Tom's Rants

"What Should I Name My Smoker?"

The most famous barbecue guy in the United States is Aaron Franklin, based in Austin, TX. He has 6 cookers, all with names: Number Two, Muchacho, Rusty Shackleford (aka Shorty), etc. Aaron is both old school and new school. At 35 years old, he has blended the old and new to produce the best he knows how. Most people take the new for convenience and consistency, but the quality goes down.

Aaron does what the old Texas smokers did: cook in a batch, let it rest, sell out, and go home. This idea of 4 meats, 8 starches, and having everything available 12 hours a day does not make for better BBQ. The other guys cook, rest, cool, reheat, and serve; or cook, rest, rest some more, and some more, and then serve. In the BBQ world, this will make you a tall midget.

I love Aaron's cook-rest-eat cycle. This is why he is my hero. It takes the courage of your conviction to serve the best and to do this cycle each day.

So, if Aaron's smokers have names, I want mine to have a name too. I'll gather ideas for the name, narrow it down to a few, and post it on Facebook for a vote.

"Why I Bought This Smoker"

I have several heroes on the Kansas City competition BBQ circuit. I started judging in 2001 and became a Master BBQ Judge in 2008. I have met a ton of great cooks in that time.

This cooker is made by Peoria Custom Cookers. It is used by one of the best (and best liked) team on the circuit, Mike and Beth Wozniak. Their team is called "Quau," which rhymes with luau. Mike and Beth are World Champions and winners of more than 60 contests. They live the BBQ life on the road more than 30 weeks a year. Like the Grateful Dead, when they are on the road, they're home.

About the Cooker

The terms "cooker," "pit," and "smoker" are used interchangeably, depending on the region of the country you are from. They all replicate the "pit" - cooking in the ground the way our ancestors did. They dug a hole, put in rocks for a heat sink, burned a fire, covered it up, worked the fields and went hunting, and then came home to a crock-pot dinner. Unfortunately, the health department killed off most of the open pits.

The gold standard for a steel cooker is 1/4" steel with a double wall in the fire box. Insulating the fire box is a relatively new idea. Peoria and Mike got together to creat the "Meat Monster" -- 1/4" steel outside, 2" ceramic insulation, and then another 1/4" steel layer inside for the fire box.

Here's a kick in the pants...

They did it to the body of the smoker too! UNREAL. I couldn't believe it the first time I saw it. It's a smoker, inside a smoker. A crock-pot, good 365 days a year. At $11,000, it's not cheap, but we all make choices, and this was mine.

This is where old school meets high-tech. The purpose is to cut down on air exchanges (moist meat), wood (save money and more importantly, fewer particulates in the smoker.) With a wood-only burn, this is important. Most cookers use gas to cook, and have a smoldering log to flavor. Both have their pros and cons. So, which is best? All I can say is we gather information, make a decision, and then buy what suits our objectives.

"I was going for high quality, cooked outdoors."

"The Best Ribs I Ever Ate"

And they came from this cooker!

It was October 2010, Lynchburg, the night before the World Championship Jack Daniels BBQ Contest. Kathy and I were enjoying a nice warm evening visiting with the teams. We were at Parrothead's space where he was cooking on a Stump Smoker, and Stump was explaining it to us.

Mike and Beth from Quau (rhymes with luau) came over with 6 racks of ribs from a test cook. I'd been judging BBQ for 10 year at this point. Those ribs were unreal - drop dead spot on - and Parrothead and Stump agreed. Nobody had a comment to improve them for the contest the next day. It was a magic moment, because we all knew if Quau could cook those ribs for the contest, they would do well.

The next day, Mike and Beth scored 9th in chicken, 1st in ribs, and 3rd in brisket. It was a big day in the tough as nails Jack Daniels World Championship.

Let's be clear - I'm not in Quau's league because I cook on the same smoker as they do; I'm just telling a story.

"We Are NOT A BBQ Company Or A BBQ Restaurant"

We are a startup.

In the word of Steve Blank in his book The Startup Owner's Manual, a startup is a temporary organization looking for a repeatable and profitable business model. In other words, I'm not sure what we are doing - yet. The key word here is "sure." Of course I have an idea, but the public may not validate it. I have tried to increase my odds, but nothing is ever 100%.

Since I am a Master Judge in the Kansas City Barbecue Society, I have eaten a lot of fresh BBQ at contests, and a lot of very average BBQ at restaurants. That is why I chose to go the Texas route of cook-rest-eat and selling out daily. Cooling and reheating does not add quality. Does the public care? Can they tell the difference? Dunno... we'll see.

Mostly, I have been challenged on my short menu. My response to this is that I need to start somewhere. I stand for fast, fresh, and quality. Until I nail that with a pork sandwich, there is no reason to add to the menu. We can always complicate things later. Even then, I still need to get the process down of quick service. This little shack needs to turn cars, not line them up. It will take a while to create the hustle service I want.

