The Fox Brothers redefined Atlanta barbecue—and it all started with a humble backyard cookout

Sixteen years after they opened their first eatery, Fox Bros. is dominating the Atlanta barbecue landscape like no business since the heyday of the Old Hickory House chain in the 1980s.

The Fox Brothers redefined Atlanta barbecue—and it all started with a humble backyard cookout
Justin (left) and Jonathan (right)

Photograph by Growl

It’s hard to impress a couple of guys from Texas when it comes to barbecue. Not long after they moved to Atlanta, more than 20 years ago, when they cooked just for friends, Justin and Jonathan Fox did what Texans do and started trying local barbecue places. They liked one or two, but overall, they were underwhelmed.

“I was sitting at this place that had a line out the door, and I thought: This is the most popular barbecue place in Atlanta?” says Jonathan, not wanting to name the restaurant. “And that’s how it began. I started reading cookbooks and experimenting.”

Because he figured he could do better.

The brothers’ lack of enthusiasm was not unfair. In the early 2000s, the Atlanta barbecue scene was between breaths. Classic places like Harold’s, Dean’s, and the Auburn Avenue Rib Shack were in decline or had closed, and a new generation had not risen to take their place. That would happen soon, beginning with Sam and Dave’s in East Cobb and all the fine barbecue places it would spawn. In the meantime, Atlanta was there to be conquered. But who expected twin brothers from Texas to do it—especially when they had only recently begun cooking barbecue themselves, and had never run a restaurant?

Sixteen years after they opened their first eatery, Fox Bros. is dominating the Atlanta barbecue landscape like no business since the heyday of the Old Hickory House chain in the 1980s. The brothers run one of the largest barbecue enterprises in Georgia, with more than 230 employees at three restaurants, including a new one that recently debuted in Brookhaven. They operate a barbecue concession at the Braves ballpark and smoke beef short ribs for select Delta flights. In all, they cook about 250 tons of Certified Angus Beef every year—not counting Delta.

That statistic suggests the Fox brothers’ impact. In their first few years of business, pork was their biggest seller. Then brisket overtook it as the newcomers bent local barbecue tastes toward beef. Now scores of places, from Canton to College Park, do brisket in the heart of what was once exclusively pig country.

Atlanta today is widely considered a serious barbecue town, something you wouldn’t have said 25 years ago. Fox Bros. helped make that happen. And the brothers might not even have been part of it if it hadn’t been for a certain jam band in Athens.

The Fox Brothers redefined Atlanta barbecue—and it all started with a humble backyard cookout

Photograph by Growl

Justin and Jonathan have parked their SUVs in front of a ranch house on a quiet residential street in Brookhaven. They rented this property after they moved to Atlanta, and roomed there together for years. There were two low decks in the backyard.

“They looked like stages,” Justin recalls.

That gave them an idea: Why not stage concerts with food, perhaps barbecue?

“One of the neighbors suggested we ought to put a sign here saying this is where it all started,” Jonathan says, amused at the thought.

Standing here together, the brothers look almost indistinguishable. At 51, they’re both big guys with long brown hair, who tend to wear black T-shirts to hide the food stains that come with their trade. To help people tell them apart, they adopted slightly different appearances: Jonathan has a goatee, while Justin usually wears glasses.

Starting in 2001, the brothers produced a series of backyard concerts at their rental house, featuring well-known musicians like singer-songwriter Jerry Joseph and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers. They booked the talent themselves, and Jonathan cooked the barbecue on inexpensive equipment beside the carport. More than 200 people came to the last show, in 2005.

“Those parties were legendary,” says Brian Caines, one of the brothers’ oldest Atlanta friends, who has a Fox Bros. menu item named for him—the BC Combo. “The cops came to the last one to warn us about the noise.”

The concert cookouts drew on the brothers’ twin passions growing up: music and food. Born in San Antonio, raised in Houston and then Fort Worth, Justin and Jonathan were part of a family of six brothers and stepbrothers. They took an interest in cooking during their teens, watching Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network and hosting dinner parties for their friends. They took their first food-service jobs at Six Flags Over Texas, where Justin made funnel cakes and Jonathan managed a lemonade stand.

