A bright, yellow building stands against the surrounding silence of its east side neighborhood where much of the area seems frozen in time.
On a spring day the sun beams down on the block surrounding Joe Ann’s Bar B-Q, bleaching out everything, but it seems to make the structure’s golden bricks glow.
Established in 1951, Joe Ann’s Bar B-Q has been serving the community for nearly 70 years. The small eatery near the corner of Jerome and Charest Streets has withstood tests including rioting in the community, economic droughts and the owner’s personal struggles. The business stands as a reminder of dedication that helps Detroit entrepreneurs succeed.
“I think the biggest thing in being a business person is you’ve got to have determination and you’ve got to know things are not always going to be good,” says Joe Ann Proctor, president. “You’ve got to be able to stick it out. I know that’s the key to my survival.”
Inside Joe Ann’s is a small dining area with walls colored brown and canary. A doorbell rests near the pick-up window that reveals two things – a freshly baked cake ready to be served and a large, framed picture of Proctor’s parents Grace and Joseph Owens, Joe Ann’s co-founders.
Both southern immigrants, the couple named the business after their daughter. Joseph worked at Ford Motor Co. for a little more than 42 years and supported Grace’s dream to open her own business.
Business was slow at first. In fact, there was no business, Proctor says.
Grace bought the building at 3139 Jerome St. but hadn’t considered it was in the middle of a neighborhood, not a main thoroughfare. So after waiting a whole week with no customers, Proctor says Grace found a way to bring in the traffic.
“She got the business going with neighborhood children walking down the street,” she says. “Even though it was a barbeque place she started selling hamburgers and French fries. And they went home and told their parents about the place. We’re still known for our French fries to this day.”
Ralph Burton recalls being a customer of Joe Ann’s for nearly 50 years. He remembers summers when he’d go swimming at Pershing High School and buy fries on his way home. He says he always thought the business had great service and good food.
“The French fries were excellent. The food was just great,” says Burton. “(Proctor’s) mother was running it at the time and you could have whatever your wanted, and it was always good.”
Fries are just one of the restaurant’s popular dishes. Barbecue is cooked in a charcoal fire pit built into the wall, and there’s fried fish, shrimp, turkey, barbecued wings, chicken, a number of sides and desserts.
As in other major cities nationwide, barbecue restaurants and soul food-style carry-outs have been a presence on Detroit’s small business landscape for decades, collectively making significant contributions to the community. But few have endured as long as Joe Ann’s, which was ranked No. 11 of 19 barbecue eateries recognized by detroiteater.com in 2017. Joe Ann’s has only called the original Jerome Street location its home. Proctor took over in 1983.
The restaurant’s team includes seven to eight waiters and kitchen staff.
The 1967 riot was a scary time, Proctor recalls. Then 17, she worked for her mother on weekends and the uprising occurred the year she graduated from Northern High School. Another major event that caused concern about the restaurant’s survival was the recession that took place in the new millennium’s first decade.
“Our business dropped a whole lot because people didn’t have the money,” Proctor recalls. “Usually when you don’t have money, you just eat at home. So it was rough and I was really worried.
“But I always tried to keep it going because it was my parents’ legacy and my mother and father named the business after me. By the grace of God … you just can’t give up,” she says.
Even before the recession Proctor faced personal tests, like a battle with breast cancer at age 49 in 2000, and her husband Michael’s death in 2005.
John Monteleone, owner of Lil’ John Signs, designed the restaurant’s artwork about four years ago, including his rendering of a pig grilling a chicken. Monteleone praises Joe Ann’s for having served the community so long.
“I think it’s great to see an old business withstand all the problems the city has had,” he says. “And they’ve got great food, and that’s what keeps the customers coming back.”
Regardless of hardships, Proctor names spiritual blessings and community support as reasons she’s still in business, noting that she’ll remain on Jerome Street.
“If you try to serve people and do them right I found out you don’t worry about the money. The money will come,” Proctor says. “You provide people what they want and what they’re looking for, and that’s quality service.”
Editor’s Note: This small business feature is sponsored by Bank of America. To learn more about Bank of America’s many programs and resources for small business owners visit: https://www.bankofamerica.com/smallbusiness/business-financing.go.