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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Some Things Never Change
The brand thus has grown beyond Travis Dickey’s wildest imagination. But some things never change. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit still slow smokes all of its meats on-site just the way Travis did in 1941. Its menu has expanded to include beef brisket, pulled pork, St. Louis style ribs, barbecue honey ham, Polish sausage, spicy cheddar sausage, smoked turkey and marinated chicken, with an extensive array of home-style sides from jalapeño beans to macaroni and cheese. Buttery rolls are served with every meal along with complimentary ice cream. And just like always, kids eat free on Sunday, the company says.
Dickey’s philosophy and key to its success appears to be that it has never opted for shortcuts when it comes to smoking its meats, its recipes and its Southern hospitality. But it has tinkered a lot with its offerings over the years. At one time, it offered 12 different meats and 20 vegetables. Some were its core items but others weren’t, Roland Jr. says.
“People at that time wanted a generalized restaurant to go to. Now they want the opposite.” So Dickey’s trimmed its menu to six meats and eight vegetables. But these items can make 28 different entrees. “We take the core items and serve them in a variety of ways. But we make sure the quality is always there.”
Dickey’s has also moved to satisfy consumers’ changing needs and desires. “It’s not about calories anymore but the quality of the food,” Roland Jr. says. That’s why Dickey’s took all nitrites and nitrates out of its meat items. It will start moving to using meat from animals never administered antibiotics within the next year. Chicken will be first in this regard, then pork, followed by pork ribs and sausages.
“The very last will be our briskets (of which Dickey’s buys 40 million lbs. per year),” Roland Jr. says. “They will be the most difficult to source because of the company’s velocity of growth and the lack of supply. Besides, the prices are outrageous for what is currently available.”
Briskets account for more than half of the 75 million lbs. of meat that Dickey’s procures annually. Other items are St. Louis-style spare ribs, pork butts, chicken breasts, and beef and pork sausages.
Regarding its procurement strategy, Dickey’s works very closely with each of its vendors, whether they are center-of-the-plate or sides suppliers, Roland Jr. says. It used to have 35 vendors but has cut that number in half. Having fewer vendors means better relationships, he says. Roland Jr. has discussions with vendors to develop new products.
With brisket as its biggest meat buy, Dickey’s buys both on the spot market and takes a longer pricing position, based on what the market is doing, Roland Jr. says. In mid-May, Dickey’s was buying briskets for $2.23 per lb. The chain has a monthly newsletter that goes to franchisees, to keep them aware of prices paid by competitors, he says.
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Re-Investing in the Future
Dickey’s faces some of the same operational challenges that other restaurant chains deal with. To counter them, it re-invests heavily in the company and uses technology extensively to monitor every aspect of its business, Roland Jr. says. With wife Laura as CIO, Dickey’s is rolling out more and more technology platforms, such as enterprise management and catering systems. It initially developed a lot of its technology in-house, but now sources half of it from outside, he says.
A special operational challenge is how the meat is cooked. “Barbecue is an art form but we’ve done our best to make it as scientific as possible,” Roland Jr. says. “We cook a brisket for 14 hours, so someone has to go in and constantly make sure it is being cooked properly. The meat quality is absolutely gold to us and there are so many things that can go wrong, unlike in a hamburger restaurant.
“You really have to take care of the meat and train people properly,” he adds. Every restaurant has a Pit Boss (the manager) while a Pit Master oversees the cooking and the serving of the meat. Members of the Pit Crew handle the vegetables and everything else.
Dickey’s has a Barbecue Univ. at its Dallas headquarters to train the staff of every one of its restaurants. Franchise owners are required to attend on-site training at the university for one month. Dickey’s also offers online training courses that are required for every company employee, and they have to pass the qualifications for their work level.
As for labor and other cost issues, Dickey’s is no different than other restaurant chains, Roland Jr. says. But there certainly is more cost pressure on restaurants than ever before. This particularly affects franchisees that have often saved up a “nest egg” to buy a franchise. They are using it to invest in a business and employ people. But they are more and more burdened with costs, he says.
“If you burden a new business too much, the risk-versus-reward ratio becomes lopsided,” Roland Jr. says. This certainly makes Dickey’s goal of moving to 700 stores a challenge, he adds.
As a privately held company, Dickey’s won’t disclose its specific financial results, but it has had, to date, a compounded annual growth rate of about 25 percent and will have about $500 million in sales over the next year, Roland Jr. says. These are numbers that would surely make Travis Dickey proud.
550 — current number of Dickey’s restaurants, in 43 states
150 — number of stores Dickey’s plans to add in the next 12 months
$500 M — estimated sales for Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in the coming year
75 M — lbs. of meat procured by Dickey’s each year
40 M — lbs. of brisket Dickey’s sells each year
14 HRS — cook time for Dickey’s beef brisket, which are all cooked on-site