John Toomey: From Lawyer to Barbecue Restaurateur

You can use a law degree no matter what occupation you choose.

When someone graduates law school, they probably don't plan on opening a barbecue restaurant. However, John Toomey (’50, J.D. ’51), the owner of the recently opened J-Bar-M BBQ, emphasizes his law degree from University of Houston Law Center was the key to his success throughout his career.

“A law degree is the most valuable degree you can get. You can use it no matter what occupation you choose. I found it lays a great foundation in every field of business I have been involved in.”

So, how did Toomey end up opening a barbecue restaurant in the EaDo neighborhood at the age of 93?

John Toomey and his family

John Toomey and his family

The story begins back in 1946 at UH. Toomey chose to remain in his hometown for college so he could be near his family and his future wife, Michelene. He remembers the campus as filled with veterans who were using the GI Bill to fund their degrees. He finished his undergrad degree in 1949, and then immediately enrolled in the UH Law Center. His father was a lawyer, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps and join his practice. The UH Law Center had just been founded. He became part of the second graduating class, his brother a member of the first.

Toomey's graduating class had only about 25 students, which he was grateful for; it allowed more participation in class and with the professors. One professor he remembers fondly is Newell Blakely, who taught him about torts. Toomey enjoyed learning from Blakely as he was “easy to talk to and personable.”

Back then, the law classes were held in the army barracks, which were not temperature controlled. He describes the experience simply, “cold in winter, hot in summer.” He remembers taking a midterm in January while it was freezing, so the students gathered around a potbelly stove in the center of the classroom for warmth as they scribbled down their answers.

After graduation, he joined his father and brother in their practice Toomey, Toomey & Toomey. In 1959, his career took an unexpected turn when his father-in-law passed away. His wife's family-owned hotels and real estate in Houston and his mother-in-law asked him to step in to manage the properties. Toomey explains that his law degree prepared him well for the new responsibility.

“A law degree is very handy in real estate. If you're buying real estate, you have to know how to go about getting the right title and how to look at all the laws affecting that particular piece of property. When you're leasing property, you have to know how to draw up lease agreements,” he explains. He also felt assured that he could rely on fellow UH alum for legal or business advice. “Going to UH gave me great connections for my businesses.”

This professional shift was when he first acted on his interest in the restaurant business. He decided to open several eateries in empty buildings on the family's properties. He opened Coney Island Off the Square at 110 Main, the Green Room Restaurant & Pub at 515 Louisiana his first foray into barbecue and Houlahan’s Hamburgers at 120 Westheimer. The third restaurant was named for his best friend and hunting companion Father Richard A. Houlahan, a Catholic priest.

Nearly 40 years later, in 2009, his wife and her two sisters divided the estate properties. Toomey and his wife received the Leeland block. He ultimately decided to open another barbecue restaurant in the space, and in March 2022, J-Bar-M officially opened its doors.

The restaurant features various tokens from Toomey's past. The J-Bar-M comes from his and his wife's first names. Many of the animal busts that decorate the walls are of ones he hunted himself. There is a photograph of his late wife Michelene on the wall. A beloved mainstay of the dining area is the J-Bar-M mascot Smokey, a Labrador puppy, Labrador being Toomey's favorite dog breed.

He explains how his 73-year-old law degree came in handy on this particular venture.

“There are many laws involved in a barbecue restaurant or any restaurant. Liquor laws. Food laws. It simplifies it if you know what you're looking for and you understand the basics.”

His advice for new UH Law Center graduates is to “study hard.” He understands better than anyone how some graduates' career paths may take unforeseen twists and turns, so he offers some general career advice too.

“Do what interests you. If you love your work, you will excel at it and make your life enjoyable.”

John Toomey and his Labrador puppy, Smokey, the mascot of J-Bar-M

John Toomey and his Labrador puppy, Smokey, the mascot of J-Bar-M