Reporting Sara Pelissero
When you spend 25 years perfecting your recipes and studying the competition, it’s no surprise when your food becomes known for being famous.
The man behind the widely successful and highly popular Famous Dave’s chain — yes, there’s actually a “Famous Dave” — said he never expected to be a famed BBQ master when he started this journey but couldn’t be prouder of what he’s accomplished.
Famous Dave Anderson talked with us about his new cookbook centered around hosting the best BBQ party possible, plus the drive that pushes him to continue growing his brand.
You’ve said your passion for barbecue started when your dad came home with smoked ribs from street corner vendors in Chicago. What was it about that experience that stuck with you?
I can remember the first time. My dad always fed me ribs but there comes a point when you actually get the “aha!” moment. I can remember the day, I must’ve been 8 years old, just a kid and we lived in a third-floor apartment and my dad was a construction worker and he had gotten home early that day and he had his lunch bucket. Inside, was this package wrapped in newspaper. I can still remember it. Back then, a lot of people wrapped stuff up in newspaper – fish was even wrapped up in newspaper. But I remember him unwrapping these ribs and the whole apartment just smelled of this wonderful, hickory smell. Have you ever driven down a country road and someone had a wood fire going and it just smelled wonderful? Well that’s what I smelled when I walked in. It just really grabbed me. When my dad gave me one of these slow-smoked ribs that were slathered with this homemade barbecue sauce, I can still remember it. It was so tasty, so incredibly delicious. I knew right then that I was going to learn how to make those ribs.
Did you always want to go into the food business? What did you want to be when you were younger?
I guess I didn’t really know. I think earlier when I was growing up, I didn’t believe I could succeed. I was in the bottom half of the class and I never felt like I was the brightest kid in class. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I found out that I had Attention Deficit Disorder, which really explained a lot. I can remember sitting in a classroom and I would watch all the kids hands go up when the teacher asked a question and I just wasn’t there. I didn’t get it. To compensate for that, I was always a hard worker and I think the areas where I really did gravitate to were in the arts background. I was creative. Unfortunately, it seems like our schools are cutting those courses out. Hopefully they don’t do that because people like myself, that are creative, and the people I deal with in the food industry, say my palate is one of the fewest in the United States. I can almost remember every single barbecue sauce I’ve ever tasted and every barbecue joint that I was ever in. People say, “That sounds strange, how can you remember instances like that?” and I say, “Well, it’s no different than a master musician or a very talented musician that can remember a song that they heard when they were kids.” They don’t need to study, they can go to any instrument and play it. I’m the same way. I remember sauces, almost every barbecue joint that I was ever in and I’m at a point today where I can probably go into any kitchen anywhere in the world and recreate my sauces and seasonings and for that matter, my competitors.
During your, I guess we’ll call it the research phase, what did you learn about barbecue and about how you wanted to approach your food?
I think it goes back to when I was growing up as a kid. And by the way, if you go to our website, you’ll see that Famous Dave’s has won over 700 first place awards – best of class ribs, first place for best sauce in America, but not only that, best corn, best desserts, best family restaurant, best take out menu, best catering. Early on, when I first started Famous Dave’s, a lot of people … have said, take your dreams and write them down and turn them into goals. So everybody should have a set of goals for their life. Probably nobody has ever heard of a best of the best list for their life. What can you be the best at? So at Famous Dave’s I wrote down probably 100 things that we could be the best at – I wanted to have the best music. I wanted to have the best creamy coleslaw, the best honey buttered cornbread. I wanted to have the best training program. All of that came from my understanding of food. When I was growing up in Chicago, I loved these Italian beef sandwiches. They’re just absolutely amazing. It’s a type of roast beef with Italian hot peppers and it’s really a Chicago thing. I remember liking this one place that had the best Italian beef sandwiches but then I liked the hand-cut French fries that another restaurant had. And I liked the fact that another restaurant, even though I really didn’t like their beef or their French fries, I liked the fact that I could get a really good milkshake along with my meal. And then I remembered at another restaurant, a little hole in the wall, the guy always knew my name. Every time I walked in his restaurant, he’d always greet me, “Hey Dave, how ya doin’?” and that just made me feel good. I often thought, why couldn’t you take the best of all of these things and put it into one restaurant. Why doesn’t anybody get that? Why do they have to have lousy French fries and why can’t they just have the best fries if they have the best Italian beef? So I think from that, I’ve always had this philosophy that if I was going to open up the best rib joint, I should go around and see what other people do that’s best. Because I don’t ever want to go into some town, open up a restaurant and then have somebody tell me that the restaurant down the street had better cornbread. So really, if you look at the Famous Dave’s menu, every single thing is as best as we can get it. Maybe somebody has a different flavor or something but we will never have to be embarrassed that our food isn’t up there, it’s not as good as we can make it. So I think that has really influenced how I think about food today. I’m willing to travel long distances and spend the time … you know, it took me 25 years to get the recipes right and open the first Famous Dave’s restaurant.
