Barbecue chains have faced a tough time going national. Most do well in one sector like the South, but can’t translate their success when they try to open a location outside of their known terrain. Texas barbecue may not Carolina diners.
Despite that, City Barbeque (also called City BBQ) is growing. According to Technomic’s list of the top 500 restaurant chains, its’ revenue in 2017 spiked 32%. It currently has 42 locations nationally including 17 in Ohio, 8 in North Carolina, and 5 each in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
It opened seven new outlets in 2018 and has plans for six new restaurants in 2019. So it’s closing in on 50. All of its locations are company-owned; none is franchised.
It was launched in 1999 in Upper Arlington, Ohio and started by owner Rick Malir, who still runs it. It’s based in Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus.
City’s Barbeque lists its core values as 1) serving quality barbecue, 2) serving its communities, teammates and neighbors, 3) catering fun-filled events.
It also has a strong sense of humor, describing its food as barbeque, “but you can spell it barbecue, bar-b-q, bbq, whatever.”
Despite bbq food’s reputation as being unhealthy, customers counting calories or facing allergies can find a way to dine at City Barbeque and even eat gluten-free.
Most bbq restaurants serve Texas brisket or Carolina pulled pork, but at City Barbeque you choose from a variety of bbq’s, with more of an eclectic style. Its website says it serves bbq that reminds you of “the best brisket you had in Texas or incredible pulled pork from the Carolina’s.”
Its expansion was boosted when leading private equity firm Freeman Spogli acquired a majority stake in 2016. It knows the industry and strengthened its board.
Here’s what CEO and founder Rick Malir said about City BBQ’s growth:
Your revenue rose 32% in 2017. What were the key factors?
Malir: We added some locations. Naturally you get revenue there. We’ve enjoyed many years of positive growth that adds up to compounding in a positive way.
Most bbq eateries succeed in one sector but can’t duplicate their success nationwide. Why not?
Malir: There are several theories. One of the most popular is the regionality of taste. Our argument is people like good food no matter what it is and where they are. We cook our meals in a home-made scratch kitchen.
Are you content to stay regional or do you consider going nationally?
Malir: We’re not franchised. We’re all company-owned. We’re going to grow at a sustainable rate that helps us retain and enhance our quality. For example, we don’t serve frozen chicken. When you’re doing fresh chicken, it complicates distribution. We’re selective of how we grow and where we grow. Today we’re in seven states, mostly contiguous.
What would it take to open City BBQ nationally?
Malir: You can do it, if you want to sell franchises. And what it takes for us to do that would be real- estate and distribution so that we can cook everything home-made from scratch. But the biggest factor is expanding your training program.
And yet you don’t franchise. Why not?
Malir: I’m bit of a control freak. I want to make sure that all the team members serving and creating happiness, which is our purpose, are trained under our guise, and we can be responsible for wages and health benefits and how we take care of them.
Describe the atmosphere at a typical City BBQ.
Malir: The purpose of our company is to serve happiness. When you walk into our City BBQ, if we’re on our game, you’re greeted in a warm way that makes you feel like a regular from the start. You’re going to smell everything because everything is made from scratch. You’ll see a pitmaster on site making ribs. It’s the same as it was 20 years ago, with some better window dressing: good food, no server, but someone checks up on you to make sure you’re happy. And we can accommodate take-out because we know people are in a hurry.
What has been the impact of Freeman Spogli’s acquiring a majority stake in 2016?
Malir: I looked at this in a couple of ways. I wanted to strengthen the interview expertise of our company. They’ve been an impactful board in the right way. They’re aligned with the values we embrace and with our thinking. It’s given us more learning, great people and helps us to get on a slightly accelerated growth path.
What criteria do you use for choosing a new location?
Malir: There are many people around who are going to eat barbecue. It’s the basics: be in good solid areas with people with income, traffic patterns. Every single company in the world is fighting for the same real-estate.
Your website describes your BBQ as eclectic, a little Kansas City, a little down South. Why?
Malir: That’s what we did from day one. I was doing it from my garage. We just make the best brisket we can make. The best pulled pork. Having said that, if you were to look at our brisket, it might remind you of Texas. We didn’t intend to make Texas brisket; our goal is to make the best brisket we can make.
At City Barbeque you often sell out of certain food. Explain why that is.
Malir: We’re proud of the fact that we don’t reheat food and only serve fresh products. BBQ takes hours to cook, 18 hours or more. When we sell out, we sell out, and we need to let the guests know that because sometimes it’s going to happen.
Who is the target audience?
Malir: In the very beginning, it was men who like meat. Today, we hit everyone. A lot of women come to our restaurant because they like the joint. And the price point isn’t cheap; it’s not a $2 meal. If you’re looking for bargains and coupons, we’re not your place. But we’re a good value for people who appreciate good food and it won’t break the bank. We have the quintessential banker sitting next to the electrician in his overalls, all enjoying their experience.
Many Americans are moving toward healthier diets. How do you accommodate them?
Malir: Before this phone call, I asked for someone to get me slaw, green beans and chicken breast. I need to lose at least 20 pounds and this meal fits in. It’s about portioning, and we can stack up as healthy as any meal.
Where do you expect to be two years down the road?
Malir: I want to be a barbecue leader in the field. Secondly, I want to take care of our team members in terms of benefits and providing living wages for all our 1,407 employees. We’re adding locations in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chicago, and Indianapolis. We’re growing at a 20% to 25% growth rate a year.
That’s a rapid pace.
Malir: We won’t get over our skis. What made us successful is we don’t overgrow our quality and we take care of our teammates.
What are the three keys to City BBQ’s growth?
Malir: 1) You must have infrastructure and systems, without them you can’t do scratch cooking: 2) Strengthening the brand, to be the premiere BBQ company; 3) People, team and management.