Bona-fide barbecue

by Larry Aylward
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Brian Bailey’s blood should be checked for barbecue sauce. Considering his passion for barbecue, it’s possible a vinegar-based concoction is flowing through his veins.

Bailey isn’t from Texas, Tennessee or the Carolinas – three hotbeds of barbecue – but he could be. Growing up in Canton, Ohio, when other kids wanted hamburgers and fries for dinner, Bailey craved barbecued ribs.

His mother would oblige him, cutting a slab of baby-back ribs in half, placing them in a Crock-Pot and dousing them with barbecue sauce. When they were done cooking, Bailey pigged out (pun intended) with a stack of napkins at hand.

Old Carolina uses bone-in pork butts that cook in smokers for up to 14 hours.

When Bailey grew up, his affinity for barbecue didn’t change — it only got stronger. After eating at legendary barbecue joints around the country, he began to learn about what he now calls “real barbecue.”

“I learned that barbecue is not being cooked low and slow in the Crock-Pot,” he says.

Bailey, the co-founder of North Canton, Ohio-based Old Carolina Barbecue Co., now knows that barbecue is defined as quality cuts of meat and poultry placed in a wood-burning smoker and cooked at low temperatures for hours to make them so tender and tasty that people would shun Crock-Pot barbecue for life. And Bailey has brought that thinking to Old Carolina, which now includes 10 restaurants in Ohio and Michigan – and counting.

Bailey’s isn’t the only foodservice operator bringing real barbecue to the masses. Dallas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and Minneapolis-based Famous Dave’s have been doing so for years, offering everything from ribs to pulled pork to brisket to chicken to turkey to ham to sausage.

The three chains are as serious about barbecue as BB King is about the Blues. Their restaurants cook on-site with huge smokers – commissaries are disdained – that permeate meat and poultry overnight with wood smoke for several hours at a time. It’s no surprise that the Daily Meal recently cited the three chains in its “Top 10 Best Barbecue Chains in America” list.

Dave Anderson, who’s just as passionate about barbecue as Bailey, founded Famous Dave’s in 1994. While Anderson is still the chain’s chairman emeritus, he’s basically retired. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t an influence on the chain’s 200-plus restaurants in 34 states.

Dave Anderson, founder of Famous Dave's, says it's a badge of honor to for a supplier to sell meat to his restaurants.

There were three other barbecue restaurants in Minneapolis when Famous Dave’s opened its first. Today, there are 41.

“But our sales haven’t suffered,” Anderson says. “I don’t want to say we’re not concerned, but we’re very happy to see the proliferation of barbecue joints exploding across the country. Because all that is doing is creating more market awareness.”

Dickey’s, which began in 1941, has expanded rapidly the past three years and now has 401 restaurants throughout the country. Jeff Forrester, Dickey’s vice president of purchasing and research and development, isn’t surprised the chain has grown so quickly, noting that people are fascinated by real barbecue’s low-and-slow cooking process.

“We’re taking Texas barbecue nationally,” he says. “But we never would’ve grown to this size unless we would’ve been absolutely fanatical about our product.”

The original passion

Anderson’s passion is reflected in his unwillingness to cave to using product that didn’t meet his high expectations.

“I remember a time when Famous Dave’s was just starting. I was buying ribs from a vendor in Chicago, and we were having difficulty with shiners, ribs shaped like neckties and miscounts on the number of bones in a slab,” Anderson recalls.

He became so frustrated that he went to every Famous Dave’s restaurant (there were six at the time), gathered the ribs that weren’t up to his specifications and drove all night from Minneapolis to Chicago to return the ribs to the packer who sold them. And, boy, did he return them: Anderson heaved the bad ribs down the stairs as the owner walked up them to enter the plant.

“The point was made that I wasn’t going to accept out-of-spec ribs,” Anderson says.

When Bailey quit a career as a software salesman to begin Old Carolina, he knew it was a risk. But he was answering a savory calling to bring “real barbecue” to Northeast Ohio, where a lot of consumers think burgers on the grill is just that.

Bailey traveled to the Carolinas, where he spent countless hours eating at barbecue shacks and talking to the owners of those restaurants about their crafts before he embarked on his barbecue venture.

“You do what you love, and you never have to work a day in your life,” Bailey says.

In 2003, Bailey began Old Carolina, but not in the form of a restaurant. He entered the “ribber circuit,” participating at rib cookoff events in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia with the idea to perfect recipes, grow the brand and earn enough money to open his first restaurant.

At his first rib cookoff in Akron, Ohio, Bailey remembers being awake almost 60 hours straight.

“I had a vision,” says Bailey, who opened his first Old Carolina Barbecue in Massillon, Ohio, in 2006.

Dickey's is taking Texas barbecue to 'que lovers nationwide.

So did Travis Dickey, who opened his first Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Dallas in 1941. The fact that Dickey’s is a third-generation family business says something about the passion of the people running it.

Dickey’s first menu included only two meat items – beef brisket and pit hams. The space on the restaurant’s menu was rented out to help pay the restaurant’s start-up costs.

Brothers Roland Dickey and TD Dickey Jr. took over the business in 1967. Dickey’s expanded throughout the Dallas/Ft. Worth area under their direction and began franchising in 1994.

Roland Dickey Jr. became president of the company in 2006. Dickey’s claims to be the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the country.

“When Travis Dickey started this concept, he was very passionate about barbecue and very passionate about the quality of barbecue products that we turned out,” Forrester says. “He passed it along to his sons, who came into the business understanding the passion their father had.”

