By Chris Mohney
Born in El Paso, John Lewis started tinkering with barbecue as a teenager. Later in the burgeoning barbecue scene in Austin, he worked with local legends Aaron Franklin and LeAnn Mueller. By then an accomplished pitmaster in his own right, Lewis struck out to Charleston to open Lewis Barbecue in 2016. Now he’s opening Rancho Lewis, his take on the border food particular to his native El Paso and environs.
When I was first considering opening my own restaurant, I was looking for another place to go. In Austin, the barbecue scene had gotten so saturated at that point. It all started with the Franklin Barbecue trailer. There was hardly anything going on in Austin then, and 10 years later it’s on every corner.
At first, I had been thinking I wanted to go to Healdsburg, California, and do it up in Dry Creek Valley just because I like it there a whole bunch. But I had never been to Charleston before. When I came here, I was like, “Man, this place is really cool, too. It’s beautiful. It’s somewhere I might want to live, and they don’t have what I’m doing already.”
When the pandemic hit, it was a little bit difficult, like it was for everyone at the beginning. It got down to three months of to-go food and stuff like that. We went from a staff of about 80 to 14, and I was one of the 14 people. But three months later we were back up to our full staff again. The food that we were doing lends itself to takeout kind of stuff, and it’s comfort food, too.
But we’re still struggling with the labor shortage, just like every other restaurant is. It’s very difficult to get people right now. And we are paying more than we’ve ever paid before. I had to start cooking every day, all day long again. It set back my retirement a little bit.
We started doing more specials every day of the week. We’ve got different specials for people who want to come in more than once a week. Our takeout model has totally changed. About 30 percent of our business is takeout now. Before, it was about 10 percent. And I don’t know if the reason is because of the pandemic anymore. But we’ve gotten really good at doing it, and people are used to it.
I’d been thinking about a new place for awhile. We had done a booth in a fancy food hall for about a year. It was a little more Tex-Mex than the border food from El Paso that we’re doing at Rancho Lewis. But it was a good trial to figure out how to do stuff. I’ve never run a border cuisine restaurant before, so there were a lot of these things to figure out.
During the pandemic, once we got our staff back, my dad came up here for three months and built a trailer. We used the trailer as a test spot in the parking lot over at Lewis Barbecue. That went really well, and the response was really great. We were looking for a place to do a brick-and-mortar, and found the spot that we are in now.
The food at Rancho Lewis is what I make myself four nights out of the week at home. If I was living in El Paso, iI could just get it there. It’s different than Tex-Mex. El Paso is the birthplace of Mexican-American cuisine, and Tex-Mex is an offshoot of that. But something that happens on the border—something that you don’t get in San Antonio, where Tex-Mex originated—is this cross-cultural passing back and forth among Native American, Mexican, and American.
Everything changes the further you get away from the border. Like the lack of some ingredients, like tortillas. There wasn’t a tortilleria in the whole state of South Carolina. In El Paso, it’s just like barbecue is in Austin—there’s a tortilleria on every corner. Since that didn’t exist here, we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money building this giant tortilleria inside the restaurant.
Our corn comes from here though, from Marsh Hen Mill, formerly Geechie Boy. Kind of famous corn guys. They changed their name because of cultural appropriation to Marsh Hen Mill. I changed to Rancho Lewis from “Juan Luis” for the same reason.
With the new place, I’m a little nervous, and I’ve been letting go of a little bit of control, which has been hard for me. I’ve got a lot more staff now—upper management staff. I have an operations manager now, because we’re opening a second Lewis Barbecue in Greenville in a couple of months. And that’s it. No more!