Famous Dave’s: A Quarter Century of BBQ Evolution
9 Min Read By MRM Staff
Famous Dave's is one restaurant brand that evokes salivation satisfaction. Recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Minneapolis-based restaurant franchise was founded on Dave Anderson's passion for BBQ. While the brand has grown to 130 locations in 33 states and three countries and sells 14 million pounds of pork annually, it is constantly evolving. This evolution includes the introduction of a new smaller 3,000-7,000-square foot footprint, more tech-savvy concept that features a bar-centric atmosphere, tabletop ordering, kiosks and new appetizer items with 5-10 units in the works currently set to open in 2020. Another evolution: nearly 50 percent of Famous Dave’s business is now offsite, compared to 30 percent just five years ago – the brand will open four of its first drive-thru locations next year and is focused on adding locations in Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, Detroit and around Wisconsin
Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine quizzed Anderson and Sr. Director, Strategy and Franchise Operations Al Hank about about brand evolution, restaurant industry challenges and even, plant-based BBQ.
What are some of the factors you attribute 25 years of success?
Perseverance, obsessive devotion to making people happy. There was a great amount of homework that went into the original concept. I spent 20 years working on my recipes before I opened up my first Famous Dave’s restaurant. All of these recipes are award-winning recipes that have withstood the test of time.
Famous Dave's has more sku's in retail stores than any other restaurant company and that is a testament to the quality of the recipes we have created.
Famous Dave's has more sku's in retail stores than any other restaurant company and that is a testament to the quality of the recipes we have created. We're the only restaurant company that is in Walmart, Sams Club, Menards Costco and Target. Our retail products give us unbelievable top of mind awareness across the country.
In the beginning we had a huge commitment to training. We had leadership from the heart program, Hog Heaven University, a certified Pitmaster program and a train the trainer program.
We were the first BBQ restaurant to use a real wood-burning pit; prior to opening, the only major BBQ competitors were Tony Roma's and Damon’s and both of those restaurants baked their ribs.
What are some lessons you have learned along the way you could relate to someone just starting out in the restaurant industry?
When I first started, I put together a list of the 100 best of the best things that would make my restaurant successful. I understood that everything in the restaurant was a customer touch point, which is a moment of truth that builds an emotional connection to a brand, which is different than somebody going to an architect and interior decor person and saying, "make me a nice restaurant". I understood that I was building a lifestyle brand, which is more than building just a nicely decorated restaurant.
What are the key challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Everyday you’re faced with tough challenges and tough competitors. One of the unfortunate things in life is that when you are growing up you are not given a guide on how to tackle everyday problems. Everyday you have to be solution conscious, not problem conscious. There’s no substitute for being obsessively devoted to your customer and driven to make them happy.
How key was establishing a brand persona?
The story of Famous Dave’s is really an American story of humble beginnings, having a dream and working hard to realize that in this great country, there is incredible opportunity if all you did was never give up and being willing to work hard.
Today, I am still somewhat chagrined when I hear, “there’s Famous Dave!” and I reply, “The ribs are Famous and I’m just the cook and bottle washer!” I’ve always wanted folks to see me as a the guy next door who is a role model for the American Dream come true and a living example of entrepreneurship.
When you think about establishing a brand persona, I think that comes from our guests whose barbecue dining experience at a Famous Dave’s has made them so delightfully happy that they’ve come to see me part of their family. But its clearly something that I have worked on. I don’t go anywhere without my Famous Dave’s hat on. I have a certain style glasses I wear in public. I always have a logo’d shirt on and always black pants. I’ve taken voice lessons and I’ve taken public speaking courses so that I can share the Famous Dave’s story to schools and community organizations. I am often told that I have a photogenic smile. I think folks would be surprised that I have had to work on learning how to smile and there’s a certain way that I hold my head so my glasses don’t glare in pictures. I have drawn over a million Wilbur pigs for kids having birthdays. So I think folks would be surprised how arduous and thoughtful it is to be the brand’s “face.”
Who do you assess to be your competition and how is the brand unique?
Competition today comes in many forms. You’ve got competition from other restaurants but also, the dining habits of the general public have really changed. Today’s millennials have really changed the landscape of dining out. Today you have a dining environment take-out and home delivery is fueled by desire of convenience. So how you go about developing your restaurant concept is driven by your menu having to be Instagram-worthy. You used to have to hire an advertising agency to market to your customers. Today, your customers are your advertising agency on social media.
How is tech incorporated into operations?
Just a few years ago when you talked about technology, you were talking about your POS system— basically just your cash register. Today technology is not only about operations but how you connect with your consumer. Everything is now driven by an “app” that is tied to somebody’s smartphone. You’re trying to give your customers Instagram-worthy meals because they’re in charge of your advertising. Today you have a dining environment where take-out and home delivery is fueled by desire of convenience. So how you go about developing your restaurant concept is driven by your menu having to be Instagram-worthy. You used to have to hire an advertising agency to market to your customers. Today, your customers are your advertising agency on social media. Today the internet and social media is the new word of mouth on sterioids.
Al Hank: Our smaller footprint restaurant concepts will feature technological innovations including tabletop ordering and kiosks for convenience. We’re focusing on evolving our brand to appeal to a younger demographic as well as to focus on our off premise business.
How crucial is it for the brand to stay evolving?
