Jun 1, 2024
Food & Drink

Jo’s, as always: Embracing a legacy

“This business is the heart and soul of who I am and what I believe in — good food, good friends and good service. After working in this industry for 25 years, I am blessed to have the opportunity to serve the Pensacola area.” — Jo Heckler, owner of Jo’s, as always

Pulling off Ninth Avenue into the Duh for Garden and Home Tuscan-style compound of white, arched, stucco buildings with terracotta roofs, towering Italian cypress trees and leviathan pottery, you are greeted by the entrance of the restaurant — Jo’s, as always.

Embraced by potted ferns, boxwood, hibiscus and hanging baskets of bright petunias, grand dark mahogany double doors with windows beckon you inside while tables outside with green umbrellas invite you to dine al fresco and listen to the trickling fountains.

Patrons have choices at Jo’s, as always. As the menu states: “Some Tried and True & Some Blessed and New.”

Jo Heckler’s restaurant is a vibrant testament to her immense respect and undefinable love for her late friend, Pensacola restaurateur Norma Fleming Murray who passed away in September 2017. Heckler reopened Norma’s at Duh restaurant under her name the following November.

“This has been quite an accomplishment, and I try to honor Norma in everything I do,” Heckler said. “Some of the staff members that worked with Norma throughout the years are still here. Norma wasn’t just a friend or someone we worked for; we were and are family.

“We cook a lot out of Norma’s cookbook, ‘As Always, Recipes and Remembrances from Norma’s,’” Heckler said.

Today, part of the menu is Norma’s, and part is Jo’s. Patrons can still order Norma’s signature chicken salad created with chicken base, lemon juice, mayonnaise, celery, field greens and toasted almonds. And her poppy seed bread and bread pudding remain favorites.

But diners can also enjoy Heckler’s culinary creations, including Jo’s Board, a charcuterie offering a variety of meats, cheeses, and Jo’s “famous white cheddar with raspberry and pimento cheese” garnished with fruit and nuts. Oh, and patrons can also delve into the sandwich created by Heckler’s daughter: Maggie’s Favorite, a unique combo of roast beef and turkey topped with slaw, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on French bread.

While today’s menu is deliciously enticing and easy to talk about, it’s near impossible not to travel decades back to the restaurant’s early days. Sometimes, the vestiges that linger in our minds and hearts swell, bringing tears. For Heckler, emotion surfaces as she recalls the past to explain the present and future.

“I first met Norma in 1988,” Heckler said. “I came home from college in Franklin Springs, Georgia, because my dad was sick. My mom said it was time for me to get a job, so I applied at D.H. Holmes, hoping to work at the cosmetics counter. It was the ’80s, I was about 21, and we liked to wear a lot of makeup. But it turned out that Norma retrieved my application because I had waiting tables experience. She hired me to work with her at the Potpourri Cafe inside D.H. Holmes (which later became Dillard’s) as the head waitress. About three weeks later, Norma went on vacation and left me in charge.”

During this time, Murray was in the process of taking over the restaurant and making it her own, Heckler said.

By August of 1988, the department store eatery became Norma’s Potpourri Cafe. Then, in a sense, it was off to the races for everyone associated with Murray. Over the years, Pensacola’s exceptionally successful female restaurateur opened business after business across the city, including Norma’s at the Pensacola Cultural Center, Norma’s on the Run on Palafox Street, Norma’s by the Bay on Bayfront Parkway, Lee House Bed & Breakfast and Norma’s at Duh on Ninth Avenue.

“In one way or another, I helped her with each and every one,” Heckler reminisced. “I had my foot in everything until 2007 when I stopped to stay home because I had a child.”

After delving into a variety of part-time jobs spanning several years and occasionally helping Murray, including at Lee House, Heckler landed at Norma’s at Duh on Ninth Avenue two years after it opened in 2014. The manager at the time decided to retire around the time Murray announced that she was going on a long trip with her family.

“When Norma came back, I stayed to help,” Heckler said. “That is when she got sick and passed away.”

After many considerations and conversations with her husband and daughter, Dickie and Maggie Heckler, the Murray family, and Duh owners Quinn Stinson and Jim Rigsbee, it was decided that Norma’s at Duh would live on under a new name — Jo’s, as always.

And living it is. It’s a popular spot on Pensacola’s restaurant scene for breakfast, lunch, private parties, bridal and baby showers, birthday celebrations, weddings and much more.

Despite the singular name, Heckler clearly states her business is not a one-woman show. In addition to her immediate family and Duh’s owners, she thanks a long list of people who have helped and supported her along the way, including mother-in-law Cathy “Bobbie” Heckler, friends and colleagues Kathie Sutton, Karen Stewart, Caroline Carithers and many others.

And she never forgets her employees.

“I could not have done this without my staff,” Heckler said.

And stay tuned.

“I love Duh, and the owners of Duh have been a huge part of my success, but I bought a 100-year-old house in East Hill at 12th Avenue and Brainerd,” Heckler said. “A new place for Jo’s is coming.”

No worries. The menus and recipes will be making the move, too!