I grew up in the heartland on a small family farm and then went to Kansas State University and majored in agriculture. After working at John Deere, I did the logical thing and left a very promising career to start a barbecue joint.
Kansas City is a big barbecue city, so I was introduced to it in college. I kind of kept it in the back of my head and smoked barbecue as a hobby here and there. When I was ready to try something on my own, I couldn’t get this idea out of my head. It was truly a bootstrap deal where we were building the tables ourselves and trying to get the first one open. I think an advantage was that I was not in the restaurant business, so I kind of looked at things differently. John Deere was an excellent training ground even though it was something totally different; business is still business in how you build teams and market your product. We gave it a shot, and it worked out. We’re having a good time selling barbecue.
I love the term “menu development,” because back in 1999 it was, what do we think tastes good and will people buy it? The barbecue itself is what we call competition quality, so we’re not trying to copy regions. Having said that, the ribs probably remind you a bit of Kansas City, but our brisket is more of a Texas style, and the pork is a little more North Carolina. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to make the best we know how to make.
Two years ago we partnered with Freeman Spogli & Co. That’s been tremendous, so we’re growing a bit faster, but we don’t want to lose the culture, values, and terrific food. We’ve had the same values since day 1. We will never reduce our quality to save expenses; we’ll only keep it or enhance it. When you have that north star, it makes decision-making very easy.
The old thought process was that barbecue was so regional. If you were a North Carolina company going to Texas, you’d fail. This country has people from different places living everywhere, so regionality gets diminished. I could spend three days just doing a barbecue trail in New York City. Who would’ve thought that 20 years ago?
What was your first job?
Because I grew up on a farm, I worked on the farm, so my first official duty was watering the chickens. I was driving a tractor by the time I was 10.
How did you come up with the brand name?
One of our founding partners had this philosophy on the city being the great gathering spot of people and a communal thing. I said, “OK, that’s interesting, but I just need a name, so let’s go with it because I can’t think of a better one.”
What’s your favorite menu item at City Barbeque?
If it was my last meal I’d probably go with brisket. It’s a great product, and it’s what we’re known for.
What’s the best piece of advice you think restaurant leaders should hear?
Do everything you can to build a great team, as simple as that. It sounds easy and flippant, but it’s the truth.
What are some of your interests outside of the business?
It’s really relaxing to go on a motorcycle trip. I’ve been doing that since chasing cattle as a kid. We didn’t have horses because dad said you didn’t have to feed a motorcycle during the winter, so we used motorcycles to round up cattle. I really enjoy aviation and have flown several different airplanes, and now I have a fun, little two-seater plane.