Devotion to his dream of serving must-have barbecue has guided Rick Malir's operation and steady expansion of City Barbeque.
City Barbeque has 25 restaurants in four states, but company President and Co-founder Rick Malir never forgets the humble way it all started.
That's clear as Malir affectionately taps one of the original wood tables in City Barbeque's flagship restaurant off Henderson Road in Upper Arlington. It's where he and fellow barbecue aficionados Jim Budros, Mike Taylor, John Kean and Frank Pizzo launched the business 15 years ago.
"How do you like this table?" Malir asks. "Well, John Kean actually helped me build these tables in my garage one afternoon. A new table would have cost $125, and we could build this one for $25. I think that's great symbolism. When I interview new team members, I sit them down at these tables and say, 'Let's not forget where we are' …This is where the true blood, sweat and tears were shed to get this thing going."
Malir, a former Kansas farm boy who had been rising in the management ranks at John Deere & Co., says he was the only partner "crazy enough to quit my day job'" to start the business. But boosted by the support of his wife, Bonnie, and the backing by his other business partners, Malir has done what he set out to do-run a barbecue joint that keeps customers coming back for more.
He recently shared the City Barbeque story with Columbus CEO.
How did you learn how to smoke meat?
My friends in my college fraternity (at Kansas State University) introduced me to real barbecue back in the early 1980s. I remember my first slab of ribs off their Weber smoker. I can taste it to this day. That was when I started to love real barbecue.
How did you meet the other City Barbeque founders?
I had already researched the barbecue business when I met the "Barbeque Boys" cooking team-John Kean, Jim Budros and Mike Taylor. Frank (Pizzo) came in just a little bit later. I met Jim first over a jar of barbecue sauce that he, John and Mike had created and had been given to me as a gift. I knew they were phenomenal cooks … a lot of the recipes and cooking techniques we use today are the Barbeque Boys' techniques.
So I had a meeting with them and talked about what I wanted to do, which was to have a barbecue joint. They said they would love to be involved... and they became the original investors and my original partners. They're still involved as investors.
What inspired you to leave your corporate career and launch a barbecue restaurant?
I had always been very entrepreneurial-minded and wanted to start my own company. I was fascinated by restaurants and loved serving people. I loved barbecue, and my whole marketing plan was that there had to be 400 guys in this town who like barbecue like I do. My friends tried to talk me out of it. They thought I was crazy… (but) I just really believed in it, and my wife supported me.
Have you ever had doubts about your decision to do this?
There was a moment before we opened that I was brining chickens at 3 in the morning in my garage. It was for a catering event, and I needed the money. I was all into this thing at that point, and I started to think, 'What did I just do?' The biggest thrill was when we swung these doors open and we had people coming in to buy our food.
But there were still some times that were pretty hairy. I learned a big lesson after we were in business for a year. I was cocky and thought we could do a second (restaurant) right away. It lost so much money it almost took down the company. It was a scary several months to get us back on our feet. I learned a lot of lessons from that… We had to figure out how to run our business first before we could (expand).
How has City Barbeque become what it is today?
We never started this thing with the grandiose vision that we would have multiple locations. We just wanted to serve a great, true barbecue that we could be proud of. My years with John Deere were a great model. I got to watch their dealers every day, and I would see a common theme with the successful ones and the not-so successful ones.
So we went into this with the idea that we would be relentlessly obsessed with focusing on our guests and taking care of them. We found they liked our barbecue and what we were doing…That allowed us to build more (restaurants).
You use the term 'our way" in how you operate City Barbeque. What does that mean?
Part of it is the way we build our team compensation programs. We work to pay the most we can. Of all the employees we have, only two (make) minimum wage, and they're 16-year-old kids who just started with us. But I'm not altruistic about it. I just think it's a good way to run a business. (Employees) can afford their car payments and have a better life. We have a better running restaurant and our customers have a better experience when they come in.
We also have scholarship programs for our (workers) who are in college and for children of employees. We offered health benefits pretty much from the day we opened… And from day one we wanted to be part of the community. We give away roughly 10 percent of our profits to charity.
Our ownership hasn't changed much over the years. We haven't gone out and brought in a big pool of new investors. It's pretty close to the same group of core people. We're still running this. It's still our family.
What role does your wife have with the company?
She supported me the first several years because I couldn't pay myself. She worked in her own career (selling pharmaceuticals and biotech) until about a year ago. Now she works part-time for City Barbeque, doing a lot of community outreach and charity work. She's my biggest 'balancer.' I come to her with whacky ideas, and she gets my head back on straight.
How has City Barbeque's trajectory of the past 15 years lined up with your dreams for what you wanted the restaurant to be?
We just wanted to have a great barbecue company… Other than that first year when I had some sleepless nights when we expanded too fast, we've stayed within ourselves. We've focused more on improving our current restaurants than on how many more we can build. Our focus is on how we make our food and service better every day.
Where do you see City Barbeque five years from now?
It probably will be bigger. We have three restaurants we are opening this year that are confirmed and probably one more yet this year. We've stayed at the same rate of growth since we started. It may accelerate a bit but only if we can do what we need to do in our current restaurants.
What is your favorite menu item?
It depends on the day. Right now, we're testing a full-cut brisket with no trim and everything on it that I love. I absolutely love our French fries and our chicken. Lo Lo's Pulled Pork is my favorite sandwich.
Any menu items that flopped?
We could never sell chili, and fried pies didn't sell well.
How has being based in Columbus contributed to or created challenges for the success of your business?
There haven't been any challenges from being in Columbus. It's a restaurant incubator-type of town and a test market. It's been tremendous city from that standpoint. Some it has been luck. We happened to do our first restaurant in Upper Arlington, which has really embraced barbeque. That was a catalyst for doing more things. Central Ohio has been great for us. We've been blessed.
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.