Bono’s Pit Barb-B-Q: Legit Pits and Steady Growth

Bono’s Pit Barb-B-Q is a Florida staple known for its delicious barbecue, which they cook fresh in pits every day. Bono’s has over 20 locations in Florida and up to Colorado, and they coined the phrase, “If you don’t see a pit, it ain’t legit!”

Bono’s is also the official barbecue of the Jacksonville Jaguars and serves fans delicious barbecue from kiosks around the EverBank Field stadium.

Pit Barb-B-Q is definitely the real deal, and their purpose is clear: to create the best authentic barbecue experience. They focus on quality over everything, even turning down rapid expansion in favor of slow, quality-controlled growth.

The food

Their authentic style goes straight back to the beginning, when Lou Bono established the first ever Bono’s restaurant in Jacksonville, FL, in 1949. He was serious about doing barbecue right, and he built the first specially made Bono’s pit. The meat was cooked fresh over wood and under the careful supervision of a Pit Master. Every Bono’s today has these two features in common.

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“We have pit masters at every single restaurant,” said President Josh Martino. “They maintain the fire, they rub all of the meat with our seasoning and sprice rubs, and they smoke everything.”

According to Marino, the blackjack oak in the pits is procured locally, and the meat is carefully selected and comes to the store raw. It isn’t cut until the customer orders it, and then the meat is smoked and finished off on a live wood-burning pit that sits in the middle of the restaurant.

“It’s a much higher degree of difficulty,” Martino said. “But the result is a product that we can be proud of.”

Their growth as a brand has been slow and steady, Martino said, because too much growth too quickly would compromise the quality of the food. They’re not interested in opening up a ton of restaurants at once—they want franchise owners who fit with the overall feel and theme of Bono’s.

Bono’s is now led by Joe Adeeb and daughters Kirsten Martino and Katie Colley, who have continued with Lou Bono’s tenants of great barbecue.

The brand remade

2014 was a fruitful year for Bono’s. In addition to the Jaguars partnership, Bono’s also updated its brand identity. The logo had always been simple and rounded orange letters, with the assumption that everybody already knew what Bono’s was. There was also some concern over brand confusion, considering that another very recognizable restaurant uses rounded orange letters: Hooters.

To continue their steady growth trend, they needed an update that would start bringing in a new generation. It was important to have Bar-B-Q in the new logo and signage, Martino said, so new and potential customers instantly understood what Bono’s had to offer.  The new logo also includes a graphic symbol that works well as a brand mark—a circled B that looks like an ink stamp.

“It’s far simpler than logos of the past [that had] multiple fonts and all this stuff going on,” Martino said. “It’s very simple but very clean.”

Bono’s also embraced their history as a family-owned business, because consumers are becoming increasingly interested in who they’re supporting and why.

 “We realize that it’s not just about eating with us, it’s about knowing where you’re going and who you’re supporting,” he said.

They also started their pit campaign last year, picking up the tagline, “If you don’t see a pit, it ain’t legit!” This was very popular, Martino said, and branded Bono’s as a restaurant that cares about well-made food.

Bono’s management also made accounts on Twitter and Facebook and keeps the Bono's website looking updated. They don’t just want to appeal to loyal customers—they want to draw in new ones that will become just as loyal.

The goals and ideal customer

Overall, 2014 was a great year for Bono’s and they’d like to see those kinds of strides in 2015.

Bono’s wants to continue to grow, slowly and while maintaining the integrity of the brand. They want to draw in a new generation of barbecue lovers while also taking good care of their employees, many of whom have been with Bono’s for decades.

“They’re the life blood of this concept,” Martino said of the employees.

Bono’s has also opened a sister concept called Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q, which falls into the fast-casual restaurant market. The quality of the food is definitely not compromised, Martino said, but some changes to the restaurant concept make Willie Jewell’s a faster iteration of Bono’s. 

“If we open one store this year, if we open five—both great,” Martino said. “We look for people first. We don’t look for locations. We want to make sure we’re in the business with the right people.”

A reasonable goal is about 3-5 restaurant either built or in some stage of development.

“We’ve got franchisees we absolutely love and would do anything for, and that’s what we want going forward,” he said.

They also started their pit campaign last year, picking up the tagline, “If you don’t see a pit, it ain’t legit!” This was very popular, Martino said, and branded Bono’s as a restaurant that cares about well-made food.

Bono’s management also got into Twitter and Facebook and keeps the Bono's website looking updated. They don’t just want to appeal to loyal customers—they want to draw in new ones that will become just as loyal.

As for the ideal customer?

“People who have a pulse,” Martino said jokingly. “As long as they’re wearing a shirt and shoes, they can come into our restaurant and eat.”

In fact, one of the special things about Bono’s is that it’s an equalizer, bringing people together across all backgrounds and demographics. People can come in and sit at the counter and watch the Pit Master cook the meats.

“The Mayor loves Bono’s, and he’ll come into any Bono’s and eat,” Martino said. “And he could be sitting next to a teacher or an accountant or a garbage collector or a postman—and they’ll all sit there and have a conversation.”

As The Fred Group, we appreciate Bono’s dedication to quality and steady, deliberate growth. Their unique, family-owned background and careful care of their product makes them a cut above the rest—literally.