Uncle Dewey’s BBQ Changes Ownership; New Beginnings for Rick Gray

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

MIZPAH – Something historic happened this weekend at the iconic roadside barbeque stand in Atlantic County off Route 40 Harding Highway and it attracted a flood of people and cars.

Dewey and Sharon Hazard Johnson, who started the popular Uncle Dewey’s BBQ Pavilion and Kettle Fried Fish, said goodbye to the establishment they created over the past 25 years. The couple had won a legion of fans throughout the state and beyond for the mouth-watering fried fish, taste-bud satisfying barbeque ribs, among other items that was once even featured in the New York Times.

Family, friends and longtime customers crowded the stand at 6931 Harding Highway to wish the couple well and welcome in the new owner, Johnson’s longtime friend Richard A. Gray, who will open the well-known barbeque spot up again next season as Rick’s Backyard Barbeque & Grill.

25 Years of Making Barbeque and Friends

Rick Gray, new owner of Uncle Dewey’s BBQ, with founder Dewey Johnson on Rt. 40 in Atlantic County. Photo by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

It is hard to miss the outdoor barbeque stand, located between Atlantic City and Vineland, from the smoke of Johnson’s kettle pits to the tasty aroma of the beef, fish and chicken on the grill at the time.

“I still like doing it but I just can’t do it like I used to,” said Johnson, 84, who started the business when he was 59 after retiring as a trainer from a coloring and textile company. “I’m not physically fit to do it. I’m glad to be turning it over to Rick. He’s the hardest working man. If I had him, I wouldn’t have retired. He’s can do twice as much as the average person.”

The Johnsons started the roadside establishment on property because they lived next door and had purchase property where the pavilion stands from a relative. It all started with family.

How It All Started

“I used to live next door,” Johnson said. “We started there just for family, but our family had about 300 in it. Every 4th of July, they came from Philadelphia and all the cities. We had people of all colors stop by because this was the major highway to Cape May, Ocean City or to wherever you were going. They would come with something, but we cooked the ribs and the chicken. They would come every year.”

Johnson said the idea for a full-fledged business came from a training trip Augusta, Ga. where he had fish cooked in a kettle for the first time and a second one in Monroe, La. where he ate at an expansive outdoor facility.

“I was training about 40 people training (in Georgia) and we went to this little place with a roof  and no sides and they were cooking fish in a kettle. I brought some back and everyone asked me where I got the fish from.

“In Monroe, La., I went to this small place but no one was inside. Everybody was outside with a band and big fence. There was so many people there and it gave me the idea. So many people are attracted to the outdoors but they have nowhere to go.”

Early Retirement and Into the Pit

Sampling of the barbeque ribs that made Uncle Dewey’s BBQ famous. Photo by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

Johnson took an early retirement from the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and start his second career cooking barbeque. His wife was by his side, recruiting relatives to help with upgrades like electric, to improve the property.

“We got married two years before we built our house in the area,” Hazard Johnson said. “He took his early retirement and decided to sell on side of the road. I bought into it early on and helped build the business. My father and brother did the electric.

“We had the grill and two little tables in the front that we used for the cashier. My family and his family worked it and we’ve got a lot of people who we have to thank for building it up the way it has. Every year we did a little bit more to ultimately where we came today.

“Early on, we had so many people coming, we were just focusing on just accommodating them. At the end of each season, we thought of ways of how to make it just a little bit better. It was a work in progress all the time.”

A New Barbequing Era

Rick Grays, new owner of the Rick’s Backyard Barbeque & Grill. Photo by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

Gray, who is in his 50s, and Johnson and long-time friends and hunting buddies. Gray started his barbeque career the same way Johnson did, cooking for family and friends – and drawing large crowds as his reputation grew.

“I’ve always been a friend of Uncle Dewey,” Gray said. “We hung out together and hunted together. He’s getting up in age and I always had my backyard barbeques. My dad and family said I should have barbeques because it brings the family together. That’s where the name came from.

“I always wanted my own business and I love to cook for people. To see the expression on their faces is something I enjoy the most. I want to listen to everyone’s views, if I can tweak this or tweak that, I’ll get it done. I like to make people happy and I always like to eat,” Gray added.

He plans on opening back up next season, approximately the first week in May, operating Friday  through Sunday. Gray said he will do some remodeling and upscaling. Adding restrooms from the portable restrooms are a top priority.

“We call it scaling it to the next level because we know what we have can go a long, long way,”  Hazard Johnson said. “There’s a  lot of thing we wish we could have done with Uncle Dewey’s, but he’s older and I’m still working full time, so we’re a little tired after working 25 years. We’re blessed to know that Rick will be taking it over.”

Goin’ Fishing

For the Johnson, fishing will be the first order of business as they step away from the outdoor barbeque business on Harding Highway. Johnson said he was humbled by the large crowd that wished him and his wife well this weekend. They wanted to thank those along with past and current staff that helped make Uncle Dewey’s one of the best “must-stop” barbecue locations in New Jersey.

Sample of the fried fish that Uncle Dewey’s BBQ specialized in. Photo by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

Judging from the crowd of family, friends and supporters, Gray will be ready to fill the big shoes left by Uncle Dewey along Route 40.

All photos by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

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