Meat of the matter

Old Carolina, Dickey’s and Famous Dave’s didn’t become popular because of their barbecue sauces.

“Barbecue is about the meat,” Bailey says. “The sauce should be a complement, not a cover-up.”

Jeff Forrester, Dickey's vice president of purchasing and R&D, says people are fascinated by the low and slow cooking process.

Forrester says: “It’s about the quality of the meat and the rub on the meat and the time the meat spends being kissed by that hickory smoke.”

Like a goody two-shoed kid who’s careful of who he selects for friends, the three barbecue chains are careful of who they select as meat vendors.

“[Getting] quality products is a never-ending battle,” Anderson says. “You have to pay attention on a daily basis.”

Anderson raves about his rib supplier, Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, which he says adheres to the “highest standards.”

“Every case of ribs has a stamp of the packer who packed the box,” Anderson says.

Once upon a time, when Famous Dave’s began, Anderson was told that his specs and standards for meat products were too high. But times have changed, now that Famous Dave’s is known as one of the top barbecue chains in the country.

“Today, it’s a badge of honor to say that you can sell to Famous Dave’s,” he says.

As the chain has grown, Old Carolina has been able to deal directly with meatpackers instead of distributors, which is crucial to attain consistent product, Bailey says. In the beginning of the operation, some distributors would advise Bailey on how he could save money, like buying precooked product. But Bailey wanted no part of that.

"Barbecue is about the meat," says Old Carolina's Brian Bailey.

Old Carolina uses 7-lb. to 9-lb. bone-in pork butts, which cook in restaurant smokers for up to 14 hours. The chain purchases briskets from several vendors, ranging in weight from 11 lbs. to 13 lbs.; the similar-sized briskets can be cooked at the same time, about 10 hours, in one smoker.

As a restaurant chain, Dickey’s consumes more beef brisket than any chain in the country, Forrester says, which has posed challenges at times with supplies because Dickey’s specs its briskets to have a certain amount of fat trim.

“At some points, it has been tough for our packing partners to come up with enough product to keep us in supply,” Forrester says.

Dickey’s is also known for its St. Louis-style spareribs, which provide the chain with the ability to maintain consistency because the ribs are similar in size and shape, Forrester says. St. Louis-cut spareribs are also meatier and less fatty.

“The meat-to-bone ratio is phenomenal,” Forrester adds. “[Consumers] are getting more rib for the money.”

But rising beef and pork prices could affect the three chains’ offerings.

“We constantly have to do long-range planning, and we contract long-term as much as we can,” Anderson says. “So, we’re looking at new ways to introduce other protein products like smoked turkey. We never really carried turkey products in the past, but we feel this will be an excellent alternative and the per-pound pricing is affordable.”

Anderson says many chef-driven barbecue restaurants are experimenting with meat cuts not known as traditional barbecue, such as pork belly, pig cheek and oxtail. He says rising meat prices may be the reason they’re experimenting with cheaper cuts of meat.

Old Carolina has introduced new barbecue meats through limited-time offerings. Last year, Old Carolina did an eight-week promotion with smoked shanks, which it marketed as pig wings. This summer it will offer smoked chicken wings.

“We want to offer some variety,” says Bailey, noting the chain may implement a short-term promotion featuring barbecued mutton. Bailey is also considering testing smoked sausage on the menu.

Dickey’s is also testing less-expensive meat cuts in its research and development lab, says Forrester, who points out that the brisket was considered a “lesser meat” for years.

Preserving the passion

Even though he’s no longer involved with Famous Dave’s daily operations, Anderson believes the passion he instilled in the business still thrives.

“I think anyone visiting a Famous Dave’s will tell right away there’s definitely passion shared by all our staff,” he says.

Passion is a topic that Famous Dave’s management talks about frequently. When new employees are hired, they are shown a video about Anderson that details, among other things, the painstaking time he took in developing the restaurant’s menu and mission.

“We hire for passion, and we train with passion,” Anderson says.

Famous Dave’s operates corporate-owned and franchise-owned restaurants, the latter run by area developers, who own other chains, such as McDonald’s and Applebee’s.

“These area developers have a proven track record of success,” Anderson says.

Being a successful chain is about more than just the barbecue, says Bailey, who wants his employees to “feel” a connection to the food they serve.

Brian Bailey, co-founder of Old Carolina Barbecue Co., quit a career as a software salesman to bring "real barbecue" to Northeast Ohio.

“It has to be about the feeling, the story and the emotional connection that people can have to the Carolinas,” Bailey adds.

Bailey prefers to sell franchisees to “foodies who believe in this style of barbecue.” Franchisees have strict guidelines to follow and must stay on point, which means “steak night” is out of the question.

“That’s not what we’re about,” says Bailey, noting he’s not afraid to turn down franchisees.

Bailey is too busy to visit the corporate restaurants as much as he’d like, but he’s not far away. Every two years he takes the restaurant managers to the Carolinas to tour the barbecue places he once frequented to learn the craft.

Dickey’s seeks franchisees who want to be part of the chain’s culture – or “barbecue evangelism,” as Forrester puts it.

“Not everybody does qualify and can be part of this culture,” Forrester says. “That’s not because we’re elitist. You have to really understand how passionate we are and buy into this lifestyle.”

Franchisees come to Dallas, where they are trained for three weeks.

“They learn how to produce quality product, and they learn what it means to be a part of our brand,” Forrester says. “They also learn what it means to make barbecue go boom, which is about being the biggest and best at something. To be the biggest means nothing if you’re not the best.”

Then again, the real barbecue experts settle for nothing but the best.

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