The building at 17th and Main streets had been vacant for nearly a year when Melanie Dosztan first toured it this summer.
As soon as she walked in, the smell made it clear what its history had been.
“It was just screaming barbecue,” she said.
And not just any barbecue. It was the barbecue perfected by Fred Cotten and served up by Lucille Baker that counted the city’s most influential politicians among its fans.
How could you serve any other barbecue in that building?
The legendary recipe is owned by an accountant who bought the restaurant in 2000 from Cotten’s family, then closed it in September 2014.
When Johnnie Brown walked into the building during one of Dosztan’s visits, it was clear that wouldn’t be an issue. Brown had worked there for about 25 years and knew how to recreate Cotten’s original sauce and his house salad dressing.
That was the beginning of Fred Cotten’s Landmark BBQ restaurant.
Dosztan and her fiance’s daughter, Megan Hayes, signed a 20-month lease, then spent a few months getting the building ready. They hired Bobby Brown, who’s been in the barbecue restaurant for decades, to manage the restaurant.
“Everything fell into place,” Dosztan said. “It was like a blessing.”
The first order of ribs and salad were served Oct. 10.
Kim Varner thinks he’s already been there seven times. And it’s just like its glory days, he said.
The same barbecue sauce, the same salad dressing and the same tender ribs.
The place even looks the same.
“When I walked in, it was like I was in a time warp,” said Varner, who retired as a detective from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in 2010.
During his 26 years there, he and his fellow officers used to eat at Cotten’s two to three times a week. They typically sat a few booths away from the restaurant’s most well-known patron, former Mayor Jake Godbold.
Dosztan said a lot of original customers are coming in after hearing about the new Cotten’s. Business is picking up each day, said Dosztan, who’s worked in the restaurant business for 20 years.
She said among those who’ve been in are Cotten’s son, who has a barbecue restaurant in Arlington, and Billy Cowart, who closed the restaurant last year. Both have wished her well.
Dosztan knows people are there for the original Cotten’s experience, even down to the shredded lettuce he used for the salad. When she and Hayes first opened, they added tomato and cucumber to the salad and used a different type of lettuce.
“We thought maybe different faces would like it,” Dosztan said.
Customers told her otherwise.
“They said, ‘No, no. Keep the tomato and cucumber and give us shredded lettuce and we’ll be fine,” she said.
A quick change of the lettuce and now it’s the original Cotten’s experience, one she hopes to offer for years.