Pulled pork, jo-jos cooked to a crisp, corn, mild sauce.
I’ve been ordering the same plate at John Hardy’s for as long as I can remember. Most non-vegetarian Rochesterites probably have their order memorized, too.
Ever since John Hardy opened the doors to his restaurant in 1972, his recipes have been a reliable, digestible pillar of our city’s identity.
Last year, the two restaurants went through 100 tons of potatoes and 5,415 gallons of sauce. Even as John Hardy’s moves into the future, by implementing new menu items like sweet potato tater tots, brisket, and new sauces, or by tackling the boom in rustic-themed weddings with catering that can feed 300 people for under $3,000, its staples remain the same.
“You always hear that nothing’s changed, and I think that’s a testament to our people, the consistency of our product, and having the same people running the show for the last twenty, thirty years,” said Aaron Pompeian, manager of John Hardy’s BBQ.
“All of our original recipes are from what [John Hardy] had,” said Pompeian. In fact, some of the recipes came from the mother of one of the waitresses. “Jackie’s worked with the business pretty much since from the beginning. She was one of John’s original employees,” said Pompeian.
Hardy was Jackie Taylor’s uncle by marriage. His betrothal to her aunt was an interracial romance that left less forward-thinking residents puzzled.
“We would tell people that John was our uncle and let them try to figure it out. They’d look at us like, you are nuts. How can he… He married my aunt, but we didn’t tell them that. We’d let them try to figure it out themselves,” said Taylor, who estimates that close to three fourths of her family worked for Hardy at one point or another.
But who was the man behind the sauce that defines a region? His legend has grown like smoke in a small room, but only some bare-bones facts are for sure.
Hardy was born in 1921 in Alabama. He worked in a foundry in Rochester, NY, where he also honed his cooking skills, then left due to an eye injury. That led him to the Mayo Clinic. He opened his first restaurant on 3rd Ave. SW. Here are a few other qualities associated with the man.
John Hardy was a big man, both in heart and stature.
“He was kind of a gentle giant, from what a lot of the customers say,” said Pompeian.
“He was a real big guy. You know, when you first walk in the door he’d scare you to death if you didn’t know who he was,” said Taylor. “Everybody I’ve talked to said they’d walk in and he was always super friendly and a really nice, easy going guy. He’d be standing there in front of the big old pit with a towel wrapped around his neck, sweat dripping off into their food and they didn’t care,” she recalled.
John Hardy was a man who loved to rib his employees (#sorrynotsorry).
“People have told me that they’d go in and he’d put hot sauce on their food just as a joke to watch them sweat when they asked for mild. There was a couple of times when my oldest brother worked there, and for one reason or another John would be joking around or whatever, he’d tell my brother he would be fired, but he had to work through lunch first,” said Taylor.
“John was a jokester. He was kind of a one man show, he’d stay up late making sauce and drinking, his drink of choice was 151, and people say he would pour 151 in the hot sauce, just one of those legends,” said Pompeian.
According to the Post-Bulletin’s own Answer Man, John Hardy was a vegetarian.
“I called Mike Molitor, general manager at John Hardy’s Bar-B-Q, and he says it’s pretty much true. ‘He wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool vegetarian but I’m told he was most of the way there,’ Mike says. ‘He ate a little chicken or pulled pork once in awhile,’ but he was more interested in the veggies.”