Clint Lovett has loved barbecue as long as he can remember. Eating it, cooking it and thinking about its possibilities.
“I always believed that at some point in my life I would open a barbecue restaurant,” he said. “I didn’t look at it like a dream. It was going to happen.”
And, with little fanfare or notice, Lovett opened Baby CJ’s Rib Shack in April in his hometown of Portal, across the street from the high school on US Highway 80.
“It has the best ribs, chicken, chopped pork and Brunswick stew,” Lovett said.
The large building with a metal roof and lots of Coca-Cola signs on the outside transforms on the inside into something that probably will look a little familiar to many local residents.
“From the time I was a boy, I loved Vandy’s at the mall,” Lovett said. “Its barbecue. Its stew. The pictures on the walls. I modeled the interior layout of Baby CJ’s on that restaurant.”
The Vandy’s mall restaurant closed its doors in January, but some of the photos and Georgia Southern memorabilia that were on the walls there were given to Lovett by friends and customers and they have a new home at CJ’s.
“The restaurant is designed as customer-friendly,” Lovett said. “We cater to eat-in customers in the back and carryout customers as you come in the door. The kitchen area is just off the main entrance. Just like Vandy’s.”
Lovett, 39, was born on a family farm in Portal, but his father also was a general construction contractor and he helped his father out on many projects. He said he learned a lot and that experience helped him build Baby CJ’s Rib Shack from the ground up with friends, local contractors and his own hard work.
“It took longer the way we did it, but I designed it and wanted it to my standards,” Lovett said. “It also kept the costs down. I own it free and clear. I don’t owe the bank anything for this building.”
Lovett personally cooks Baby CJ’s pork ribs, Boston butt, chicken and turkey over pecan wood fire every morning in a pit behind the restaurant. He said he was trained another chef in his cooking methods and is working with a third.
But so much of what make’s Baby CJ’s stand out, Lovett believes, comes from the sauce – a sauce he created one afternoon in his kitchen.
“I knew I could grill, but I knew that to have my own barbecue restaurant, I needed my own sauce,” he said.
Creating Baby CJ’s sauce
When he was 19, Lovett started A Plus Lovett Lawn Service that 20 years later has grown into more than 100 clients. And one of his clients who passed away in 2016 just happened to be a barbecue sauce expert.
“Mr. Robert E. Martin was one of my lawn customers,” Lovett said. “He did a lot of work with the Kiwanis Club and he also helped coach football at Statesboro High. He also worked a long time with B.B. Morris Barbecue sauce in Statesboro. A very good sauce.
“One day in 2016 I said ‘Mr. Martin how hard is it to make a barbecue sauce?’ He started out listing 10 things not to use in making a sauce. He told me it was simple. You start out deciding on your base – mustard, ketchup or vinegar – and you go from there. He made it clear that the process was simple.
“So one day I was shopping for my dad and I decided to put a bunch of possible ingredients in my buggy. Actually it was God that put those ingredients in the buggy. It was a Saturday that was raining and we didn’t have any lawns to do, so I decided I’m going to try to make this sauce.”
Lovett started out with a specific plan for the sauce.
“I always took pride in Vandy’s,” he said. “I get in the kitchen and my goal is to copycat a Vandy’s sauce. Within about 15 minutes, I noticed the color of the sauce was way off so let me taste it to see how close I am. Well, I was nowhere near close to a Vandy’s sauce, but that’s where Baby CJ’s sauce started. I had never tasted anything like it.”
Lovett, however, had a small problem.
“My wife asked me if I knew what I did to make it and I didn’t. So I went back to the store and got the same ingredients, measured it out and started again to recreate the sauce. It worked and this time I wrote it down.”
While Lovett thought he had hit on something special, he wanted to get other opinions. And he knew just who would give him the most honest opinion about his sauce – his family.
“They are my biggest critics and all my brothers and sisters can cook. If they tell you something is nasty, you better throw it out. It’s no good. If something is good, they may tell you it’s just alright. But it was 100 percent good feedback from all of them. They told me the sauce was so good you could eat it with a piece of bread. So once it passed all of them, I knew it was ready for anybody.”
And “Baby CJ’s BBQ Sauce” was born. Actually, Lovett had picked a name long before he created his sauce in 2016.
Shecora, his wife of 15 years, was pregnant with CJ in 2013 when they received some difficult news.
