The Story Behind 4 Rivers Smokehouse, One of the South’s Most Beloved BBQ Restaurants
Courtesy of 4 Rivers Smokehouse

With summertime here and in full effect, endless days of hanging out around the grill are not too far behind.

Though there are many people who don’t quite have the luxury of having the taste of authentic tasting barbecue and brisket from their backyard grill year round, being able to visit your favorite BBQ restaurant seems to be a viable option for most. For others though, waiting until John Rivers’ top-rated restaurant, 4 Rivers, shows up to the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, is the only option. 

Founded in 2009 in Winter Park, Florida, 4 Rivers Smokehouse has quickly become one of the go-to restaurants for both locals and visitors of Florida. With the 12 open locations throughout the state, one might wonder just how a man like John Rivers went from serving BBQ in a garage as an act of faith to now being one of the most widely known BBQ chefs in the south, and soon to be the nation.

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“4 Rivers is all about the culture. People think it’s about the brisket and they think it’s about the product, but it’s not,” he told ESSENCE. “It’s about these people having fun, and giving back to the community. It’s not about what we do, it’s about why we do it. As long as we keep that in the front of everybody’s mind – why we’re doing it – we’re gonna be blessed. It’s just going to keep coming in.”

And, blessed he has been. 4 Rivers, which can have patrons lined out of the door on any day except for Sunday due to it being closed, has become a staple in the Florida communities where restaurant doors are open. Just how though? What makes this particular BBQ so special that people make it their point to visit Atlanta’s Food & Wine Festival every year?

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“It’s just really the best barbeque I’ve tasted,” one patron stated. “You know how when you were a kid and you just had to have that specific snack from the store that no one else could replicate? That’s what 4 Rivers food does to you. I’m sure you’ve had good barbecue, but you haven’t had 4 Rivers barbecue.” 

If one were to ask John Rivers himself though, he’d give the credit to his staff above himself. “Our people, we got good people. Second thing – our purpose. When people are working just for a paycheck, they come and they go. When they’re working for a purpose, they put their hearts into it. And, the product has to be pretty darn good too,” he added in.

Though Rivers has amassed huge success and received an impactful praise for his barbecue business, has cooked at NYC’s infamous James Beard House, and is an alumnus of both the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, he noted that nothing would be the same if there weren’t women in his kitchen. “Oh my God, my wife is my partner,” he said to ESSENCE. “She’s my business partner. I turn to her for my advice, my solace, my counsel. Besides the kitchen and the work that these young ladies do, you’ve got to have that balance. I have a very different view than my wife does. If I’m not smart enough to value and collect that view of hers, then I shortchange myself as the leader of this organization.”

Ensuring that the 4 Rivers brand keeps itself intact, Rivers puts love and care into every piece of brisket and every slab of rib he touches. “Brisket is so hard to do. So many people have had bad brisket and they think brisket is just bad in general. Once they have it the right way, they get very excited,” he said. “Then you have the true Texan’s and those from Oklahoma. I’ve had moms cry when they’ve come out because they haven’t had brisket in so long.”

What does he say to people who don’t cite Florida as the south and diminish the state’s ability to know how to do southern food? “Oh man, don’t talk to me. I grew up in Jacksonville; I’m just as southern as everyone else. Those are fighting words.”

4 Rivers Smokehouse will be opening three new locations, with the first of the batch slated for a March 2017 opening in the heart of Atlanta, GA.

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