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Louisiana native takes reins of storied rib pit

Inspired by Black pride and soul food

By Beverly Corbell

Tim Thomas (left) is the new owner and operator of a landmark barbecue pit that’s rooted in the Black community at Piedmont Station, now called JJ’s Louisiana BBQ, and taking over from Wayne Cannon (right) who retires his Cannon’s Rib Express after decades of serving the community.

Tim Thomas first learned about Black history and Martin Luther King Jr. from his family while growing up, but he learned a lot more about his Black pride after he went to college and charted his own path in life.

Thomas grew up poor in Shreveport, La., so when he graduated with a degree in criminal justice from Louisiana’s Grambling State University, he jumped at the chance when a Portland law firm recruited him for a job in his senior year, enticing him with a new car and $2,500 hiring bonus. He thought it was his big chance — to eventually become a paralegal. But it didn’t take long for him to realize he was only going to be given menial jobs.

“Back then they had to have a quota,” he said, for hiring minorities. “But they had me making copies of documents, which would never let me advance, so I quit.”

Determined not to work for anyone but himself, Thomas decided to become an entrepreneur, and has operated several businesses over the years, including a janitorial service.

His latest venture led to his buying Wayne Cannon’s Cannon’s Rib Express, a long-time, Black-owned food cart at Piedmont Station at 625 N.E. Killingsworth St., across from the Martin Luther King Post Office.

The rib pit builds on the connections to soul food favorites already made into a Portland destination by Cannon, adding new recipes that Thomas brings from his own upbringing in North Louisiana, which is considered a national treasure for barbecue.

“What sets Louisiana barbecue apart is that the seasoning is different. We have secret ingredients and we also use Cajun seasoning and use Epsom salt,” he said. “And it’s the way it’s cooked.”

Thomas’ interest in barbecue comes not only with his love of Louisiana cooking, but also because his cousin opened the original JJ’s Louisiana BBQ in Arizona, a successful operation.

Thomas said he’ll combine some Louisiana-based barbecue recipes with Cannon’s, but it will be somewhat different.

After decades of being an institution for ribs in Portland, Cannon’s was closed for four months before Thomas reopened it as JJ’s Louisiana BBQ.

“He had been shut down for a month and every time I went over it was closed, so I got in touch with him and he said he got burned out and didn’t want to do it anymore,” he said.

So Thomas told Cannon he would pay off all his bills if he let him take over the cart.

“I’ve been knowing him for 25 years, and he said, “ ‘Tim, come on and get it open.’ And we did.”

Business has been slow since opening at the beginning of the year, probably due to it being winter and for the fact operations were closed for several months, but Thomas has high hopes.

“I think in the long run we're going to make it happen,” he said. “We have to build up our customer base, but I believe it’ll come.”

When Thomas looks back on his path in life he sees connections to Black history.

“We didn’t have a lot of the opportunities we have now, and so many black families paved a way for us to have opportunities to do more in life, to own businesses and be able to take care of our families,” he said. “I grew up eating baloney sandwiches and macaroni every day and I didn’t know what a steak was.”

But now the future is bright, Thomas said, because he knows he has started a business wrapped in a winning combination of service and quality food.

“I want people to know they will get a fair amount of food and it will be good food, good customer service, and they will enjoy their meal. That I guarantee,” he said.

--Beverly Corbell


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