“CJ was supposed to have Downs Syndrome,” Lovett said. “Before he was born, we went to a specialist and the doctor told us that for as far along as my wife was in her pregnancy, he was going to be born with Downs. The doctor said, ‘I don’t know if you believe in God or Christ, but I would pray.’ And we did. My wife and I didn’t tell anyone. He was healed in the womb and was not born with Downs.
“It was then I decided to use his name as part of whatever future business I started. Baby CJ’s fit perfectly as the name of the sauce.”
Baby CJ’s business begins
Shortly after developing his sauce, Lovett started giving away half-pint samples to his lawn service customers. Soon, his customers started asking him if they could buy more.
“At first I said no, but I started getting so many people asking me about buying some sauce I finally said ‘Ok, I’m selling for $10 a quart.’ People started buying it by the case and it got to the point where I was selling $600 a month of sauce, making it all myself.”
Lovett then decided to partner with a large manufacturer and distributor to make Baby CJ’s available throughout Georgia and online. However, the arrangement did not go as hoped and he settled on focusing on building and opening his own barbecue restaurant.
First, he had to decide on a location. He was looking at one plot when he was told about the property across from Portal Middle High School. It was owned by former probate court judge Lee DeLoach and property appraiser Marion Hulsey.
Lovett said the property had been for sale since 2007 or so and was completely grown over with weeds and other brush. He spoke with DeLoach who said he probably could sell it for $20,000, but when he spoke with Hulsey, Hulsey said it would have to be more.
Lovett decided to move on, but after some thought and prayer one day while cutting his own grass, Lovett called Hulsey back and offered $25,000.
“He came back with $27,500 and I immediately said yes,” Lovett said. “They also said they only needed $5,000 down and they would finance the rest at 5%. I bought the piece of land, but then something happened that was unexpected.”
About six years prior to her death at age 99 in 2019, Lovett started doing the lawn of the late Roxie Remley and they struck up a friendship. Remley was a well-known and celebrated local artist who helped start the Department of Art at then Georgia Southern College in the early 1960s. She is one of only seven to be named an Averitt Center Legend of the Arts and the Roxie Remley Center for Fine Arts was named for her in 2016.
“I like to talk. Miss Roxie likes to talk. We became friends,” Lovett said. “I would go and cut her grass and then she and I would talk for an hour when settling up. I finally told my crew when we would get to her house that I would go inside now and to go ahead and do her yard and another yard in the area.
“I found out all about her art, her experience in World War II. She told me many stories and she never would repeat anything. It was always something new about a different part of her life. We visited for years.”
Remley spent the last year or so of her life in a nursing facility and when Lovett would visit, they would talk, as always, for a while.
“I only visited a few times,” he said. “She was a different race, but she reminded me of my grandma.”
Remley passed away at Ogeechee Area Hospice in January 2019 and about a month later, Lovett said he received a call from Remley’s caretaker.
“She asked me if I had heard from any of Miss Roxie’s representatives,” he said. “I hadn’t and she told me I needed to check into it because she had left something to me.
“I come to find out she left $20,000 to my son and $20,000 to my daughter.”
Lovett said he was stunned to learn about Remley’s generous gift.
“I had no idea,” he said. “I never asked her for anything. I was always fair with my lawn service prices. Even though she could hardly see, she told me she liked the way I cut her bushes perfectly round.”
Lovett said Remley left the money as a college fund for his children CJ, who is now 8, and Aliyah, who is now 14. However, Lovett wanted to give his children an immediate stake in his restaurant.
“As their daddy, I invested the money in paying off the entire loan on the land and with some of the construction of Baby CJs Rib Shack,” Lovett said. “They’re already part owners and I told them if they work hard in the restaurant, that money will end up paying for a lot more than college.
“But, if the restaurant closes down tomorrow, they will get the money Miss Roxie gave them.”
If the first month is an indication of the future success of Baby CJ’s Rib Shack, CJ and Aliyah will have more than enough funds for their college educations – Lovett said the restaurant had 4,000 customers with little to no publicity or marketing efforts in the past 30 days.
“Along with my family, my only partner in this venture is God,” Lovett said. “Baby CJ’s is what I’ve been aiming for and I hope people will check it out.”
Baby CJ’s Rib Shack is open for breakfast at 7 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday and for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Jim Healy may be reached at (912) 489-9402.