Business partners no more, but barbecue stars on TV

Ed Willis (left) and Glenn Gross, at Willis' Lumpy's BBQ in Blackwood, will be on TV Sunday.
Ed Willis (left) and Glenn Gross, at Willis' Lumpy's BBQ in Blackwood, will be on TV Sunday. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2013

Glenn Gross and Ed Willis had been searching for an avenue to dive into the barbecue business when a "brownish-orange-colored, barn-looking building" along South Delsea Drive in Vineland, N.J., kept catching their eye.

"We just kept driving by this place, looking at it and saying, 'Man, that looks like a barbecue restaurant,' " said Willis, 55, of Gloucester Township.

That's where the two longtime friends opened the first Fat Jack's BBQ & Blues. The original site is now closed and their business partnership has changed, but their barbecue acclaim has spurred them to national exposure. On Sunday, they will compete on an episode of BBQ Pitmasters on the Destination America channel.

Gross and Willis met in the mid-1980s through a mutual friend and worked together for the Great American Hospitality Group - Gross as president and Willis as vice president - before opening Fat Jack's after yearning to get into business for themselves. Gross said he spent about a year putting a business plan together and, after receiving financing, he and Willis opened Fat Jack's in Vineland in late 1993.

"We were tired of making money for everybody else," said Gross, 60, of Sicklerville. "It was time to do it for ourselves."

Originally, the two wanted to start a chicken restaurant chain, but at the time there were many. After deciding on barbecue, which Gross said they didn't know much about, they traveled around and learned the ins and outs from pit masters.

Gross and Willis worked to perfect their barbecue concept, which quickly spread into five restaurants across eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The popularity soon turned into requests to franchise the company.

"We had a ton of requests to franchise, but decided not to do anything at the time," Gross said, adding that the concept of a barbecue restaurant wasn't "simplified" enough to franchise.

Even as the restaurants continued to gain popularity, Gross and Willis started seeing the benefits of the barbecue concept outside the restaurants.

Local and national festivals and street fairs began to take up much of their time, causing them to sell the restaurants in 2001.

"There was a point where we were doing three and four in a weekend," Gross said.

But as the two traveled throughout the country to national and local cooking festivals and fairs, Gross said, one question kept being asked: "Where's Fat Jack's?"

In 2005, they reopened a restaurant along a swath of strip stores on Blackwood-Clementon Road in Blackwood, and soon after, Fat Jack's started to spread throughout the area until a decision to bring partners into the company nearly caused the demise of the brand.

All but one of the restaurants had closed by 2010, and the last one was shuttered in Vineland in 2012.

The Fat Jack's in Blackwood closed in early 2010 and was opened later that year as Lumpy's BBQ by Willis, who said he didn't use Fat Jack's name because of the damage that had been done to it.

Not long after, Gross opened a Fat Jack's along Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia in April 2011 and another in Jenkintown in 2012. Gross plans to open three more Fat Jack's in Frazer, Hamilton, N.J., and Ithaca, N.Y., and is considering locations in Center City.

Fat Jack's "Memphis Mauler" burger, piled high with a burger, brisket, pulled pork, barbecue sauce, cheddar-jack cheese, coleslaw, dry rub, and onions, recently won best burger at the third annual Philly Burger Brawl in May.

Though a conglomeration of meats goes into the award-winning burger, Gross said, he specializes in the basics: ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and chicken.

While they are no longer business partners except for occasional outside catering events, Gross and Willis both said there are no hard feelings. Gross called the barbecue business separation a "divorce."

Gross and Willis may appear to despise each other, but both are usually joking around, interrupting and taking jabs at each other.

"Short, fat, and ugly is no way to go around in life, but he does it anyway," Willis says, looking toward Gross, only to be called the "junior pit master" by Gross.

"We know each other better than we know our wives," Gross said.

As for the TV show, Gross says the perceived animosity between the two plays well in front of the camera.

The episode, shot in March at the Rodeo Austin in Texas, pits Gross and Willis against barbecue competition from Georgia and Mississippi, and they take their fair share of bashing for being from the North.

"You're from Philly, what y'all know about barbecue?" asked one of the competitors. "All you know is cheesesteaks."

"You guys may have invented barbecue in the South," Gross responded, "but we perfected it in the North."


Contact Sean Carlin at 856-779-3237, scarlin@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @SeanCarlin84.

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