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It’s the same old rib joint, but with a slight twist.

Back in May, Jim Stewart, the owner of Sportsman Liquidators in Hughesville, and his wife, Jennifer, began leasing the iconic Johnny Boy’s Ribs in La Plata with the intention of eventually purchasing the building. The former owner, Johnny Katsouros, who opened the tiny side-of-the-road restaurant in 1979, was in failing health and needed to step away from the business.

“We’ve got great expectations because it’s a landmark,” Stewart said. “A lot of the business we get is travelers. All these people, instead of going down [Interstate] 95, come down [U.S.] 301 and fight the traffic through Waldorf just to stop here, and they’ve been doing that for years.”

When the couple took over, Stewart said, among the first orders of business was painting the outside of the building and making a slight change to the restaurant’s staple food: ribs. Stewart said his wife prepares the ribs with a different rub, one that doesn’t use any salt.

“That salt just dries the meat right up,” Stewart said. “This way, you don’t have that problem.”

Stewart and his wife have run businesses in Charles County for years, but in recent years have had some struggles.

“So I said, well, people are always going to eat three times a day, and they eat out a lot,” Stewart said. “We both really like cooking, and this seemed like a natural fit. So, we decided to give this a try.”

On Sundays, Stewart said, customers come from as far as Washington, D.C., and northern Prince George’s County just for a taste of their popular menu items, including not just ribs but also pulled pork and sliced beef sandwiches.

“During the summer time, it’s something really sought-after. People stop just for that Johnny Boy’s experience,” Stewart said.

They also instituted “Fish Fridays,” during which the small shack sells fried fish on special. So far, that has proved extremely popular as well.

Among Stewart’s main concerns is getting the local community to come to Johnny Boy’s. While the business in summer is steady with the travelers who flock to the store, he worries it will slow down once the temperatures drop.

“We’re going to be open year-round now, and not just in the summertime,” Stewart said.

“We’re going to offer smoked turkeys for Thanksgiving this year. We’d really like to see the local community get vested in this.”

Longtime employee Judy Hemsley, who has worked at the restaurant since 1996, said she began as a cashier and eventually worked her way up to being a prep cook. Now she also takes charge of making the sauce, based on recipes from Katsouros’ mother, Sophie, which have helped make the restaurant such a local attraction.

“I like to make the customers happy,” Hemsley said, adding the restaurant has functioned just as well under new management as it did previously. “We all get along. It’s like a family thing. When it gets really busy, everyone pitches in here. The main thing is satisfying the customers, and that’s the best part.”

From his time running the business, Katsouros said he could not quite choose which memory was his favorite.

“I had 35 years, and it was a good run,” Katsouros said.

“I liked the repeat customers, all the people I met,” Katsouros said. “I got to feed the Washington Redskins and [former Gov. William Donald] Schaefer. There’s a lot of fond memories.”

When Katsouros left the business, he said, it was a bit tenuous. However, he has seen it improve under Stewart and his wife.

“They’re doing better than I was,” Katsouros said. “They’re doing great. It’s a landmark. It’s a part of Charles County that draws people from all over.”

lrenner@somdnews.com