Founded in 1991, the National Barbecue & Grilling Association (NBBQA) prides itself on helping members “become successful in the business of barbecue; turning vision into fruition and passion into profit.” During the association’s annual conference, attendees always have the opportunity to attend educational sessions and cooking demonstrations focused on strategies and tips to transform their hobbies into careers. This past April, attendees packed the Downtown Marriott ballroom in Kansas City, Missouri, to hear about the realities of what it takes to become a barbecue legend. This year, NBBQA hosted a panel discussion, “Meet the Masters,” to get the perspective of some of the industry’s legends who shared stories about some of the hard knocks that accompanied their rise to barbecue stardom.
One of the panelists, Myron Mixon, is billed as “the winningest man in barbecue.” Mixon personifies for many what living the barbecue dream is. A successful pit master who evolved to become the brand behind many other spin-off ventures, Mixon doesn’t sugar coat his journey to the top. The well-decorated competition cook, restaurateur, cookbook author and a celebrity judge on cable TV’s “BBQ Pitmasters” from 2009-2015, has also launched a line of sauces, rubs and premium smokers.
He is the first to admit, however, that his success hasn’t come without plenty of headaches and years of nonstop work. Mixon is quick to point out that transitioning from an accomplished competition cook to selling products and equipment isn’t necessarily a journey “that’s just paved with gold and all you’ve got to do is just bend over and pick up hundred-dollar bills. That ain’t generally how it works,” he said with a wry smirk.
Too often, he said, a competition cook might decide for example, to go into the sauce business with the strategy that they will mass produce their signature sauce, store it in their garage, “and then wait for Walmart to come bang on their damn door. And even if they did, Walmart isn’t where you want to be,” he said, adding that the profitability of working with the big box stores is typically a hindrance to most start-ups. Often, it is more beneficial to sell products online or from a retail storefront or through partnerships with independently owned stores, including outlets like Ace Hardware stores, where Mixon’s company is selling Myron Mixon branded products, from rubs and sauces to his branded pellet-fueled smoker. He said independently operated retailers like Ace represent his brand better than the big box stores can. “I don’t have anything against the big box stores, but for me at the end of the day it’s about how much money are you making; it’s about how much you are getting paid.”
Success didn’t come easy. “It’s a lot of hard work just like anything else you do,” he says. “The barbecue lifestyle and barbecue businesses aren’t any easier than any other businesses. You’ve got to work it; you’ve got to keep your nose to the grindstone, and you’ve got to make the right choices or you’re not going to succeed.
“I don’t want to throw water on anyone’s dream,” Mixon said, “but you have got to work your dream. It ain’t going to happen just because you want it to; you’ve got to make it happen.”
Passion pays off
Junior Urias echoes Mixon’s sentiment that making a living out of a hobby, which for him started when he was 12 years old, is easier said than done. His Midland, Texas-based Up in Smoke BBQ Co. was a product of his humble beginnings as a successful competition cook. He learned his craft by working with his father, who for years cooked at camps for ranchers all around West Texas. Cooking over an open fire was the norm, he said and it’s what lit the fire in Urias that would land him in the competition circuit years later. His next step was to take what he learned cooking for ranchers and began cooking at barbecue competitions, which was where he earned a reputation for his ability to produce award-winning meat. Within a couple of years, he realized that while competing and cooking in contests was enjoyable, “I needed to make real money for my family,” and he knew he wanted to pursue a career in barbecue. Following his dream, Urias built a food truck and started a barbecue business close to home. “I built me a trailer; nothing special, but I was able to go and serve food in front of my house,” he said of the leap of faith to start a catering business to capitalize on his passion. “I had to do that because, you know, I didn’t have a restaurant and I didn’t have the money to park (the trailer) downtown.”
“What kept me doing it was the passion for barbecue,” he said, and with perseverance, hard work and some negotiations with the bank, Urias finally invested $175,000 to get a restaurant started, unfortunately at the same time the oil industry in the Midland area took a dive. Many sleepless nights ensued and he said he couldn’t help but think he had risked his family’s future in pursuit of his dream. “I thought, ‘this is the end of Up in Smoke BBQ,’” he said. However, thanks to even more hard work and the support of his family, the business survived, and that restaurant did open. Today, Up in Smoke routinely has two or three catering jobs scheduled each day and the restaurant is successful enough to only be open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, “and we have lines out the door. The only things that helped me was my passion for barbecue and my family helping me through the hard times,” he said.
A steady and measured business approach has also been the strategy of Greg and Kristina Gaardbo, founders of Palatine, Illinois-based Chicago Culinary Kitchen, the culmination of the couple’s raucous passion for craft beer and premium, slow-cooked meat. Greg, a former US Marine and Kristina, a former registered nurse, took a chance on making a living selling food when they opened Rockin Rodizio about seven years ago, first focusing on Texas-style barbecue with a Brazilian flair for catered events.
Back then the goal was selling products at special events and festivals from a food truck. Since then the operations have expanded to include operating a restaurant that is, like many Texas barbecue joints, open just two days per week, from 11 a.m. until the food is gone, with hungry diners typically lined up 50-deep in the morning, waiting for the door to open.
“We’re making you the freshest food possible,” Greg said. “We’re making X amount and when it’s done, it’s done,” he said, a concept many people don’t understand. “Once you’ve trained your customer that you’re open at that time, that’s pretty much when they are coming,” he said. The company maintains a mobile pit still and operates a food truck at festivals where he knows there will be profit made.
Jeffrey Rumaner, also known as “Stretch,” is a Kansas City-based sculptor-turned-restaurateur who admits never taking a business class, relying on his instinct to grow his food businesses. He founded his first restaurant in 2004, in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. Looking back 15 years and the lessons he’s learned Rumaner said, “What it comes down to is business and time management.” He added that managing the people representing your brand can be the most challenging part of working in the barbecue business.
With four eateries and about 180 employees, Rumaner is pulled in many directions, he said and managing the chaos is challenging but rewarding. In his travels, he is continuously approached by aspiring entrepreneurs seeking advice. “Every time someone comes up and says, ‘Stretch, I want to open up my own restaurant,’ I always say, ‘Why – why do you want to do that? Why do you want the hassle? You can be a great chef and enjoy it, let someone else pay you and go home at night and sleep.’”
Sparing any candy coating, he said once the brick and mortar is your own, the cost of ownership includes sacrificing rest, strained relationships with friends and family and much more. “At the same time, it’s super rewarding, it really is. Knowing at the end of the day that you’re successful. But it is a grind,” and looking to and planning for the future is critical.