When Dave Anderson started Famous Dave’s in Hayward, Wis., 25 years ago, his plan was to smoke up a couple cases of ribs and then go fishing. He had no idea that people would drive 100 miles to eat ribs, brisket and corn muffins. At its peak, the barbecue chain grew to 200 locations across the country. It is now at more than 130 locations in 33 states and three countries. After a period of revolving CEOs who paid little attention to Anderson’s core beliefs, he says current CEO Jeff Crivello has put the restaurant chain back on track. Its smaller, neighborhood-focused restaurants are still using original recipes side by side with healthier alternatives. The two sat down for an interview last week at the corporate office in Minnetonka:
Q: Dave, when you started your first restaurant in Hayward 25 years ago, did anyone tell you that barbecue was not really an upper Midwestern thing?
Anderson: They did more than just tell me that. They laughed. When we were building the first one, people would drive up and say, “What are you doing?” I’d say I’m building a rib joint and they’d say “Are you crazy? There’s nothing but Swedes and Norwegians up here in Hayward. Nobody knows what a barbecue joint is here. Why aren’t you doing this in Nashville, Memphis or Kansas City?” Who knew that by the end of the summer in a town of 2,000 people, we were serving almost 6,000 a week.
Q: What convinced you that it could succeed?
Anderson: I had a cabin up there and would hold backyard barbecue parties and at some point people would come and say, “Anderson, why aren’t you selling this? You should open up a restaurant.” I don’t think I ever thought it would grow until people starting poking me in the chest and saying, “When are you putting one of these in my town?”
Q: Competition is fierce among restaurants, whether its barbecue, pizza or burgers. Smokey Bones, Tona Roma, TGI Fridays and Chili’s are hurting. How do you stay alive?
Crivello: Competition has become brutal in the last 10 years. As the market has evolved from full service to counter service, the quality of the food has been downgraded in most counter-serve models. We’re going to stick to the great food we’ve always served for 25 years. When Dave started he said someone must be willing to drive 100 miles to have the ribs or another favorite and that has helped us stand the test of time.
Q: How is barbecue different from pizza or burgers?
Anderson: Barbecue typically has more of an everyday appeal down South. So we have to offer just plain good food.
Crivello: We’ve added turkey, doughnuts, salads, bowls, and Beyond Meat to cast a wider net. We’re trying to attract a lower age demographic. They’re the ones buying the non-barbecue items. But we have core items that we don’t mess with called the third rail — ribs, brisket and corn muffins.
Q: Jeff, what kind of an imprint has Dave made on Famous Dave’s that does not relate to food?
Crivello: Both Dave and his family have made huge philanthropic efforts, giving millions of dollars to work with Native American schools and at-risk youth in inner-city and rural areas. He’s brought the management team to personal development seminars called Life Skills. Our general managers’ tenure, at 10-years plus, is unheard of in this business.
Anderson: I grew up on the west side of Chicago never thinking I could succeed in life. I was like the dumbest kid in class with Native American parents. There were a lot of struggles in my early years. I always felt a need to pay it forward. I realized that if we were going to be successful, we had to grow people who genuinely believed they could be successful. Our training program put the focus on people rather than the history and products. Most companies say, “Here’s our product line and our goal,” and they tap you on the butt and say “Go get ‘em tiger.” We created leadership from the heart.
Q: Dave, how did you get into barbecue?
Anderson: I never got into it as much as I was born into it. When my dad, who’s from Oklahoma, married my mom after the war in 1945, they moved to Chicago because that’s where all the jobs were. My dad used to haul my mom down south every other weekend to learn how to make fried chicken. That was the intensity for barbecue. I knew my family was different because when all the other kids were going out for burgers and pizza, we went to the south side of Chicago for rib tips. I can remember eating at Lem’s Bar-B-Q, a black-owned barbecue joint at 59th and State Street as early as 1959.
Q: Jeff, how are you celebrating the anniversary?
Crivello: We’re doing Famous Deals with $3 burgers on Mondays, $2 ribs on Tuesdays, $4 pork sandwiches on Wednesdays and $5 hand-breaded chicken sandwiches on Thursdays.
Q: Dave, what does Jeff bring to the table?
Anderson: First, he grew up eating Famous Dave’s. He’s willing to take on the hard stuff to become a stronger company. For any restaurant to be around 25 years is not so much a testament of what happens in the ivory tower but what happens in the restaurants. Jeff and I both realize that the most important people in the company are the ones that are belly to belly with our guests.