Smokin’ Success

by Steve Kay
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Dickey's Barbecue Pit continues its legacy 75 years later. 

World War I veteran Travis Dickey loved to smoke meat so much he decided to open his own barbecue joint in 1941 in Dallas. Little did he know that 75 years later Dickey’s Barbecue Pit would be the largest barbecue chain in the US, with 550 locations in 43 states. Travis would be rolling over if he saw the growth, says grandson Roland Dickey Jr., who became the chain’s CEO in 2006. But he might not be surprised that the chain’s success depends, even today, on the way he smoked his meat.

“Travis was literally the classic American barbecue artisan,” Roland Jr. recalls. “He loved to smoke anything he could lay his hands on. He even smoked more than five packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and he made it to 69 years of age. I don’t know how he did it.”

It might have been Travis’ great love of authentic, slow-smoked barbecue, his zest for life and his gift of the gab that took him to 69.

Another secret to his success was that Dickey’s Barbecue Pit was truly a family operation. In the beginning, Travis “worked the block” and his wife, known as Miss Ollie Dickey, served sandwiches and was the bookkeeper. Space on the restaurant sign was rented out to help pay the start-up costs for the restaurant and the menu was limited to beef brisket, pit hams, barbecue beans, potato chips, beer, bottled milk and sodas.

Dickey’s, like many other US meat-related companies, has always been a family business. Brothers Roland and T.D. Dickey took over the business in 1967, continuing their father’s legacy of quality, smoked signature meats. Under their leadership, Dickey’s expanded throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It quickly became known throughout Texas for mouthwatering hickory-smoked barbecue, popular catered events and its iconic Big Yellow Cups.

Dickey’s had grown by the early 1990s to 14 company stores. It wasn’t really planning to offer franchises but as Roland Jr. says, “Dad had one persistent customer who kept asking him to sell him a franchise. So he did to shut him up.”

That was in 1994. Roland Jr. joined the business in 1999 when it had 19 stores but still all in the Dallas area. Its biggest competitor had 25 stores, so Dickey’s used franchising to add three or four stores per year.

“But we then decided to either stop growing or expand outside of our home market,” Roland Jr. says. Its national rollout began in 2011 and it has since added more than 80 stores per year. The business had to add a lot of infrastructure to grow like this but it also realized franchising was an efficient use of capital, he says. All but seven of Dickey’s 550 stores are now franchisee-owned. Those seven, all in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are corporate owned.

Roland Jr. recalls that during the growth spurt, his wife Laura, the company’s chief information officer, gave him a book titled, “Nail It Then Scale It.” “That’s what we’ve done,” he says. Dickey’s next goal is to have 700 stores a year from now in at least 44 states.

Dickey’s today remains firmly a family business. Roland Sr. is chairman and spokesman for the company. His wife, Maurine, chairs “Barbecue, Boots & Badges,” a charity for firemen, police and other first responders.

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