Jack J. Hubberman, a former Baltimore businessman who with a partner established the popular Ocean City rib joint J/R's, "The Place for Ribs," died Sunday from cancer at his Pikesville home. He was 87.
"I was a big fan of the ribs, but a bigger fan of Jack," said Ralph L. Sapia, an attorney and former educator who grew up in Ocean City, where his family owned and operated the Monticello Hotel and Surf Inn.
"He was the first person to bring baby back ribs to Ocean City. In those days, when people thought about ribs they were spare ribs," said Mr. Sapia, a Towson resident. "So, between steamed crabs and Jack's baby back ribs, he helped make Ocean City in the 1980s the epicenter of messy eating."
"Every Friday evening when we were in Ocean City we'd have ribs at J/R's," said Dr. Jerome P. "Jerry" Reichmeister, an orthopedic surgeon who lives in Pikesville.
"It became our standard joke. I'm Jewish, and on Friday you are supposed to have the traditional Shabbat meal, but when I was in Ocean City on Fridays I always had Jack's ribs. I knew the Lord was looking down on me and saying, 'It's OK,'" said Dr. Reichmeister with a laugh.
In 1977, Mr. Hubberman and his wife moved to Ocean City and opened the Potato Shack on Third Avenue and the Boardwalk after hearing about a new method of cooking potatoes.
"They had heard about Rosso-Bake, which used a hot resin to cook potatoes, and made the best baked potatoes. They also served french fries and onion rings," said a son, Louis Hubberman, of Owings Mills.
"I remember seeing this machine and telling Jackie, 'This is going to knock people's socks off,'" the elder Mr. Hubberman told Ocean City Today in an interview last year.
The potato business proved to be so popular that Mrs. Hubberman worked from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then her husband took over the night shift until 2 a.m., when it closed.
"He took those potatoes and wrapped them in paper and made them into a finger food," Mr. Sapia recalled.
Looking for other opportunities in the restaurant business led the couple to travel throughout the South and as far west as Texas and Hawaii on fact-finding missions to see and experience types of ribs bathed in a variety of sauces.
Having disposed of the laundromats by 1980, the couple joined with a business partner, Joe Colton, who owned an Italian restaurant in Ocean City, and opened the first J/R's at 62nd Street and Coastal Highway.
The restaurant took its names from the partners' wives: Mr. Hubberman's wife, Jacqueline, and Ruth, who was married to Mr. Colton.
They added a second location in 1984 at 131st Street, and restaurants in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and on the Ocean City boardwalk.
"When you came into Ocean City on 62nd Street, J/R's was looking at you right in the face," said Earl Taylor, of Fenwick Island, Del., a longtime friend who used to own an Ocean City McDonald's.
"In the prime days of the 1980s, you had to wait outside to get in during the summertime. The place on 131st Street seated 400, and you still had to wait to get in. Jack and Joe were icons in Ocean City," Mr. Taylor said. "Every night, Jack was greeting and seating customers. He was a hands-on business owner."
Mr. Hubberman bought out his partner in 2000, his son said.
Another gustatory novelty at J/R's was onion rings — commonly called an onion loaf — that were placed in batter and deep-fried. When they emerged, then resembled the shape of a loaf of bread.
A Baltimore Sun reviewer wrote in 1988 that the onion loaf "was one of the best I've ever had — a hot mound of thick-sliced, juicy onions, perfectly fried. … The ribs were a messy delight. Tender, moist and flavorful, you know this is the reason you're here."
In addition to ribs, J/Rs featured barbecued chicken, seafood and steaks. Entrees arrived with warm bread, large wedges of ranch fries or a baked potato, cole slaw or apple sauce.
"The combination of the ribs and the onion ring loaf — after you ate it, you were a mess," Mr. Sapia said. "Then that great sauce Jack had for the ribs."
"It was a smoky tomato-based sauce, not vinegar-based, and it had a hint of sweetness," his son said. "The recipe was a closely guarded secret and was kept in a safe. I don't even know it."
"Whenever I asked Jack — and I ate there all of the time — what was the secret to the sauce, he'd just look at me and smile," Mr. Taylor said with a laugh.
"Jack was both a trendsetter and a trend-spotter. He figured out that ribs would be a big item because no one else had them in Ocean City. He was a visionary," Dr. Reichmeister said. "He was out front seating people and also in the kitchen, where he constantly was trying to improve the product for people."
Mr. Hubberman opened a commissary where he sold both frozen ribs and sauce to customers; he sold honey-baked hams at holiday time to patrons who wished to take them home, as well as conducting a mail-order business.
Mr. Hubberman enjoyed eating ribs, but in moderation. "Because he had had several heart attacks, he really ate fish for health reasons," his son said.
Off season, Mr. Hubberman lived in Aventura, Fla., and in Pikesville. His wife died in 2014.
Due to failing health, Mr. Hubberman closed J/R's last year. His son had the task of closing the business.
'My father always said how important it was to be an honorable person, that your word was your bond, and your name everything," his son said.
"Across the board, when I told people that we were closing, they said, 'I dealt with your father for 30 years, and he was an honorable man, and a man of his word.' It was a testament to who he was."
"When I think about the volume of ribs, chicken, and onion loaf that went from kitchen to tables it makes me dizzy," Mr. Hubberman told Ocean City Today. "Over the years we were part of so many people's summer memories. You would come to know people's birthdays, anniversaries, their kids, grandkids … what a blessing."
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.
Mr. Hubberman is also survived by another son, Steven D.H. Hubberman of Potomac; a daughter, Linda Greenwald of Mobile, Ala.; a brother, Alan Hubberman of Ocean City; two sisters, Betty Kupfer of Randallstown and Gertrude Shapiro of Pikesville; four grandchildren; and companion Nancy Tuttleman.