On a Friday afternoon, Ruthie Henri opens the shiny, stainless-steel doors of the Southern Pride smoker and peers in at the 35 dripping racks of ribs and 18 glistening chickens rotating in the 250-degree oven. Poking the meats, she determines that another 10 minutes are needed to develop the perfect mahogany hue on the ribs and crackly skin on the chickens.
Moments earlier, she had been in the kitchen of Henri’s Hotts Barbeque in Folsom, in the pinelands of Atlantic County, checking the cornbread batter (too runny), tasting the pulled pork (perfectly seasoned) and scrambling to accommodate a last-minute request for 40 diners now on their way to eat barbecue after attending a funeral. One member of the party was related to Ruthie’s late husband, Doug Henri, 66, who died of Covid-19 in December. Ruthie fretted that they’d expect a freebie.
“We can put out a buffet spread for a fair price, but we can’t be giving this food away,” she says. Ruthie, 56, and Doug would have celebrated their 25th anniversary this year. Pointing to the new picnic pavilion they began building last year, which Doug never got to see opened, she decides, “We’ll put them in the Doug Out. He would have loved this space. It’s named after him, because he loved being outside, and it’s where everyone always knew they could find him.”
Running one of South Jersey’s most beloved barbecue restaurants has been challenging without Doug, whom everyone called Henri. Slipping into a booth with this writer, she continues, tearfully, “He was an awesome guy. He helped so many barbecue guys, and he’d do anything for them.” Last fall, the couple were cooking overtime to fill Thanksgiving orders when Ruthie noticed her husband’s energy waning. Soon, “he was so sick he just laid out in this booth we are sitting in.”
On November 30, she and her husband’s son, Brent, took Henri to the hospital, where he tested positive for Covid. He was soon put on a ventilator. Three weeks later, with a do-not-resuscitate order in place that Ruthie was unaware of, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Since Henri’s Hotts opened as a food truck in 2006, then a storefront two years later, Ruthie has been a full partner and regular presence. Her role had been largely behind the scenes, even after leaving her 20-year job as director of Cigna’s call center in 2019 and going full-time at the barbecue stand on a busy stretch of Black Horse Pike, en route to Atlantic City.
“I was always in the kitchen, while Henri was out at the smoker,” she says. “Nobody ever knew me.” Reopening in February, two months after Henri’s death, she posted an Instagram video introducing herself and assuring patrons that the food would remain high quality. “We need to see you,” she said. “So come on out and share some hugs, some memories and some laughter.”
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One friend, Michael Bradley, had worked with Henri at Jamesburg Juvenile Correctional Facility, where Henri had served as a correctional officer for 22 years and Bradley ran food services. “We had a lot of experiences together,” says Bradley, 63, who has worked at Henri’s Hotts since it opened, first part time, then full time.
“It’s different now,” he muses, stirring collard greens and running the new pressure cooker chicken fryer, which he says produces tastier fried chicken than traditional fryolator baskets (he’s right about that.) “Just his presence, his knowledge. We lost all that.”
Mimi Moore, who started working at Henri’s in 2010, left in 2015, but came back when Ruthie reached out after Henri died. A self-described jack-of-all-trades, Moore makes the creamy mac and cheese, the crumbly cornbread and the sweet corn pudding. When she turned 60 last summer, Ruthie surprised her with a birthday party on the picnic grounds behind the restaurant.
“I was going through a midlife crisis and said I didn’t want anything done for my birthday,” says Moore. “We were just going to go to the casino in Atlantic City. So when we stopped by here and she brought me out back, my head was spinning.”
Joseph Wesley, 58, who joined the team last May, never knew Henri. But Ruthie, he says, “builds up confidence in each and every one of us. She eases the tension, telling us, ‘Yes, you’re going to burn something sometimes, but that’s okay.’ She’s welcomed me as part of the family, and I love that.”
Ruthie feels she’s still earning her stripes. “Henri always said I was the tougher one. But sometimes I have to repeat things four or five times,” she laments. “I don’t get the same respect, because I’m a woman. But I’m up for the task.”
Indeed, she says she’s looking for a second location. “We’ll still have barbecue, but I’d like to do something a little different. Maybe Caribbean style. Of course, this will always be our home base.”
Henri’s Hotts Barbeque, 1003 East Black Horse Pike, Folsom; 609-270-7268. Friday–Sunday, noon to 7 pm until Christmas, then reopening early spring.Click here to leave a comment