Owner Jim Barbour holds plates of barbecue food at FunniBonz BBQ Smokehouse, his restaurant in Robbinsville’s Foxmoor Shopping Center. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

By Pat Tanner

Jim Barbour admits that he and his partners in FunniBonz BBQ Smokehouse, the 20-seat fast-casual storefront that opened in the Foxmoor Shopping Center last December, reversed the usual order of business by developing their line of barbecue sauces first and then opening a restaurant to showcase them.

But those wildly successful sauces, which launched in late 2008, Barbour said has “gotten us name recognition and enabled us to build a brand.” Jars of FunniBonz all-natural, gluten-free sauces (Original, Spicy, Fiery Chipotle, and Sweet & Tangy Mustard) can be found at Marrazzo’s Thriftway, McCaffrey’s, Porfirio’s, the newly opened Mrs. Green’s in West Windsor and Pennington Market, which was the first to sign on. On a larger scale, FunniBonz sauces are on the shelves of ShopRite, Sam’s Club and Bed Bath & Beyond stores.

But Barbour, 43, and his FunniBonz partners Ryan Marrone (an attorney at Hill Wallack in Princeton who Barbour tags as “my best friend since seventh grade”), Fred Lewis (Barbour’s uncle), and Yvonne Ellis (a friend who supplied the initial $1,000 investment that launched the sauce business) always had a restaurant in mind.

“Over these last years I’ve learned that to grow a business I need to have a supporting business to make it work,” Barbour said. “So once I had that I said to myself, I want to get back to my first love, to my passion. I’m going to open a restaurant.”

The niche Barbour hopes to fill with his restaurant is, he said, “fast-casual barbecue.” Since the sauce was conceived out of his immersion in and skill at making slow-smoked ribs at home, he knew the quality he was after.

“But I had to figure out a way to do barbecue right,” he said.

Step one was to travel the U.S. to sample every style of regional barbecue and ultimately, he says, “cherry pick the best of the best.” The results are reflected on the smokehouse menu in, for example, 16-hour Texas-style brisket, nine-hour pulled pork and five-hour St. Louis-style ribs.

Step two was finding the right smoker and technique. At FunniBonz, all meats, including chicken and turkey, are slow-smoked over real cherry and hickory wood in an indoor electric smoker that can handle 600 pounds of meat at a time. FunniBonz’s growing list of regulars enjoy the output in the form of sandwiches, platters or by the pound. Barbour estimates that the restaurant goes through 20 to 30 cases of ribs a week. Each case holds 16 full ribs.

Side dishes run to the traditional but distinguish themselves by being made from scratch and because, with few exceptions, they are faithful replications of Barbour family recipes. The creamy, four-cheese mac and cheese, for example, is that of a cousin, the collard greens are Barbour’s mother’s recipe and the sweet potato pudding the legacy of a grandmother.

His mother, Jo Barbour, makes all the fresh desserts, including banana pudding, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie. Baked beans, green beans stewed with tomatoes, fried corn on the cob, mashed potatoes with gravy, buttermilk biscuits and corn bread are just some of the choices that guests enjoy as part of a platter or a la carte while they dine at the long picnic tables and benches that line the room. Lazy Susans hold napkins and implements and, of course, squeeze bottles of FunniBonz sauces.

The restaurant has 14 employees, but the man in charge of the smoker and kitchen is Gerry Yukon. The chef formerly worked at Gallery Café at Covance in West Windsor’s Carnegie Center.

“Up until now, barbecue has been just a hobby with me,” he said. “I saw the job opening posted on a website, and I was looking for a new challenge. I like that all the recipes are from Jim’s mom and family. It’s their summertime barbecue, their Thanksgiving [dishes].”

Barbour family connections go beyond the partnership and the recipes. Sister Casi King helps out with IT and online media—when she’s away from her work at TD Bank, where she is vice president and operations intake manager. Casi’s husband Darryl, whose day job is at an insurance company, likewise is “integral,” Barbour said. Niece Lauryn serves as a cashier, and cousin Ryan Lewis is FunniBonz’s office manager.

Jim Barbour was raised in West Windsor. His father, James H. Barbour, Jr. (Son Jim’s full name is James H. Barbour III) was a personnel manager for both Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study before he retired.

“He was kind of groundbreaking at the university,” said his proud son. “Not just in helping minorities but also with the immigrant population that needed help in things like how to deal with the banking system, how to get loans, how to get a job. He also established a university credit union.”

Barbour’s mother Jo was facilities manager first for a township government and then for an insurance company before she retired. Many area residents know her from the seasonal farmers markets, including those in Robbinsville and West Windsor, where she mans the FunniBonz sauce table.

Before turning to the food business, Jim Barbour, who recently moved into Robbinsville’s Washington Town Center, worked as a Wall Street broker, a marketing and sales rep for Sony Music, a pharmaceutical sales rep for GlaxoSmithKline, and as a data researcher for DiscoveryWorks Legal in New York. Barbour graduated from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro in 1993 with a degree in speech and drama, and spent a year at NYU, hoping to become an actor.

“But I didn’t want to be a starving actor, so I got my Series 7 license and became a broker,” he said.

That’s a pretty remarkable resume for someone who claims to have been an “awful” student.

“I put my parents through the wringer!” he said. “Looking back, I think I must have had learning issues, but they were never categorized or diagnosed. So I was forced to use my personality to get through a lot of situations.”

Among those situations was trying, as one of a few black students, to assimilate into high school in West Windsor. As result, he says, “I guess I’m somewhat of a chameleon, and anything I focus on I can do really well.”

But the corporate world was not for him and, after his marriage of seven years ended in divorce, he decided to, as he puts it, “rebuild” himself.

“I knew I didn’t want to go back into the corporate environment; that is not who I am. But I had the skill set to do all these different things, and I’m self-motivated. I don’t need someone hanging over me telling me what to do. I knew I could be an entrepreneur.”

That’s when he and best friend Ryan Marrone started to hatch a plan. Their first idea was to open a fondue restaurant called FunDo, and they had their eye on the space in Town Center that is now Centro Grille.

“We had everything worked out; we even had a logo. But in the end we couldn’t raise the money,” he says.

Fast forward to the success of FunniBonz BBQ sauce, and problem solved.

“We still wanted to start the business here,” he says of Robbinsville, and of the Foxmoor Shopping Center in particular. “I lived in Foxmoor right out of school, when I got married. This center was lively then, a great place to be.”

He’s hoping the shopping center will thrive part and parcel with the continuing Town Center development.

“As the town continues to build out, I think this center is an amazing place to start a business,” Barbour said.

The FunniBonz team hopes to use their tiny first restaurant as a launching pad for more of the same.

“I don’t think we have any competition in the area,” Barbour says. “There are no fast-casual barbecue restaurants around us, and really not any in the Northeast.”

He uses Chipotle Mexican Grill as a model.

“It’s fast-casual and all natural,” he said. “We combine two things together. We have the luxury of offering 16-hour, slow-smoked, cherry wood brisket that you can grab and go like you would at McDonald’s.”

He’s hoping to establish eight to 10 more restaurants, and then to franchise. But Jim Barbour doesn’t stop there.

“My end goal is to be the first international fast-casual barbecue chain. There’s an amazing need in England, in Japan, the Philippines…”

FunniBonz BBQ Smokehouse is located at 1045 Washington Blvd. in the Foxmoor Shopping Center. Phone: (609) 336-0212.

Pat Tanner blogs at dinewithpat.com.