Great barbeque recipes revolve around meat, wood and fire. But City Barbeque’s recipe for success has even more ingredients.
By Erik Cassano
It’s a touchy subject, one whose answer depends on the region of the country you’re in.
Barbeque restaurants in Memphis, Kansas City, Texas and the Carolinas all adhere to different standards and recipes. To prepare barbeque in any other way in those areas is something akin to sacrilege. With the nation’s barbeque landscape full of fierce regional devotees, how do you enter the fray if you’re a small band of entrepreneurs from Central Ohio?
For Rick Malir and the other co-founders of City Barbeque, the answer was to take a little bit of everything and create a different barbeque experience.
“Our recipe evolved from some of the original founders who worked in barbeque,” says Malir, City Barbeque’s president and CEO. “But it also evolved from potluck suppers and family recipes. It came about in bits and pieces, and the result is a barbeque style that is unique to us, not copied from a specific region.”
But a distinctive recipe is only part of the equation when attempting to stand out among a crowded field of competitors. Although the public appetite for smoked meat seems limitless, only the restaurants that find customers and keep them coming back will survive and thrive.
That’s the real key to City Barbeque’s success.
There is, as Malir puts it, no rhyme or reason as to why he decided to leave a corporate job and start a barbeque business in 1999.
“I had no restaurant experience,” Malir says. “My wife and I had moved to Columbus, we liked it here, and I had always wanted to do barbeque. So we decided to start our own business.” Malir recruited some of the other founders through mutual acquaintances, and by the middle of 1999, had begun taking catering orders.
But there were unforeseen delays in opening the original City Barbeque location on Henderson Road in Arlington. It finally opened in December 1999, but until then, Malir had to improvise.
“We cooked in our garage, we baked beans in the ovens of our neighbors and we did the dishes in the backyard,” he says. “But those humble beginnings really taught us to focus on pleasing the customer.”
As City Barbeque began to grow and open new locations, the young company developed a philosophy that would serve as a set of guidelines for growth: Have stringent standards around the quality of the product and the quality of the experience, but don’t micromanage the means by which those standards are achieved.
The 95-5 rule
When customers walk into a City Barbeque location -- or any restaurant -- they’re not just looking for a meal. They’re looking to be pleased. They’re looking to have their day made a little bit better for having chosen to dine there.
It’s something Malir realized in the early days of catering parties. The service has to be great, with attention to every detail of the guest experience. If it’s not, nobody is really going to care about how the food tastes.
“We want people to enjoy eating our barbeque, and having it taste good and smell good is only one component of that,” Malir says. “The rest is reliant on our people. That’s why we say the purpose of our teammates is to create happiness. We empower our people to make your day, from the moment you walk in to the moment you walk out.”
For Malir and his team, the foundation of that core value is cemented during the hiring process. City Barbeque does not franchise, so all restaurant managers are employees.
“We hire all of our people directly, so we can take the time and care to find people who we think can flourish in our culture,” Malir says. “We are looking for people who can operate in an environment where there is no corner-cutting on standards in any aspect of the business, but where they are empowered to take charge as far as how we reach those standards.”
Everyone at City Barbeque -- including managers, kitchen staff and wait staff – has permission to take the initiative to please the customer. “We don’t want an environment where you have to ask permission for a lot of things,” Malir says. “We simply try to hire people with the right attitude, then do a lot of training during the onboarding phase so every member of a location’s staff will know what is expected of them.”
The customer service culture at City Barbeque boils down to two basic rules, what Malir calls the “95-5 rule” and the “$100 bill rule.”
“Those two rules pretty much sum up all of our onboarding training,” he says. “The 95-5 rule is, basically, don’t treat the 95 percent of guests that are great the same way you treat the 5 percent that might cause problems. Don’t simply assume all guests will fall into that 5 percent just because you’ve had a few bad apples.
“The $100 bill rule means that every employee has a metaphorical $100 bill that they can use to go above and beyond while serving a guest, without having to talk to a manager.”
Nineteen years after its founding, City Barbeque has grown to 38 locations in the Midwest and South, with eight more coming soon, including five in the Chicago area.
Outside of Ohio, there are City Barbeque locations in Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, North Carolina and Georgia. City Barbeque’s brand of Ohio barbeque is catching on, even in some of the regional barbeque strongholds of the South. While it’s encouraging to Malir, he doesn’t see it as a license to plant a City Barbeque location in every town in America -- at least, not yet.
“We have very particular standards with our people, but also with our ingredients,” Malir says. “And that can make sourcing a challenge. Finding a distribution system that can get us the ingredients we need can be challenging depending on where the restaurant is located.
“Our distributors are great, but every time we open a new store in a new area, we have to re-examine all of that.”
As a result, Malir and his team have to execute a growth plan that is both selective and aggressive. Malir wants to leave no stone unturned as far as exploring new markets, but will only open a new location if he and the rest of the company’s leadership think it can be a long-term success.
Malir has the company’s growth goal written on a white board in his office, and 75 percent of what he plans to have in five years does not currently exist.
“I want to triple our size,” he says. “But we’re not going to do it if we can’t maintain high standards across the board. It’s a rule that has gotten us to where we are, and it’s a rule that we’re going to keep growing by.”
A helping hand from Huntington
In 1999, City Barbeque co-founder, president and CEO Rick Malir left his day job to pursue his dream of owning and operating a barbeque restaurant.
He wasn’t afraid to take a calculated risk and needed a bank willing to think the same way.
“For the first three years, we couldn’t find a bank without another person signing on,” Malir says. “In 2003, we met with Huntington. They talked to us, they looked at our financials, and they treated us as a legitimate business. We’ve been with them ever since.”
Huntington believed in City Barbeque because it knew firsthand about the quality of the company’s people and products because its bankers ate at the restaurant.
“They’re customers,” Malir says. “Their people were our guests. They’d see how they were treated by our staff, they’d taste the food, and they knew we had a good thing going.”
Fifteen years later, City Barbeque is still with Huntington. “It is vital as a growing business to have a bank that works with you like Huntington does,” Malir says. “If you don’t have a bank that you can count on, it can really hinder you. That’s why we’ve stayed with Huntington for so long.”
For more information, visit www.citybbq.com.