With the success of the Johnson’s BBQ Shack in Bargersville and the one located at The Nest Event Center near 65 and Sheek Road, what was the next logical step for owner Nate Johnson? To open up a third location in the heart of White River Township in the building previously occupied by Campbell’s Highland Grille at 1001 N. State Rd 135.
The Campbells made the transition an easy one for the Johnson restaurant. “They were great to work with throughout the whole process,” according to Johnson. “They have helped us keep staff in place, and they came in the second week on a Friday night for a bottle of wine… they don’t have to worry about the stresses that come with the restaurant business. I have nothing but respect for them.”
Natives to the area, Johnson’s family was known for their amazing smoked meats and even took orders from other people for holidays and other special events. When the Super Bowl came to Indy in 2012, the family saw the success of the food trucks. They decided to purchase one, and the business took off from there. Then the Taxman Brewing Company opened its first location in Bargersville, and the Johnsons saw the success of what they were doing.
“They had a good draw. They brought people to Bargersville, and we followed,” Johnson said.
Nate’s earlier life took a different path. Born here in 1981, he graduated from Center Grove High School and attended Indiana University where he studied special education. He taught special needs students for 13 years in the IPS school system. But the one thing that could lure him out of teaching? The business.
“I started the business in 2012 with the food truck, and we opened the first restaurant in Bargersville in 2016. I quit teaching that May. It was costing me money to go to work.”
Right now Johnson, 41, has been pulling double shifts almost every day trying to get the restaurant up and running while his wife, Gina, is parenting their three children; Gavin, 13, Sophia, 9 and Ava who is 3. However, his wife still finds time to put in 2-3 days at the restaurant along with their very dedicated staff. “We work in the trenches with our employees. Most of our staff feels like family, even our new ones,” Johnson adds.
The first few weeks have been quite a success with sales exceeding his expectations. According to Johnson, Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest with around 1,000 customers on a recent weekend. The reaction from the patrons has been very popular. “The existing loyal fans from Campbells still want to come in and support us….and with the third store, people that went to Bargersville are happy they don’t have to drive that far south.”
Johnson is not concerned that he will have to compete with other family- owned restaurants. “We have the same product and same consistency, and we have staff who want to grow the business within staff training. Consistency is key to this business. You need people who know what they are doing. Our kitchen staff is amazing. My product takes up to 24 hours to cook, and when we run out, we run out, but with three stores, we haven’t had any issues.”
His product is not just used in their restaurants. Johnson has a wide range of venues that he uses for their catering services; a successful part of their business. This catering includes full-service catering, food truck catering, and drop off catering. Johnson enjoys catering at local event centers such as The Sycamore at Mallow Run, The Nest, Harry Cooler Conference Center, and The Barn at Timber Ridge.
The four food trucks Johnson owns have allowed him to expand in many areas including conferences like Gen Con which took place in Indianapolis this September and also private parties such as graduations, tailgates, and weddings. He has many repeat customers which is a testament to the quality of catering that is provided. This commitment to exceptional service is evident in his restaurant as well.
According to Tabitha Hatfield, one of the bartenders at Johnson’s BBQ Shack, the staff is trained to give their customers the ‘2 x 2 table touch’ to ensure good service. “You drop off food, ask if there’s anything they need, walk away and give them a chance to take two bites or wait two minutes, and then come back to make sure everything is accurate,” Hatfield said.
Another new concept at the restaurant is the use of Xooker.com, a new phone app which gives the customer access to coupons, rewards, and discounts such as the Center Grove discount card by scanning it on your phone. This is a time saver for the recipients and the staff. Johnson also plans on taking part in Comcast commercials and food channels to advertise this new app, their three locations, and the services they offer.
Some changes are already on the horizon according to Johnson. While they do not take small reservations, a semi-private area can be reserved for events. He is planning to install a barn door to section off an area for parties between 20 to 45 people. This can also do the same on the outside patio. Another new addition is the NFL ticket which should be in operation by the end of September. All the NFL games can be displayed on their 17 strategically placed TVs.
“We may be the only family friendly place in Greenwood on Sundays,” said Johnson.
Getting the community involved and supporting local groups is a specific goal for Johnson’s BBQ Shack. Live music is now playing on the weekends and Wednesday night trivia and karaoke Thursdays are in the works. Dine to donate will take place at this location, and Santa will make appearances every Monday and Tuesday evening in December. Shack Pack Meals, one of their biggest sellers throughout the year, will continue to be available for holiday pickups, too, at their three locations.
Does Nate Johnson have more expansions in mind? You bet. He hopes to open one more Johnson’s BBQ Shack each year for the next three years as well as rebuilding and expanding the Bargersville location. As far as the new location on 135, he has bigger plans. “When one of the spaces here becomes available, probably we would expand this location, too, to have a bigger party room, a bigger kitchen, and move our smokers inside.”
Hours for Johnson’s BBQ Shack are currently Sunday thru Wednesday with kitchen hours from 11-8 and Thursday thru Saturday from 11-12 with a late night bar menu also available. For a customer friendly environment, southern comfort food, and fast casual dining, check it out.