RJ’s Grill, a food truck operated by Wise native Russell Johns, Jr. and his wife, Monica, is known in the local area not only for its food, but also for RJ’s Sweet Mustard Sauce, which brings extra flavor to a number of menu items. 

That sauce is becoming famous beyond the local area. Over the Labor Day weekend, it took first place honors for Sweet Mustard Sauce at the Pinehurst Barbecue Festival.

“I’ve been working on the sauce for over 20 years,” Johns said.

While Russell Johns, Jr., known as Russ, was born in New Jersey, he was raised in Wise.

The son of Russell Johns, Sr. of New Jersey and Dorothy Boyd of Norlina, Russ graduated from Norlina High School. He served in the United States National Guard from 1981-97.

Following his military service, Russ entered the restaurant business, operating Pizza Plus in Sacramento, Calif., where he lived for 20 years. The restaurant offered such fare as pizza, subs and salads with ribs and chicken on the weekends.  

It was at Pizza Plus that Russ began offering his sweet mustard sauce, using it with the ribs and chicken. Customers loved it.

Russ returned to the local area in 2008, settling in Vance County, and began working at the CertainTeed roofing plant in Oxford. However, his love of cooking was never far from his mind, and neither was his dream to be in business for himself.

Russ realized that dream in October 2020, when he and Monica opened the food truck, RJ’s Grill. In July 2021, they operated the food truck full-time.

RJ’s Grill offers a range of menu items that include fish, pork chop and chopped BBQ sandwiches, cheesesteaks (both chicken and beef), wings, fish, chopped BBQ and pork chop plates, shrimp baskets, burgers, hot dogs, Italian sausage dogs and more.

Russ has continued to perfect RJ’s Grill’s Sweet Mustard Sauce, which compliments plenty of the food truck’s menu items.  

The sauce, along with RJ’s Barbecue Sauce, are bottled at Carolina CoPacking in Henderson. The team beyond the local company were familiar with the Pinehurst BBQ Festival’s sauce contest and wanted Russ to enter RJ’s Sweet Mustard Sauce.

“They said I had a good sauce,” he said.

Russ had been working a long time to perfect his specialty sauce, and he decided to enter. The Labor Day Weekend event would be the first time he entered RJ’s Sweet Mustard Sauce in a competition.

The Pinehurst BBQ Festival sauce contest featured several categories. There were 25 contestants in the mustard-based category, Russ said. A panel of judges tasted each sauce before awarding a score. While RJ’s Sweet Mustard Sauce had drawn plenty of compliments during his history, Russ was not expecting to win at Pinehurst. Then his name was called for first place.

“I was surprised, very surprised,” he said.

For winning the Sweet Mustard category, RJ’s Sweet Mustard Sauce will now be available at Lowes Foods stores.

In the local area, the sauce is available at several smaller markets in Henderson, and at Buchanan’s Store, located at 6647 Drewry-Virginia Line Rd., Manson. Russ is working to make the sauce available at other local stores.

RJ’s Sweet Mustard Sauce and RJ’s Barbecue Sauce are available for sale at RJ’s Grill. The food truck is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at 1757 N. Garnett St., Henderson, across from the Budget Host Inn, and from 6-11 p.m. at The Deck Entertainment Complex, 927 US Hwy. 1, Norlina, in the Ridgeway/Manson area.

With his win at the Pinehurst BBQ Festival, Russ hopes to enter more barbecue sauce contests. If he does, fans of RJ’s Sweet Mustard Sauce would likely think that Russ shouldn’t worry about trying to “improve” it. After all, you don’t mess with perfection.