I don’t think it’s any secret that Famous Daves, like all restaurant companies has struggled to understand the new dining landscape and we’re having to regroup, restructure and rethink who we are and how we connect to today’s diner. How and where they dine is critical to our success. We have spent more time and energy trying to understand how we go to market than ever before because it used to be just as simple as building a building and having a great menu served by happy cheerful employees. Building big restaurants is no longer a blueprint for success when you have high rents and high labor costs, so the entire thought process of how we go to market is now driven by convenience, available workforce and accessibility. At one time we had larger footprints which was OK, but today a smaller footprint with a drive-though makes more sense.
Staffing and retention are key challenges for any restaurant. How does Famous Dave’s work with to engage its staff?
I think everybody recognizes that today’s workforce is different from the baby boomer workforce. The loyalty for the company you work for doesn’t seem to stick and moving from one job to another is more common than ever before. At Famous Daves, we try to recognize that our most important guest is the employee. If you are going to build a successful company you first have to help grow the employees awareness that they can be successful. It’s not only teaching them how to do the technical aspects of the job, but you also have to address the mental awareness of what it takes to be successful so that person can be successful in life.
How is the brand growing and rejuvenating?
It’s a culmination of smaller footprints, a simplified menu, and constant innovations. In the past, restaurants used the same equipment for decades. Today, a restaurateur not only has to be up on the technology side but has to be pushing the envelope on kitchen technology and the constant accelerating technology that allows us to connect to our consumer through their smart phones.
Al Hank: For a while, we weren’t growing in the ways that we wanted to and knew we could. Today, we’re building and opening new locations, along with our franchisees. Our big focus today is on growth and we’re investing in technology, people and our franchisees to support our growth.
We’re working on constantly finding ways to evolve the brand while utilizing technology to enhance the customer experience so that they can choose how they interact with us. Famous Dave’s is built on great BBQ and fantastic service but now our guests and customers have the option of convenience and ordering our Famous BBQ from their home or for their party without having to leave their house. We’re continuing to ensure that their needs are met…this is our #1 priority.
Does the plant-based trend fit in with Famous Dave’s ethos?
Twenty-five years ago when I first started Famous Dave’s, if you told me I would have plant-based BBQ, I would have laughed. Today, though, plant-based protein is the reality of the new dining environment and you can’t hide your head in the sand anymore that plant-based proteins are only for some California vegetarian salad restaurant. A restaurant like Famous Dave’s whose core product is smoked meats- it’s a whole new horizon again for the dramatically changing landscape. We have a very active research team looking into how to create plant-based barbeque. The push for gluten free, high fructose corn syrup free and clean labels is now part of the thought process in how we develop our menus with plant-based options. But in reality, I think BBQ has always been a clean label as you take meat, smoke it, and then slather it with fruit juice based BBQ sauces. There probably isn’t anything more natural and organic than real pit BBQ.
How would you define the “Famous” part of Famous Dave?
“Famous” is often misunderstood. In reality, we strive to be the best not to call attention to ourselves but to offer the best in BBQ to our guests. The fact that we are active in competing in BBQ contests is our striving to go up against the best of the best and when we win, some of that can be attributed to us being recognized but I’m always quick to make sure our employees know that we’re not doing this for ourselves, we’re really doing this for our guests.
When you look back, what are you most proud of?
I think any accolades that we have as a company has come from our guests. We have almost 800 “Best of Class” awards. I don’t know of another restaurant company has achieved that type of recognition from “Best Ribs” to “Best Takeout Menu” to “Best Family Restaurant” to “Best BBQ Restaurant in America.”
Today, a restaurateur not only has to be up on the technology side but has to be pushing the envelope on kitchen technology and the constant accelerating technology that allows us to connect to our consumer through their smart phones.
Famous Dave’s started in Hayward, Wisconsin of only 2000 people and by the end of the summer we were serving almost 6000 people a week. For me, it was my life long dream and my life’s work to see how Famous Dave’s has touched the lives of so many people. We have had people get their first kiss in our restaurant, we’ve had people get proposed to in our restaurant. We have had people get married in Famous Dave’s restaurant, celebrate graduations, birthdays- you name it. We have touched so many lives as America’s favorite BBQ restaurant. We have gone beyond being America’s favorite BBQ restaurant. We have become a nationally recognized lifestyle brand that is a leader in the BBQ industry.
And as a Native American, whose dad is a Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma who’s love for southern food and BBQ became my passion that got manifested into becoming a dream come true as one of America’s best loved BBQ restaurants. In 2017, I was inducted into the BBQ Hall of Fame by my peers; that was one of the proudest days of being a BBQ cook. This recognition shows if you never give up and work hard in this country that your dreams really do come true. In 2017, I was inducted into the BBQ Hall of Fame by my peers; that was one of the proudest days of being a BBQ cook.
Do you think you have achieved BBQ perfection?
You can’t doubt that the American public loves Famous Dave’s so that’s one of the greatest affirmations that we have great BBQ. I also believe that going out and competing in the BBQ competition circuit and knowing that I’m usually in the top 3, is also an affirmation that I am probably one of the best in America. When I walk into a BBQ competition, the BBQ-ers know I’m in town. I’m probably one of the few people in America, when I drive by any farm all the pigs go running to the other end. It’s known that Famous Dave’s has the highest standard in the industry, our vendor built us our own plant to cut ribs to our high standards.
What are your favorite go-to menu items?
That’s like asking a parent with four kids, which kid is their favorite.