Dan Janssen, owner of the Rub Bar-B-Que in Olathe, Kansas.

New and Different 

Building a successful new barbecue business can be a challenge in any location, but inside the barbecue belt it might be easier said than done. No one knows this better than Dan Janssen, owner of The Rub Bar-B-Que in Olathe, Kansas.

With more than 20 years in the restaurant industry under his belt – 15 years with Applebee’s – Janssen decided in 2011 to pursue his dream of opening up his own place. It would have been easier in the Kansas City market to open any other type of restaurant other than barbecue – but Janssen’s love of cooking barbecue that he discovered on the competition circuit led him to opening up yet another barbecue restaurant in a city that has more than its share.

“Barbecue in Kansas City is the toughest restaurant market to get into,” Janssen explains. “There are 105 to 110 barbecue restaurants within 35 or so miles. The competition is fierce.”

The Kansas City barbecue market is made up of iconic Kansas City establishments such as Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Gates, Arthur Bryant’s and Jack Stack, so Janssen knew he would have to differentiate his restaurant from the competition. The first step was building a unique menu.

While his protein choices were the same as most barbecue joints in town – pulled pork, ribs, brisket, burnt ends, sausage, smoked chicken, turkey and ham – The Rub featured a few dishes that couldn’t be found anywhere else in town. Enter, the barbecue bowl.

“I wanted to come up with an idea that was different, something that was unique to our restaurant,” Janssen says. “The bowls are cutting edge – no one else had them when we opened.”

When the eatery opened in 2011, there were two bowls on the menu – the Hash Bowl and the Hillbilly Bowl. The Hash Bowl features fried potatoes, sautéed peppers and onions, four types of meat (chicken, sausage, pulled pork and burnt ends), topped with jalapeño cheese and onion straws. It’s the No. 2 item on the menu. The Hillbilly Bowl consists of sugar-crusted cornbread, topped with beans, choice of meat and onion straws.

Today, customers can also dine on a Nebraska Bowl (cheesy corn, baked beans, pulled pork and sausage topped with onion straws) or a Baked Potato Bowl (baked potato topped with choice of meat, cheese, butter, sour cream and onion straws).

The biggest challenge, aside from differentiation, according to Janssen, is staying profitable when the cost of goods is so high. “With barbecue restaurants being protein based, the cost of goods is higher than some other restaurants. With eight proteins on our menu, there’s no way to get around those costs.”

Janssen learned from Day 1 that the best way to build up his profits and his business at the same time was to expand into catering. “Barbecue lends itself to catering – it packages up easily and travels well,” he says.

In its first year, 6 percent of The Rub’s profits came from catering. By Year 2, it was up to 20 percent, and Year 3 it was 30 percent. Now The Rub brings in 55 percent in catering from weddings, corporate events, lunch groups, school functions and sporting events.

“We’ve gotten a name for ourselves now through our catering business,” he explains. If the popularity of the catering continues, the restaurant might have to get an off-site facility to fulfill the orders.

The Rub also is creating some buzz from its cooking classes. The classes include Brisket for Beginners, Ribs for Beginners and BBQ Pork for Beginners. “The classes aren’t revenue drivers, but they help create the social media buzz that you need to be successful,” Janssen says. “Fifteen years ago, you would market yourself on radio, but today social media is so much more influential. It’s hard to quantify what success is – but if you pull back that buzz will disappear and that’s never good.