They weren’t obsessed with barbecue then, but they did enjoy going to family cookouts, where an uncle made brisket in a small offset smoker. “There was something mysterious about those cookers, how a cut of meat turned black in there,” Jonathan says.

The Fox Brothers redefined Atlanta barbecue—and it all started with a humble backyard cookout

Photograph by Growl

The brothers loved music as much as food. They both played viola in the high school orchestra and listened to everything, especially the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, the Athens jam band whose most devoted fans follow them around like Deadheads. The brothers traveled to their concerts whenever they could and became full-fledged Spreadheads.

“Whenever we saw them at our shows, we knew we were going to eat well,” says Steve Lopez, then Panic’s tour manager and now the band’s manager. Once the Foxes made him a casserole out of Krystal hamburgers. They later adapted it for their menu, with brisket instead of burgers, and named it the Lopez.

Their love of the band played a key role in the brothers’ future after they moved to Atlanta. Jonathan came in 1999 for a job in graphic and web design, and Justin followed a year later, working at popular restaurants like Horseradish Grill and Maggiano’s Little Italy. Word of their cookouts spread. One day in 2005, Beau Nolen, whose father, Dan, owned Smith’s Olde Bar near Ansley Mall, phoned Jonathan to see whether he’d like to organize a series of Widespread Panic evenings at the tavern.

Then, as an afterthought, he said, “I hear you cook barbecue.”

Jonathan brought him two pounds of pork shoulder the next day.

The Fox Brothers redefined Atlanta barbecue—and it all started with a humble backyard cookout
The original Fox Bros. on DeKalb Avenue

Photograph by Growl

It’s lunchtime at the original Fox Bros. on DeKalb Avenue, and the parking lot is packed as usual. The restaurant is so popular that customers usually have to park on the surrounding residential streets, which has led to conflicts with the neighbors. Justin calls parking “our nemesis” and does a social media post every April Fools’ Day about the opening of a new underground garage at the restaurant. Every year, a few people believe it.

Neither of the brothers went to culinary school or ran a dining establishment before opening their place. They learned the business at Smith’s, selling barbecue in what we now call pop-ups. “I called it a residency,” Jonathan says. Their food was such a smash that Smith’s asked whether they’d like to launch their own restaurant, with help from the Nolens.

They found a spot in Candler Park that had been a Mexican cantina, and before that an auto repair shop and gas station. The opening weekend, in 2007, was rocky.

“Everything that could go wrong did,” Jonathan says. “The transformer blew. We ran out of food. Sewage backed up onto the patio. Then, after we got a few months under our belt, the Great Recession hit.”

Sales actually boomed during the downturn. Maybe Atlantans were forgoing expensive dining for cheaper nights out, but Fox Bros. couldn’t pump out the ribs and brisket fast enough.

The Fox Brothers redefined Atlanta barbecue—and it all started with a humble backyard cookout

Photograph by Growl

They decided to expand, but their first effort, a Tex-Mex place in Decatur called Big Tex, never caught on. When they revisited expansion, in the Works development on the Westside, the Covid pandemic struck. They signed a lease for 9,300 square feet—more than twice as big as their first location—at a time when no one could be sure that people even wanted to eat out. “We tried to reduce the space, but we couldn’t,” Jonathan says. “We were worried that we were overextending ourselves.”

The Westside gamble eventually paid off, and now the brothers have since expanded again with a third restaurant on Peachtree Road in Brookhaven, near the site of their concert cookouts.

Visiting it a few weeks before the opening, Justin and Jonathan show off their new smokehouse, a big screened-in room with an M&M rotisserie smoker and three Mill Scale smokers custom-made in Texas from decommissioned propane tanks. They’re huge; they look like submersibles at dock.

“We’ve probably got $70,000 to $100,000 of smokers in this one room,” Justin says.

Among all their restaurants, Fox Bros. owns about 20 smokers, worth well into the six figures. As they describe their state-of-the-art cooking machines, the brothers’ eyes light up, as if they’re a couple of gearheads talking torque.

The Foxes have a loose working arrangement. They do a little bit of everything, with Jonathan taking more responsibility for the barbecue. “I guess I’m CEO of operations and oversee development and quality of product,” he says.

Asked what he does, Justin shrugs. “I have a title that I gave myself, but I can’t remember what it was now. It’s on my business card, and I haven’t seen that in a while.”

