The big black smoker near the front door gives away the secret at Joe’s General Store and Grill - there is some serious barbecue going on here. Pounds of ribs and brisket simmer inside on metal grates, as meat-flavored smoke billows out onto Britton Road.
People have to know where they’re going just to find the little red store, or they discover it by accident. To say the community of Britton is sleepy is like saying Rip Van Winkle took a nap.
Joe’s General Store is the busiest spot in Britton, a cluster of older homes on the southeastern edge of Mansfield. The remodeled building squats across the street from the ruins of the old Citizens Bank, rumored to once been robbed by Bonnie and Clyde. A white horse munches in a pasture and keeps watch over Joe’s parking lot.
Until Rhonda Branch-Hunter reopened the old general store in 2013, the community had no grocery or restaurant. The Burleson native wasn’t looking to start a barbecue hotspot, she wanted to continue her father’s work.
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“My father bought the property in 1991,” Branch-Hunter said. “He loved the country, fishing and hunting. It was a store with a Enco gas station. When my dad got it, they made him dig up the pumps because they hadn’t been used in so long.”
Her stepmother and sister ran the Britton General Store and restaurant until the late 1990s, when the city of Mansfield told them that because of sewer problems they could no longer sell food.
Branch-Hunter decided to reopen the building as a store and restaurant a few years ago. The building needed a new roof, plumbing and engineering work to make sure it was sound. She discovered that no one seemed to know exactly how old the store was, but heard rumors that the building had been moved to Britton. The city of Mansfield annexed the Britton community in 1985, but the general store had already been there for decades.
“(The city) has no records, no blueprints,” she said.
Her father was excited about the store coming back to life, Branch-Hunter said, but wasn’t sure she would be able to pull it off. And she almost didn’t.
There was no fire hydrant close to the building, so she brought in a water truck and set it in the parking lot until a new hydrant was installed a few months ago.
On Nov. 20, 2013, Branch-Hunter opened Joe’s General Store and Grill, naming it after her dad, Joe Lee Branch, who died July 4, 2012.
The store sells snacks, bait for fishermen headed to nearby Joe Pool Lake, beer and lottery tickets. Within six months, Branch-Hunter knew she needed help, and recruited her husband, Reginald Hunter, who quit his job in the oil fields to help.
“It’s like having a newborn baby, all day every day,” Hunter said. “I’m always moving. I complain about it a lot, but I love it. I get to see the result of what I do. I go home every day, and I drive a golf cart to work. My grandkids love it. If they have a ballgame at 6 p.m., I’m there.”
The couple, who have seven children, live behind the store, so a lot of their customers are their kids, grandchildren and neighbors. The combination of the restaurant’s food and his wife’s personality keep the store busy, Hunter said.
“My wife is so friendly,” he said. “People like good conversation and good food.”
Branch-Hunter knew she wanted to have a restaurant when she opened the store, but didn’t add the barbecue until later, starting with burgers, fried catfish, Philly cheese steak and lots of chicken. She knew exactly who she wanted to do the cooking, too, her best friend’s husband, Floyd McGilvery.
“Rhonda kidnapped me,” McGilvery said. “I was working at another job. She said ‘As soon as I get this one open, I’m coming to get you.’ I turned in my notice on Friday and we opened on Monday.”
McGilvery, who started cooking to impress a girl when he was 11 (“I impressed her, but I didn’t get the girl”), had been making barbecue since 1994, and selling it since 1998. But Branch-Hunter didn’t want to crush McGilvery with too much at once. It didn’t take long until McGilvery had backed his smoker up to the front door, though.
When McGilvery started barbecuing, business took off. Customers come from Venus, Arlington and Fort Worth to line up for McGilvery’s brisket, ribs, and catfish with homemade tartar sauce. Construction workers from Texas 360 and a nearby development discovered Joe’s General Store.
The secret to good barbecue is simple, McGilvery said.
“Patience and low heat,” he said. “And you have to love to do it.”
A few months ago, Branch-Hunter expanded from two tables to four because people were camping out on the store’s front porch. Now she’s trying to figure out where to expand next.
“I want to keep it country, homey,” she said. “The purpose wasn’t to make money, it was sentimental value.”
But she knows that business is booming and with two new housing developments under construction just down the road, she sees it getting busier.
“I told her it was going to be good,” McGilvery said. “But I didn’t know 2,500 homes were coming.”
Joe’s General Store and Grill
4350 Britton Road