BREAKFAST AND LUNCH: At Sneaky Pete’s in downtown Bessemer, they know your name and your order

Howard G. Johnson, a funeral director by trade, seized the chance to also own a Sneaky Pete’s franchise location when the opportunity opened up in his lifelong hometown of Bessemer.

On his way to work at the funeral home, Howard G. Johnson often stops at Sneaky Pete’s on 18th Street North in Bessemer to get his usual: “Two eggs, bacon, grits, toast and orange juice.

He’s one of the many regulars whom the ladies at the drive-thru window know exactly what they will order before they even open their mouth.

The only difference is that Howard owns the place.

Howard, the managing director of two area funeral homes, grew up in Bessemer and has raised his children there, so he also knows most of the regulars who come by Sneaky Pete’s for breakfast or lunch by name, if not by their order.

Bessemer is where I have been my entire life,” said Howard, who followed his father into the funeral service industry and spends most of his workdays at Johnson Memorial in Bessemer.

When the opportunity to operate the restaurant was presented, it was one which I could not pass on,” he said. “It was a good business decision.”

The Sneaky Pete’s at 524 19th Street “had been open about 15 years when I bought it,” Howard said. “Sneaky Pete’s is an institution in Bessemer.” Besides its signature hot dogs, the Birmingham-based franchise serves hamburgers, sandwiches, chicken, french fries, hoagies, wraps and a full breakfast menu.

The staple for the Bessemer community would still be on 19th Street had a fire of undetermined origin not swept through the whole 500 block in June of 2012. “We were out of business for about a month, then we moved around on Second Avenue,” Howard said, but that location wasn’t a good fit.

Since 2016, the business has occupied the building at 400 18th St. N., which had been a barber shop and sits diagonally across the street from the Bessemer Chamber of Commerce.

Even though the business has been in three downtown Bessemer locations in Howard’s 22 years of ownership, its clientele stayed true.

We have customers who’ve been coming from the beginning,” he said. “Our philosophy is to be sure the customer is pleased and has a good experience, so that they will return. We want a satisfied customer.

I have been privileged to have excellent management caring for the day-to-day operation,” said Howard, who sticks to administrative duties and allows “management to do what they do best.

In recent years, like all quick-service restaurants, Howard said his Sneaky Pete’s franchise has had supply-chain and personnel challenges. The restaurant switched to drive-thru service only during the height of the pandemic. It will continue to be a drive-thru only restaurant until it can staff its dining room properly, he said.

Value in membership and board participation
Sneaky Pete’s in Bessemer has been a member of the Alabama Retail Association since Howard has owned it and he has served on the Alabama Retail Association board of directors since February 2011. He has also served at various times on the Bessemer Chamber of Commerce board.

A business association speaks en masse for a group,” said Howard. “It is important to be a part of a collective effort to advance the cause of individual businesses.”

Howard also sees the benefit of interacting with other business owners. “I’ve always been one who’s tried to learn from others in the profession by observation.

Relationships matter, he said. “The relationships that I have established through board service have been immeasurable.”

The most important reason Howard says he stays involved in the trade associations related to his businesses is “the ability to be the voice of the small business owner.”

There’s always something brewing” in the political realm and “doing whatever little part I can to contribute to a solution is rewarding,” he said.

Story by Nancy King Dennis. Photos by Brandon Robbins.


Customers begin lining up as early 6:10 a.m. and it is often after 2:30 p.m. when the last customer is served at the Sneaky Pete’s at 400 18th St. N. in Bessemer, which begins service at 7 a.m. and takes final orders of all those in the drive-thru lane at 2 p.m.

This article also appears on Pages 4 and 5
of the February 2023 Alabama Retailer