They obsess over details and occasionally butt heads and raise voices, even as they finish each other’s sentences.

“We shared a womb, a room, a car, a house, and now a business,” Justin says, explaining how two strong-willed people might get on each other’s nerves. “But we’re family, and we always have each other’s backs.”

Not just family, but twins.

The ultimate twin story about the Fox brothers happened a few years ago, when they were still living together. Justin spied some cucumbers in their kitchen and decided to make pickles, but he badly sliced his thumb and had to go to an urgent care clinic.

A short time later, Jonathan got home, saw the cucumbers, decided to make pickles, and . . . yes, sliced his thumb. He went to the same clinic, where the startled nurse asked, “What are you doing back here?”

Justin laughs. “Twin stuff.”

The Fox Brothers redefined Atlanta barbecue—and it all started with a humble backyard cookout
Jonathan adds wood to a smoker at the Fox Bros. Chattahoochee Works location.

Photograph by Growl

When they aren’t driving around to check on their restaurants, the brothers spend most of the workday at their commissary, a rambling facility of kitchens and offices off I-85 at Monroe Drive. Most of their side dishes are prepared here, the meats are trimmed and readied before they’re smoked at the restaurants. Today, they’ve gathered with staff in a conference room to taste menu items for their new location.

Everyone agrees that the macaroni and cheese—topped with Funyun onion rings—has problems. Good taste, too gloppy.

But everyone is pleased with a new broccoli salad. It defies Fox Bros.’s reputation for over-the-top creations like the Tomminator—Tater Tots smothered in Brunswick stew and topped with melted cheese.

“When we first opened, a lot of writers focused on the gut bombs,” Jonathan says, “and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.”

The brothers have been so immersed in their business that they feel like the last 15 years have gone by in a blur. They joke about how they rarely got a chance to go home and visit family, and when they did, cousins they hadn’t seen in years would say, “Who are you?”

“We’ve missed a lot of our lives,” Justin says, “but I don’t think we’d have it any other way.”

They haven’t lived together in recent years. Justin has a house in Smoke Rise that he shares with a yellow Lab named Shay. Jonathan lives in Edgewood, near the flagship restaurant, with his wife of five years, Raquel, an HR specialist from El Salvador by way of Dallas. They married on Cinco de Mayo 2018 in a ceremony that had a uniquely barbecue flavor.

Sam Jones, a pitmaster friend from North Carolina who has an online ministerial certificate, performed the service. “Jonathan was as nervous as a whore at church,” Jones says. “I don’t do weddings for just anybody, but I think the world of those boys.”

Jonathan and Raquel had their first child in June—a son, Lucas—and Jonathan took weeks off from work to attend to fatherhood. “He thinks a lot about his legacy,” Raquel says of her husband. “He and his brother built something from nothing. Maybe Lucas would be interested in stepping into that.”

The brothers have lived nearly half their lives in Atlanta now, and even though they’ll always claim Texas, they feel quite at home in Georgia.

“Something drew me to the South,” Jonathan says. “It has a mystique and pride about it. And I love the weather. It’s hot and humid in Atlanta, but it’s nothing compared to Texas.”

The Foxes realized how much their feelings had evolved last winter, when Georgia played Texas Christian University for the college football championship. They wholeheartedly rooted for the Bulldogs, even though the Horned Frogs are from their previous home of Fort Worth. It was the same way when Atlanta faced Houston in the 2021 World Series. “I was pulling for the Braves,” Justin says. “We grew up in Houston, and my stepbrother there was like: How could you?

Their barbecue allegiances are more nuanced. They speak highly of many of the new barbecue restaurants in Atlanta, but when they took some of their staff on a tour of classic Texas barbecue places last year, in preparation for opening the Brookhaven store, the distinctive smell of Texas post oak smoke beckoned them like a muse.

“When we opened, I’d look at Southern Living and other magazines, and there really wasn’t a lot of press about Georgia barbecue,” Jonathan says. “We wanted to help Atlanta and Georgia barbecue get back in consideration. At the time, Texas barbecue is what we knew, so that’s what we did.”

This year, when Southern Living listed the 50 best barbecue places in the South, only one was based in Atlanta: Fox Bros. The boys from Texas would seem to have succeeded.

This article appears in our November 2023 issue.