With Smokin' Hope, Jonathan Jones Is Feeding the Hungry, One Rib at a Time

In some Phoenix neighborhoods, Jones is known as The Ribs Man; in others, he’s Barbecue  Guy.
In some Phoenix neighborhoods, Jones is known as The Ribs Man; in others, he’s Barbecue Guy. Jonathan Jones
When the videographer Jonathan Jones set out to master barbecuing, it wasn’t with plans to feed the hungry.

“I just wanted to get good at grilling,” Jones, the founder of the nonprofit Smokin’ Hope, said recently. “You know how it is. You get married and you buy your first house, and you’re like, ‘Man, I got to get a grill out back and learn how to grill stuff.’”

Jones read cookbooks and watched videos of master grillers, hoping to conquer rubbing and searing and smoking.

“After a lot of trial and error, I became a pretty good cook,” he said. “And I’d have people over and it was great. But the amount of leftover food was really bugging me.”

He knew there were plenty of people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, said Jones, who grew up in south Phoenix and Surprise after moving here from Lincoln, Nebraska, when he was 9. When dinner guests canceled at the last minute a few years ago, Jones found himself with a table full of uneaten food. “I said, ‘I’m gonna take this smoked meat downtown and see how it goes.’”

Expecting to feed 30, he ended up passing out barbecue to nearly a hundred hungry people that day.

“I was sitting around talking about it with some people who helped out,” Jones recalled. “And we realized we had started a movement without meaning to. And someone said, ‘We’re not smoking meat, we’re smokin’ hope!’ That’s where our name came from.”

Jones cobbled together a group of volunteers that included his wife and some of his closest friends. “There was no big strategy. The idea at first was to just drive around and hand out barbecue to groups of people in need.”

Because he grew up in the Valley, Jones knew where to find those folks. “There are always hungry people in downtown Phoenix, south Phoenix, the Glendale area. Cesar Chavez Park is a safe bet for someone who needs a good meal.”

Safety issues around the pandemic have made it harder to feed random groups of hungry people, slowing Jones’ efforts; still, he figures Smokin’ Hope has fed about 1,200 people in recent months. He’s working on making monthly feed-the-hungry trips, and there are plans to launch a mobile food van to help deliver food.

The group also recently served barbecue to a group home — “We blessed them with our food,” is how Jones puts it — and he hopes to do more contained communities in the near future.

Word on the street about Smokin’ Hope has gotten out, too. Strangers have offered to volunteer and sent donations by way of the nonprofit’s website. Jones has been hearing from people he hasn’t seen since high school who want to help feed the hungry.

“My wife has been really supportive, too,” he said with a loud laugh. “She’ll come home from work and look out back and go, ‘Oh, I see you bought Grill Number Six.’”

In some neighborhoods, Jones is known as The Ribs Man; in others, he’s Barbecue Guy.

“This is about more than how good the smoking technique is, or that we’re serving barbecue. It could be hotdogs or peanut butter and jelly. What matters is the lifting-up part. This is barbecue fueled by love, man.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela