Famous Dave's recipe for success

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2012 - 4:37 PM

The semiretired barbecue king is a humble guy who wants to make a difference.

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Famous Dave (Dave Anderson) hosted a barbecue and screening at his home.

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"Famous Dave" Anderson is the knife-and-sauce-wielding founder of the barbecue chain.

Recently inducted into the Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame, the 59-year-old Anderson has been in one business or another since he was a one-man floral wholesaler out of high school.

He started Famous Dave's in 1994 with one restaurant. Today, publicly traded Famous Dave's operates nearly 200 restaurants in 33 states. Anderson, out of day-to-day management for years, is a semiretired Famous Dave's recipe developer and pitchman.

He's also a motivational speaker, philanthropist, mentor and humble guy who lives in a nice house in Edina and drives a 10-year-old SUV. Anderson has been honored for his charity and youth work and even got an "Angel Award" from Oprah Winfrey.

"I live my life as a grateful person, and my purpose is to make a positive difference in the lives of others," Anderson said the other day.

His path to celebrity entrepreneur and millionaire was no trouble-free moonshot.

Anderson, an American Indian, barely made it through high school, thanks to an undiagnosed learning disability. He's had business success, but he also knows the shame of bankruptcy and having to pawn his wife's jewelry to make ends meet 30-plus years ago.

And then there was the early-morning collision and triple-flip off a highway median that nearly killed him in 1995, pretty much ending a 25-year-career as an after-hours boozer. The barbecue king and author of several self-published books wrote a book about his addiction and recovery called "Getting Sauced!"

"I should have been dead three times related to drinking," Anderson recalled. "But I had a loving wife who never gave up on me."

Dave and Kathy Anderson's foundation, the LifeSkills Center for Leadership, has invested about $10 million in thousands of needy families and put more than 4,000 disadvantaged kids through a program that has helped most improve academic performance.

'May be generous to a fault'

Milo Arkema, a retired accountant who is a financial adviser to Anderson, said his client's generosity means he's not as rich as he was a few years ago. That's partly due to philanthropy and a few investments that didn't work.

"He's not a cunning businessperson, but he is transparent," Arkema said. "I don't think he ever loved money.

"Satisfying people through food or entertainment or seeing people turn around lives means more to him than money. And he may be generous to a fault. His wife, Kathy, is a better money manager. We kind of put a little wall around him. It's hard to keep him from being too generous. He follows his heart."

Anderson grew up in Chicago, the son of a Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma and a mother from an Ojibway tribe near Hayward.

They sent Dave Anderson to a private school in Chicago, but he scored poorly because of what is now known as attention deficit disorder. Anderson learned the wholesale floral trade from a mentor and ran it until a rough Chicago winter and recession put him out of business.

He moved to Hayward at the invitation of his mother's tribe to turn around several money-losing businesses. He gained notoriety for having businesses join the local chamber of commerce, embrace the greater community "and put more fish back in the local lakes than we were taking out," he recalled. Anderson was named to the Wisconsin tourism council by the governor. That was followed by a Bush Leadership Fellowship, and his master's degree at Harvard.

Real love was cooking

Anderson made money helping Minneapolis gaming entrepreneur Lyle Berman establish Indian-gaming company Grand Casinos more than 20 years ago. But his real love was cooking, from his mother's fry bread to the barbecue style that he learned from his father.

"My dad would bring us to Eddie's Real Pit Smoked Bar-B-Que that was located in Logan Square right across from a Chicago police station. Eddie's had a real wood fire pit," Anderson said. "When you walked ... you could hear the chomp, chomp of the pitmaster's cleaver splitting the ribs."

Anderson was an early investor in Berman's Rainforest Cafe. He invested some of his winnings in the first Famous Dave's in Hayward.

"People in Hayward asked, 'Are you nuts?' There are only 1,800 people in town and they are all Norwegians and Swedes," he said. "But I would tell those naysayers that there was no question in my mind that I was going to build the best BBQ joint in town ... the best ribs, best chicken, best honey-buttered corn bread, coleslaw, baked beans ... and by the end of that summer ... we were serving 4,000 to 5,000 people a week ... from Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay."

Famous Dave's grew quickly and went public. Anderson left the board to become head of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2004 and 2005.

Today, Anderson says he still has fun promoting Famous Dave's. But pure joy comes from working with his son, James, a speaker and trainer, with small groups of disadvantaged kids.

"I used to get a kick out of my notoriety," Anderson said. "Now it's making a difference and seeing kids believe in themselves."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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