Award-Winning BBQ Spot 4 Rivers Opening in South Lakeland

By RJ Walters

One of the “South’s Best BBQ Joints” and self-proclaimed “barbecue ministry” 4 Rivers Smokehouse is opening a South Lakeland location on June 21.

The Florida-based family owned business is known for signature classics such as its 18-hour angus brisket and burnt ends, and homestyle sides like baked cheese grits and smokehouse corn. It even serves up several vegetarian options.

Sandwiches start at $7.59, platters of meat and side dishes range around $13-18 and 4 Rivers also offers family meals and party packs.

The restaurant is located at 4729 S. Florida Ave. in front of Publix Greenwise, and the spacious building features seating for 92 guests and includes large garage doors that open to provide fresh air for customers.

As is customary according to company founder and CEO John Rivers the store has distinctive local touches to match the personality of our community.

When you walk in the main entrance there is a custom sign that includes the outline of the Lakeland skyline along with a swan icon. To the left of the entrance is a wall height mural of the historic Polk Theatre.

“We’ve been looking at Lakeland for probably six years trying to find that perfect location,” Rivers said inside the new building on Thursday. “We’ve got a brand new team of 50 people we’ve hired from Lakeland and the manager (Johanna Annis) is from Lakeland as well. Couldn’t be more excited about it and the reception has just been tremendous so far.”

The Florida State alum had a distinguished 20-year career in health care, but he always loved good barbecue and took detailed notes about the best meat he was served, whether it was in Texas, Missouri or Alabama. He is quick to give credit to people and restaurants who inspired 4 Rivers recipes, and he’s such an open book that he’s actually authored and published “The Southern Cowboy Cookbook.”

The “ministry” aspect of 4 Rivers relates to the company’s ongoing commitment to doing good in the communities his restaurant’s reside. In 2004, five years before the first 4 Rivers store was opened in Winter Park, John hosted a barbecue cookout fundraiser to support a family whose young daughter was battling cancer. The event was the catalyst for 4 Rivers ongoing support of local schools, churches, and charitable organizations.

Rivers already spoke at a gathering of the local Rotary Club, and he said he’s thrilled to be part of a community where “people are genuinely friendly and honest.”

“One of the things we learned right away—and I wish I could say it was strategy but truth be told we didn’t have any money so we couldn’t advertise back then. But we could go into the community and serve alongside the schools and churches and the people who needed it the most…and that instilled in us a spirit of giving and reaching out to the community and keeping their needs first,” he said. “Getting involved with the Chamber or the Rotary or the churches or schools, that is equally part of our mission as the business and the food we make.”

When asked what his favorite dishes are at the restaurant commonly referred to as “4R” for short, he made his way through nearly half the menu—and why wouldn’t the proud owner of a flourishing chain? But he made a point to stop on their dessert menu, which includes nearly 20 decadent options made in house by the 4R bakery team, and he joked that the summer they went full throttle to perfect that menu he gained nearly 20 pounds.

Restaurant hours will be 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.