Celebrating 100 Years of Johnny Harris Famous BBQ Sauce!

Celebrating 100 Years of Johnny Harris Famous BBQ Sauce!

Johnny Harris has been making some of the best barbecue sauce in Georgia for over 100 years. From Prohibition-era beginnings to mid-century fame to today’s legacy, the Johnny Harris name carries with it decades of Southern tradition and timeless flavor. 

Black and white photo of the Original Johnny Harris Barbecue Restaurant at Bee Road and Victory Drive in Savannah GA
Photo: Johnny Harris Original Location

Humble Beginnings

In the spring of 1924, a roadside barbeque shack opened at the corner of Bee Road and Victory Drive in midtown Savannah, Georgia. This humble establishment was the first iteration of the famous Johnny Harris Restaurant. The small eatery had a white clapboard exterior, black shutters, and a sawdust floor. But it soon evolved into one of the largest and most popular full-service restaurants in the city, earning a loyal following.

Less than three years after initially pursuing his dream of opening a restaurant, Johnny Harris took on a partner, Kermit "Red" Donaldson, who would help the business grow over the decades. Red did every job there was to do in the restaurant until eventually, he took over the managerial duties. The two men saw that the roadside shack was getting too popular for its capacity and decided to move the operation down the street in 1936.

Photo: Johnny Harris Sign that once dominated Victory Drive.

Growth and Relocation

In September of that year, the new restaurant opened for business at its new location at 1651 East Victory Drive. Through the years, the two specialties of the house: the famous bar-b-que and fried chicken boasted an almost cult-like following, both locally and throughout the Southeast. After the founder, Johnny Harris, died in April of 1942, Red continued to serve as manager and part-owner. 

Photo: The inside of Johnny Harris Restaurant

The company’s Georgia Grown listing states, “The business continued to prosper under [Red’s] competent leadership. This growth was due to a combination of fine food and the congeniality of the man. He met all with an easy smile and a sincere hello. In later years, the restaurant was truly a family affair and it was not uncommon to find his wife by his side working as their children grew.” 

Photos: Postcards from Johnny Harris Restaurant

The Landmark Years

Johnny Harris Restaurant was a sight to behold in its prime. From an article about the restaurant’s closing after 90 years in the Statesboro Herald, “The restaurant [featured] a circular main dining room ringed in tall, polished wood booths and a high, dark-colored ceiling from which cutouts of the moon and stars glow in the evening. In its heyday, a dance floor filled the middle of the room, welcoming returning soldiers and others to enjoy the sounds of the era's best big bands. The walls in the hallways are covered with framed menus signed by such celebrities as Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis.” 

In May 2016, the restaurant served its last patrons and closed its doors for good. The owners luckily had plans to open a new spot on Waters Avenue, BowTie Barbecue Co, which has served Savannah’s BBQ lovers ever since. Johnny Harris Famous Bar-B-Que Sauce lives on too! 

Legacy: The Sauce Lives On

In the mid-1950s, Red Donaldson purchased full control of the restaurant and continued to grow the business for the remainder of the decade. An illness contributed to his decision to lease the restaurant in the 1960s, but ever an entrepreneur, Red took the opportunity to focus on the bar-b-cue sauce side of the business. He perfected the recipes over time through a process of trial and error but was set up for success from the start. 

During the restaurant’s early years, a Black cook named John Moore originally shared his signature sauce recipe with Mr. Harris but generally kept the ingredients and amounts in his head. Johnny Harris eventually wrote it down and passed it on to his descendants and employees, including Red Donaldson. This is the foundation of the recipes still used for the sauce, which is still bottled and sold around the region today. 

Also from their Georgia Grown listing, “In 1962, a warehouse and office area was added to store the more than 400 cases being shipped out every two weeks. [...] Subsequently, the little sauce company has been enlarged to accommodate growing family involvement.” The Donaldson Family still produces Johnny Harris Bar-B-Que Sauce to this day. 

Grayson Lowenthal, Photo credit: Jessica LebosPhoto: Grayson Lowenthal, photo credit: Jessica Lebos

Still a Family Business

The Johnny Harris Sauce Company is still owned and operated by members of the Donaldson family. In an interview with Savannah Sideways writer Jessica Lebos, Red Donaldson’s great-grandson Grayson Lowenthal said, “We make it the same way it’s always been made—we’re still using the original old school compressor.” 

Grayson’s pride in his family’s company is clear when you meet him. A few months back, I happened to stop by to pick up a sauce order for the shop on a particularly impactful day. They were breaking ground on the Aldi grocery store that was being built at the sight of the landmark Savannah restaurant. In conversation, Grayson mentioned that he might have shed a tear watching the construction start from his office window in the sauce plant across the street. “It’s the end of an era,” he said.

Photos: Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue Sauce and Cookbook at Savannah Taste Marketplace

The Talk of the Town Since 1924!

Taste a century of Southern BBQ greatness! You can find a great selection of Johnny Harris bar-b-cue sauce in our Savannah Taste Marketplace, as well as the Johnny Harris family cookbook. People order this beloved local sauce from all over the country, and we’re happy to deliver! 

Recently comedian Brad Williams was quoted at his Savannah show saying, “I can’t find any Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue Sauce in this town!” Of course, Savannah Taste Marketplace ensured that a few bottles of sauce were delivered to him directly. Expressing his gratitude on social media, Brad said, “This sauce tastes just like my childhood. I don’t know why I’m about to cry over barbecue sauce right now but I am.” 

Needless to say, the Johnny Harris legacy has touched countless people over the generations. Cheers to 100 more years of Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue Sauce!


Georgia Grown. "Johnny Harris Famous BBQ Sauce." Georgia Grown, https://georgiagrown.com/member/johnny-harris-famous-bbq-sauce/ Accessed 13 June 2024.

Statesboro Herald. "Savannah’s Johnny Harris Closes After More Than 90 Years." Statesboro Herald, https://www.statesboroherald.com/local/savannahs-johnny-harris-closes-after-more-than-90-years/. Accessed 13 June 2024.

Leigh Lebos, Jessica. "The Johnny Harris Legend Lives On." Jessica Leigh Lebos' Substack, https://jessicaleighlebos.substack.com/p/the-johnny-harris-legend-lives-on. Accessed 13 June 2024.

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