Longboat Key resident Jack Black has barbecue in his genes — it wouldn’t be surprising to find that his blood runs thick with barbecue sauce. After all, he did own 17 Old Hickory House restaurants in Atlanta and surrounding areas at one point in the late ’80s. And his friends on Longboat Key can’t seem to get enough of his famous ribs.
Black was named after his grandfather, who created the original recipes for the barbecue sauce, ribs and Brunswick stew that became a staple in his family.
“We would have family reunions when I was a child, and all the cousins, aunts and uncles would come to Georgia, and the day before (the men) would kill a hog, dig a pit and build a big fire of hickory wood,” Black says.
After World War II, Black’s father went commercial with the recipe and opened up a barbecue joint with his savings; Black grew up working at the restaurant, in Birmingham, Ala.
“I was serving beer before I could even drink a beer,” he laughs.
When Black was 17, his father helped him open his own restaurant in Atlanta. His sister, Snookie (Black) Hornsby, joined the venture about three years later.
“She was an integral part in the whole operation,” he says. “She’s a great gal and we’ve always been real close.”
And close in proximity, as well — his sister lives a few buildings over in Tangerine Bay on Longboat Key.
But, turning out good barbecue isn’t Black’s only success. In 1958, he was one of five partners who opened a 1.5-mile track called Atlanta International Raceway (now Atlanta Motor Speedway).
“We got together and built a track south of Atlanta, and it finally grew up to be real big,” he says.
In fact, NASCAR President Mike Helton started his racetrack career doing odd jobs at Black’s speedway, and he eventually became manager of the raceway. In his younger years, Black did both stock-car racing and drag racing. He did runs at Daytona two different years and qualified at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in the late ’60s.
Around this same time, Black got to know a peanut farmer and race fan by the name of Jimmy Carter who “used to bring peanuts by the bushel” to the speedway, he says.
In 1978, Black was invited to serve ribs at the White House and cooked them in a concrete-block pit he built on the White House’s back lawn.
Doing his part at the speedway, running his barbecue establishments and traveling back-and-forth was time-consuming, but it didn’t faze him.
“I know I was working hard, but it seemed easy,” he says.
In order to shorten the transit between his restaurant locations and the speedway, Black learned to fly a plane.
“I’ve owned and flown seven different airplanes in my life, including a P51 — but that was just a toy,” he says. And that wasn’t his only connection with flying. Eastern Air Lines served his ribs as the in-flight meal back when planes offered more than mini-pretzels.
By 2000, he had sold all but two of his Old Hickory House restaurants and turned his focus to family. Ultimately, Black decided to retire and move to Longboat Key. He worked as an assistant dock master at Marina Jack “just to keep busy.” He and his wife, Phyllis, eventually bought Tow Boat U.S. in 2006 from Assistant to the Town Manager Susan Phillips. The couple has been maintaining the business since.
But ribs are not officially off the menu. In fact, Black’s ribs are in high demand for the Longboat Key Garden Club, Tangerine Bay residents and at the Blacks’ annual Fourth of July celebration.
“It’s been a great, great life,” Black says. “And the barbecue restaurant has always been my main livelihood.”