Barbecue is simply more sensitive to human error than most cuisines in the chain dynamic. Unlike a burger, where a worker has, say, 5 minutes to make a mistake, employees trying to prepare barbecue could be looking at a 10–12 hour window where something might go wrong. Spread that to triple-digit restaurants in multiple states and it is remarkably difficult for corporate to ensure consistency on the plate. It’s one reason barbecue chains aren’t as common as those that serve up burgers, or chicken. Beyond the operational complexities, barbecue is also regionally tattooed into consumer conscious according to zip code. Mess with that formula and you’re more likely to enrage guests than court them.
Famous Dave’s devised a solution to this roadblock: It called in the barbecue big guns.
In January, the company hired Travis Clark to a newly created role of National Pitmaster. Clark is the most decorated pitmaster in the Kansas City BBQ Society since 2013. Along with his team, Clark Crew BBQ, Clark won the title of 2017 American Royal Invitational World Champion, and has consecutively won the most KCBS awards in the past four years. This includes: KCBS Team of the Year (2017 and 2015), Rib Team of the Year, and Brisket Team of the Year. Clark’s barbecue journey logged over 160,000 miles, 160 contests, 41 Grand Championship awards, 20 Reserve Grand Championships honors, and 130 top 10 finishes.
Geovannie Concepcion, Famous Dave’s chief operating officer, says the hire was, first and foremost, about establishing credibility and making sure Famous Dave’s food was award-worthy. Yet it was also centered on consistency. “In our business we’ve got to satisfy our guests and our franchisees, and that’s always a delicate balance,” he says. “And we’re doing barbecue food. Travis, he’s helping franchisees with consistency, and ultimately it’s a better product for the guest. That’s been a big piece of our focus now.”
With Clark, Famous Dave’s is building training videos and driving those processes home throughout its system. It’s similar in some ways to the partnership Famous Dave’s struck with Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer to develop drinks.
“What we find is when we bring in someone who has a lot of credibility and experience, people will actually listen even though we’ve been harping on some of the same things for a long time,” Concepcion says. “Travis definitely has the credibility and influence to drive that change.”
The food needed to go back to basics, Crivello says. Over the years, it has traversed from version 1 through 5. They took a look and realized the most consistent and positively received product came at the outset. Clark looked at this, too, and realized it wasn’t so much Famous Dave’s processes that were creating disconnect; It was more about enhancing a “continuing education process,” that could bring Famous Dave’s barbecue back to what worked in the early days.