"Is This A Vision Or Hallucination?"

In the Startup Owner's Manual, Steve Blank says, "If it's a vision, other people can see it. If it's a hallucination, only you can see it." I'm hoping for the vision: a super short menu served fresh so we will run out every day, cooked with 100% wood logs. Pork that is antibiotic and hormone free and served on a fresh bakery bun. Pigs that are allowed to walk around as they please. I hope you can see the vision with me.

"Steve Jobs Was Right"

After having a lot of success at Apple, the company had strayed from focusing on the customer to focusing on the stuff to sell the customer. As Steve Jobs says in this video, "You have to start with the customer and work back to the technology."

I recently attended The University of Iowa's Venture School. My teacher Kurt Haier would challenge us when we talked about our whiz-bang features with no customer benefit, saying "that's stuff going on behind the curtain; the customer doesn't care. Tell me about what matters to me using your product or service."

In the restaurant biz, we once had to peel potatoes, slice onions, chop lettuce. There were no wholesale food vendors with pre-peeled, sliced, chopped veggies. That was good since the customer wanted to eat fresh. We evolved to making it easier on the restaurant with the wholesale food vendors offering bags of sliced, shredded food, fresh or frozen, cooked to just thaw and serve. We're not starting with the customer, and moving back to the food. We say that "it's easier on me, the owner, if we do this, so let's buy this sliced and diced and expand our menu." It'll be easy, but I just sold my soul to the devil. The food will be average or worse and the customer will pick up on it. "It's OK to eat the meatload, but don't touch the cake, it sucks."

This is why my goal is fresh BBQ, served fast. Does anyone care? We'll see.

"What The McDonald Brothers Learned, That Ray Kroc Screwed Up"

The original McDonald's menu had hamburgers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, BBQ, and tamales. After 3 years, they noticed 80% of their sales were coming from burgers. So, they shut down for 3 months and did a step-by-step walkthrough on a layout that would be a burger-flipping machine. Sales went from $200,000 to $350,000 because they were focused on 1 really good sandwich, 1 size fry, 3 flavors of milkshake, and 5 drinks.

This is the McDonald's that Ray Kroc went to see. He was the national distributor for Multimix shake mixers. He heard of this place that had 8 mixers with 5 spindles on each machine. "Who needs capacity for 40 shakes?" That is what caused Ray to fly to San Bernardino, California to see for himself.

To Ray's credit, he took the concept and ran with it. I worked at McDonald's in 1969 going to college in Mankato, Minnesota. We still cooked 1 size burger. We made 5 sandwiches: hamburger, cheeseburger, double of those, and the Big Mac. Ray had only added the apple and cherry pies and fish sandwich. Then the Quarter Pouners, McRib, and this, this, and other thing were add until today, where they are fixing 140 items. Then, they decided to make 9 breakfast items available all day. Jeeze! Poor folks in the kitchen! Burger, burger, fish, pancakes, burger, Egg McMuffin, etc. If they didn't have ADD when they started, they will soon.

I read Ray's book Grinding It Out - it's a great book. I now see how adding products was always part of the McDonald's culture. Ray always had things in the hopper and wasn't afraid to test them in stores. Most failed but some stuck. Compound this for 60 years and that's what leads to 140 items on the menu. It's a beast! Oddly enough, Ray was famous for saying McDonald's stood for "quality, service, cleanliness, and value." But what value do I get when there is no quality or service wrestling with a 140-item menu?

"Ray Kroc And McDonald's, Part 2"

Ray Kroc met the McDonald brothers in 1954. They had 8 5-spindle shake mixers of a brand he was the national distributor for.NOBODY had 8 machines. So, he flies to California to see this place. He loved the set-up and signed a deal to go national with the concept. History is made! McDonald's may have created more millionaires than any employer. 15 years later, I worked at McDonald's in Mankato, MN. I was the shake guy. We had been making shakes at home and I was alreay a pro.

Somewhere in the next 10 years, McDonald's drops the mixers and serves the shake right out of soft-serve machines, all flavored and ready to go. Did the customer care? I don't know. Was it convenient and more consistent for the store? Yes.

If the McDonald brothers had served their shakes straight out of a machine, they wouldn't have needed Ray Kroc's mixers. Maybe no mixers, no meeting Ray. The spark that caused the fire to start was extinguished. What was a key part of the menu is now less than an afterthought, buried in a mound of convenient and consistent items with no soul.

"How Do I Improve The BBQ I'm Making Now?"

Hang out with people smarter than you. If I may be so bold to assume that I may be smarter than you on this subject, come hang out with me at the store. You're also welcome to drop into the shack anytime we are open. Spend a few minutes with the crew and see what we are doing. Ask us why we are doing it a certain way. There are many ways to make good BBQ - we will show you ours.

