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‘This is our life’: Betty Jean’s BBQ offers authentic North Carolina-style barbecue

By Greg Mason For The Spokesman-Review

Omar Jones grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he shucked corn and prepped green beans with his grandfather on the back porch.

It’s where he met his wife, Ranelle “Dee” Jones, in high school. It’s where he learned from his grandmother how to cook food to please several hundred people, including pulled pork – or, as it’s known in that part of the South, “barbecue.”

For the Joneses, cookouts were daily – not just for special occasions. They ate food like barbecue and ribs every day, Omar said, with friends and family alike.

That’s been the spirit of Betty Jean’s BBQ, the Joneses’ restaurant named after his grandmother. Betty Jean’s touts authentic North Carolina dishes like pulled pork sandwiches, smoked meats and ribs, with some plates – like the Rocky Mount – named after locations dear to their hearts.

Having first opened in 2015 at Fairchild Air Force Base, Betty Jean’s relocated in May to Lincoln Heights in on Spokane’s South Hill.

“The food on the menu is what we grew up with. This is our life,” said Omar Jones, 45. “This is us playing in the yard and our parents grilling out and playing music. It’s just our childhood, basically.”

Before opening Betty Jean’s, Jones got a taste of restaurant life during his 20 years as a mechanic in the Air Force.

Over the years he became “that guy” who catered to his entire squadron and their families for the holidays and other events. And while he was stationed in North Carolina for five years, Jones said he otherwise spent most of his military career elsewhere, including overseas, so he called home to get recipes from his grandmother and other family members.

Omar and Dee, 43, said he was stationed at Fairchild approximately three years before he retired from the military in 2014. Betty Jean died just before his retirement; the two close the restaurant for her birthday every year.

“For me, she was very encouraging. I was always a server at restaurants, and she would tell me from time to time that you never know where that skill will take you,” Dee Jones said. “Now, here I am. Instead of being a server, I can work in my own restaurant and do things the way I want to do them.”

“She meant everything,” Jones added. “She still does.”

While he got a handle on catering to hundreds of people while with the Air Force, Omar Jones got another push to open a restaurant when he was working for Alliance Machine Systems after his military service.

During a company potluck, Jones said he got a comment from a coworker about the ribs he brought for the shindig. That led Omar to making food the night before and “ordering lunch” for his coworkers.

“I was the delivery girl,” Dee Jones said.

Jones took culinary classes at Spokane Community College in 2015 – at which point, he noticed a space was open at Fairchild for a restaurant. The rest was history, he said.

While the couple would have preferred to keep the base spot while also opening in Spokane, they’ve had trouble finding workers. The two said they basically ran the Fairchild location by themselves – a situation worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We thought COVID was over. When COVID was over, we thought we didn’t have to worry about having no employees anymore because everybody’s coming back to work. Lo and behold, nobody came back to work,” Jones said. “Maybe not no one, but a lot of people didn’t come back to work.”

Dee Jones added, “We wanted to grow. On the base, it’s the same clientele every day. The same numbers. The same soldiers. It’s repetitive. That’s why we made that decision in the first place, but we did plan to keep both.”

Fairchild was a “training ground” for Betty Jean’s, said Jones, who added that opening on East 29th Avenue was like “starting from scratch” for the restaurant. While the vibe is different from the camaraderie seen on a military base, Betty Jean’s has settled in, particularly with a lot of takeout orders, Dee Jones said.

Jones said the two would like to add outdoor seating and taps in the future – and maybe, if the restaurant picks up enough traction, more items based on recipes from home that he hasn’t yet added to the menu.

“This is what it is. If you don’t like it, you don’t like North Carolina barbecue,” he said. “I get a lot of people that come in and say they miss home, or it reminds them of home. That’s what makes it for me. It makes me keep getting up, because it’s definitely tiring and it’s definitely heavy.”