo.
Winnie: I started working at LeBus in 1994, John was already working here. Can I boast a little? We just celebrated 20 years on Main Street, and Johns been with me the whole time. When Bob and I bought LeBus I asked John to be my Executive Chef. I knew I had the business savvy to operate the restaurant but the kitchen was a different story. Thankfully John accepted the position and the rest is history.
John: Winnie and I have been working together for most of my professional career. She’s like a sister to me. We see things the same way… well most of the time anyway. But most important we both have a passion for what we do.
MM: One restaurant seems like a lot of work, two seems really hard?
Winnie: I know, right? Sometimes I say to myself what was it thinking! But seriously it all comes down to good systems being put in place and being consistent with everything we do.
John: True, one restaurant is hard and two, well its more than twice as hard. But we’re lucky, we have a talented and committed staff at Smokin' John's and that’s HUGE!
MM: When did this idea for a BBQ restaurant begin?
Winnie: Actually the first idea for a new restaurant was a “fast casual concept”, you know like the Panera and Chipolte concepts. We thought it would be a great way to do something much different than Winnie’s. We chose BBQ because it was a very successful choice for many of the themed parties we were catering. When the restaurant space next door became available we jumped at the chance.
John: For me the idea started when I was working on a Barbeque Sauce for Winnies. We served it on chicken and ribs for specials, and before long the dishes developed a loyal following, people even asked us about buying the sauce. We really went for it in a big way when we offered barbeque at the Manayunk StrEAT Food Festival, where it was a huge hit! Out of that came a request to cater a barbeque wedding and the rest was just a natural progression into Smokin’ John’s Barbeque.
MM: How did you come up with the name for Smokin’ John’s?
Winnie: Years ago John made a brunch special. It was a BBQ chicken sandwich. My niece Kat said we should call it Smokin’ John’s BBQ. Over the years customers have asked for the BBQ sauce by that name. And so it just seemed like an obvious and natural choice.
MM: How does it feel to have restaurants named after you?
Winnie: Well Winnies Le Bus, that was my husband’s doing. He wanted my name out there because I work so hard and he believes that I deserve the recognition. At first it was un-nerving because I hated my name growing up, now I am thankful for it. I am the third Winnie, I’m named after my mom and my grandmother who is now long gone. I often say that I wished my grandmother was alive to see Winnie’s, she would be so proud.
John: Honestly is a little strange, but people think it's neat that there’s actually a "Smokin' John".
MM: Describe the style and ambiance of Smokin’ John’s?
Winnie: We used reclaimed barn wood to accent the trim and baseboards, as well as vintage doors and furniture. We have some really interesting pieces that we've picked up along the way, including table bases that were made from mixing bowl stands from the old Tastykake factory. One of my favorite pieces is the huge old barn door that hangs along the bar area, I think it makes the room!
John: Warm, friendly and inviting, the kind of place you want to hang out in with friends and family. Yep I love the way it feels there.
MM: What do you love most about working with each other?
Winnie: I really love working with John. He really “gets me” and I truly respect him both personally and professionally.
John: Winnie has vision, an ability to look ahead like no one I’ve worked with before. Her strength and conviction inspires me.
MM: Several of the servers and staff at Winnie’s are family members, do you plan on keeping Smokin' John’s in the family as well?
Winnie: If they aren’t our family, they might as well be…we have so many great employees.
John: Haha, we have already! My daughter Brittany is holding down the fort at Winnie's behind the bar and both of my sons Corey and Jack are with me at Smokin' John's. My wife Danielle works behind the scenes as well, offering some great ideas that have helped shape our restaurant.
MM: What’s your favorite kind of food, or is there a dish out there that you have always wanted to try?
Winnie: I love seafood. If I have lobster when we go out to dinner…the lobster has to be big – the bigger the better. It doesn’t need to be stuffed but it has to be big. I’m also that person you see in restaurants who orders that “Tower of Seafood”. You know, the dish that everyone else secretly wishes they had the nerve to order. My husband just shakes his head and watches me eat the entire thing, by myself, it’s wonderful.
John: My family and I are pretty adventurous and like to try a wide variety of foods. One of our favorite things to do is head to 9th street and find some interesting wild game to try.
MM: What single life event would you say had the most influence on you?
Winnie: Buying LeBus…it changed my life completely. It was the best move we could have ever made. There are many times in the course of the year that the finances are very stressful. Carrying a large payroll is a big responsibility for anyone. But, at the end of the day – it’s so rewarding when people let you know how much they truly like what you are doing.
John: Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house. Every Sunday we would go there for dinner, she was the best cook I've ever known. She made everything from scratch, start to finish. Her desserts were always a favorite; she made the most incredible bread pudding and pastries. I have a very fond memory of the spice cabinet in her pantry, it was an old white metal cabinet that I would open up as soon as we got there, and get lost in the amazing aromas that poured out. That spice cabinet sits in my home today, reminding me of her, reminding me of her contribution to my life.
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