When you finally perfected your recipes, after those 25 years, did you have any idea that it would become an award-winning, nationally sold product?
No, I didn’t. The first restaurant opened in Hayward, Wis. in a little town of only 1,800 people. When I was building my restaurant, people would drive by and say, “Dave, what are you doing?” and when I’d tell them I’m building the world’s best rib joint, most of them laughed. They’d say, “Are you crazy?” In Wisconsin, there’s only Swedes and Norwegians here. If you want a clue about barbecue, then go to Memphis or Kansas City. But you know, I stayed true to my dream because I had good recipes and good, fun music, a good environment and fun décor. Without any advertising, by the end of the summer, we were serving almost 5,000 people a week in a town of only 1,800. People were driving hundreds of miles just to come check my restaurant out.
I read on your website that the sign “Famous Dave’s” was actually a typo?
You know, the road to get to Famous Dave’s – Highway B – there’s Dave’s Guns & Antiques, there’s a bunch of Dave’s “something” so I thought it’d be funny to have Dave’s Famous Barbecue Shack and then our printer got our business cards mixed up. So it said, “Famous Dave’s Barbecue Shack” and my wife said, you should just leave it.
With roughly 200 Famous Dave’s restaurants in America and Canada, do you feel like you’ve accomplished your goal or is there more you want to do?
Oh no, I think we’re just getting started. I have a lot more great recipes in me. I think Famous Dave’s could probably grow to 2,000 restaurants all over the world. The world of barbecue is just exploding and we’re one of the leaders in our industry.
“Backroads and Sidestreets” came out in 1999. What made you want to release a new cookbook now?
My original cookbook, “Backroads and Sidestreets,” which we’ve changed to “Ribilicious: Award-Winning Barbecue and Grilling Recipes” basically because of the internet. Back then, we didn’t know anything about search engines and keywords and didn’t really think that people would be really looking up, Famous Dave’s cookbooks. “Backroads and Sidestreets” really doesn’t say anything about barbecue, so we had to change it. The original cookbook featured recipes that were from my growing up. For instance, there was a recipe for black-eyed peas and apricot fried pie and people don’t eat that stuff today. The other thing is, even though there’s a lot of how-to barbecue cookbooks, most people don’t call up their family and say, “Come on over, let me show you how to barbecue.” What they do say to their friends and family is, “Why don’t you guys come over and we’ll have a barbecue party?” And so, I don’t know if you know this but there aren’t that many barbecue party cookbooks out on the market. And so, this cookbook really has a lot more appetizers, side dishes, all kinds of stuff that are fun that you’d want to have at a barbecue party – and along with the best tasting ribs and pulled pork sandwiches and all that. This is really about how to turn your backyard grill into the best barbecue party in town.
You’ll be meeting your fans at the Mall of America on Saturday. What do you hope people take away from your cookbook?
I expect nothing but rave reviews. If you were to pick up the top 10 barbecue cookbooks that are out there now and you take a look at mine, clearly you can see this is a fun cookbook. Every recipe is in full color but then also there’s the party tips, the grilling and smoking tips that I put in there that I really didn’t have in my last cookbook. The other thing I encourage people is to use their backyard grill not just for burgers and hot dogs. There’s a lot of fun things that you can do really simply that can really elevate the typical backyard barbecue into something that’s a “wow.” You want people walking away from your backyard barbecue saying, “Wow, that was amazing. The food was really amazing and I just have to beg for those recipes.”
“Famous Dave” Anderson will sign copies of his new cookbook, at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 15 at the Mall of America. For more information, click here.