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Plate it Forward: Johnny Rebs’ True South

This month is all about giving thanks for everything…from friends and family that love us to food that nourishes us. Most importantly, it’s also a time to remember that there’s always a little more we can be doing to help others.

With this month’s “Plate it Forward” series, we wanted to shine a light on the altruistic restaurants and chefs throughout the country who aren’t content with just serving delicious food. They are also committed to giving back to their communities in extraordinary, unique ways.

This week we sat down with Cheryl Carter, founder of Johnny Rebs’ True South, to talk about her culinary quest to bring down-home Southern cooking to California and the heartwarming success of the “Shell out for Charity” program.

Johnny Rebs’ is an authentic, Southern restaurant that opened in Long Beach, California in 1984. But, long before that, Cheryl Carter had traveled from North Carolina to Georgia, learning the tried-and-true techniques necessary to create something genuinely southern. “I absolutely fell in love with the culture, the hospitality and the historic aspects of southern cooking,” Cheryl said. “The potential for our restaurant was so much more than barbecue…it was just good, classic, southern food.” From fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs to smoked tri-tip, the homemade rubs and sauces have kept diners coming back for nearly 35 years.

Johnny Rebs’ had always served peanuts on the table for diners, but when times had gotten a bit tough during a minor recession, Cheryl said they had thought about scaling back on them. Her partner at the time said they should keep them on the table, but put out a small mason jar with a sign asking diners to donate their pocket change to keep the peanuts around. After seeing how wildly successful this was, Johnny Rebs’ decided to turn this into a philanthropic program that they dubbed “Shell out for Charity.”

A “Shell out for Charity” NAACP scholarship fundraising event.

Most recently, Johnny Rebs’ raised funds for “Send-a-Kid-to-Camp,” which sends at-risk youth from inner cities to camp for the summer. “I’ve met a couple of kids who have gone to these camp programs…who have said that they were life-changing. That has been very emotionally impactful for me,” Cheryl noted. In the past, the restaurant has also supported other local charities like the Pathways Volunteer Hospice and local chapters of the NAACP.

While it might seem that Johnny Rebs’ is just collecting pocket change, the restaurant’s charitable endeavors help inspire diners to do more. “We’ve had people get so excited that they even go volunteer,” Cheryl said.

Over the 25 years the “Shell out for Charity” program has been around, it’s really made an impact. “Since we started it in the mid-90s, we’ve raised about $1.2 million in pocket change,” Cheryl said modestly. “Whether it’s a $5 bill or 50¢, when anyone gives a little something of themselves…it’s incredible.”

Stay tuned next week for our “Plate it Forward” series to hear more touching stories about restaurants giving back in big ways.

Want to give back this holiday season? Opt-in to Donate the Change, where your Grubhub order is rounded up to the nearest dollar to benefit No Kid Hungry.