Authors of books on BBQ that I recommend:

If, young Jedi, you wish to travel the path of live fire cooking, go to YouTube. Watch what these people have. Buy the books of those who resonate. Talk to me in the shack. Your education will never end.

If you are talking smoking, not grilling, there are 2 ways to go:

  1. Start with what you have a cook indirectly from the fire. Your thermometer is probably above the grate. Keep it below 300. Season the meat; put it away from the fire. Do chicken first - it's cheap and easy to get right. Come in the shack and ask how I do chicken at home.
  2. Get a real smoker. Here is where a good piece of equipment will get you better product faster. Hard to beat a Big Green Egg if you are just doing home cooking. They grill and smoke well and cost about $1000.

    In the $2000 range is the Peoria Custom Cookerts 24x48. It's a real deal and the manufacturer of my $11,000 unit. So how do you tell your spouse you want to spend 2 grand on a smoker? Once you get good (and I can help with that), you will be cooking for parties. You can either be a shade tree caterer and make a little money each summer, or for family and friends charge supplies and $2.50/person for the cooker. Either way, it will pay for itself or split it with a buddy (or cook the office BBQ each summer.)

Here's the problem:

A lot of hardware/lumber stores sell what look like smokers but the metal is not thick enough to hold heat. A pro can cook on these. But, they will rob your meat dollars and break our heart. In fact, a friend of mine calls these "heart-breaks." Hell yes, I want a smoker for $300, but then I find that my food sucks. Tick off the wife, put the thing in the garage and waste more time than I care to mention. You are buying time with your dollars. Otherwise, stick to grilling. It's way easier and grilling hot and fast indirect is easy.

This is why I only recommend the Big Green Egg under a grand. Then, it's a no-man's land until you get to 2 grand. These will hold a low temperature for a long time. That is what smoking is all about. Speaking of smoking, putting smoke to meat is easy. Putting too much smoke is easy too. I want to flavor the meat without turning it into some Neanderthal meal. The Egg and the 24x48 will do that. Cook everything at 250 until done, till you decide to go up or down time-wise. That will give you a baseline.

"is Cedar Rapids Ready For This?"

Q&A from a very smart guy in the high-quality food arena.

Before we begin, I need to say this. I have been very inspired by the hottest name in BBQ, Aaron Franklin. His Austin, Texas restaurant was named #1 by Texas Monthly magazine for BBQ in Texas. Therefore, he is now a travel destination. Aaron sells 1500-2000 pounds of meat a day. Others are larger, but nobody has the quality label like Frankin's. It's hormone-free and antibiotic-free - what's known as never-ever. This is where he starts, and he works hard to go "old school" with his smoking.

I wondered: since Austin is a college/cutting-edge type of town, would this work in Cedar Rapids? So, I asked the expert.

Q. Is Iowa City ready for this type of BBQ restaurant?
A. Maybe.

Q. Is Cedar Rapids ready for this?
A. Probably not. The higher costs of buying these items may be too much for you to pass on.

Looking around, we have some of this product in town now. Not in a big way, but it's here. As I write this, we are 4 days from opening. Here is what I decide to do:

  1. After I got my smoker, I tested some never-ever pork shoulders and I was totally blown away by the porkiness of the flavor. So much of our food - carrots to chicken - has no flavor. Look at the spices we add to our food to get taste. Look at sriracha and hot peppers we eat, all because our food has no flavor.

    I had a friend over for dinner who judges the most prestigious invitation-only pork contest every year. He said competitors try to woo the judges with bark, sauce, and spice rub. But what the judges are looking for is "porkiness." On his way out the door, he said, "this is the kind of pork to bring to that contest." Bingo! I'm in.
  2. With this little hut, I don't need to be very big. So I said, what the heck... let's do it! Let's put out the best I know how, and let the customer decide.
  3. The bakery bun with just yeast, water, flour, sea salt, sugar, extra virgin olive oil was always an item I thought to start with. Now, the bun and meat are high quality and tasty.

I can't be half-pregnant on this issue. I figure, "If I'm going to cross a line, let's cross it!"

"A Word About Our Spices"

Our sea salt for the buns and meat comes from Australia. Why?

Glad you asked. This salt is harvested from the sea south of Australia toward the Antarctic in super cold, hypersaline waters. I like the clean, fresh taste.

Everything else comes from Frontier out of Norway, IA. These folks are awesome to work with, and they take great pains to sell spices, not dust and dirt (which is more common than you'd think in the spice biz.) We buy whole tellicherry peppercorns and grint to our desired size - coarse for rub, medium for the finishing spice. This is what Tomaso's has always used and they are seekers of good spice. I love them.

We also use Extra Virgin Olive Oil in our buns. I recently read an article about foreign olive oil where 90% of it was mislabeled. Olive oil from California was labeled properly 90% of the time. Our oil comes from California, and we trust these folks to do the right thing.