Move over, Memphis: How BBQ Hall of Famer Dave Anderson brought Southern flavor to the Northwoods
HAYWARD — While sitting in Jimmie's Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse, Dave Anderson pulls my paper tray containing a smoked chicken thigh and rib to his side of the table. No explanation given. He rummages through a collection of barbecue sauce bottles. After a moment, he finds the correct one. The chicken thigh gets a generous dab. With fork and knife, he cuts a piece free. Then he pushes it back to me.
"That was my childhood," he says in earnestness.
I take a bite, and it's everything you'd expect from a man whose name is famously connected to barbecue. Tender, juicy meat with a hint of smoke. The skin adds a rich fattiness, and it doesn't pull away from the meat when I bite through. A nice char deepens the flavor. Then the barbecue sauce hits with a tomato and vinegar twang.
“You can’t beat a good flame-kissed chicken with our Chicago Blue Barbecue Sauce," Anderson said. "That will send you through the roof.”
The ribs are tender to the bite — not mushy but juicy. None of that fall-off-the-bone nonsense. This is competition-level barbecue that holds its own against the biggest names from Georgia to Texas to Kansas City.
Anderson perfected his ribs and other barbecue specialties during 20 years of competing and winning some of America's biggest competitions. After going toe-to-toe with the biggest names in barbecue, he's now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Myron Mixon, Chris Lilly and Steven Raichlen as a member of the American Royal BBQ Hall of Fame.
He's also the founder of two barbecue restaurant chains: Old Southern and Famous Dave's BBQ.
While barbecue is often associated with states that don't get snow in October, Anderson started both Southern-style barbecue chains in Wisconsin's Northwoods. Hayward to be exact. A city best known for world record muskies and world champion lumberjacks.
The story of how Hayward became the birthplace for Anderson's rib joints begins a few hundred miles away.
Dave Anderson, founder of Famous Dave's BBQ and Old Southern BBQ, comes back to Hayward, Wis., where it all started. Stevens Point Journal
Born to barbecue
While growing up in Chicago, other kids were going out for hot dogs and pizza with their families, Anderson says. But his dad was taking the family for rib tips and other real wood-smoked meats.
"I grew up knowing where all the best barbecue joints were in the city of Chicago,“ he said.
Eddie’s Real Barbecue Ribs was among those that seared a permanent impression in Anderson's childhood memories.
"They had one of those smokers in the window where you could see the smoldering logs, and you could see the ribs on top and every time the meat juices would splash down into the burning logs they would flare up," Anderson said. "As a little kid I was always fascinated by that.”
Anderson is American Indian. His father, Jimmie, was a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and his mother, Iris, was a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians near Hayward. They married after Jimmie came home from World War II in 1945 and the couple moved to Chicago, says Anderson, because that’s where the jobs were.
Anderson describes his parents as hard workers, but there were times it was tough to make ends meet. So, during the summers, the family set up a food stand at powwows in Wisconsin selling Indian fry bread, chicken wild rice soup and venison sandwiches.
“My first restaurant was nothing more than a tarp-covered lean-to," said Anderson. "I learned how to cook in that Indian fry bread stand."
He learned how to barbecue through competitions.
Starting in his 20s, he experienced the thrill of victory at a Lions Club contest. His winnings? A $50 gift card and plastic trophy.
From there, his obsessive nature took over.
"When I was working on a recipe, if it called for mustard, I’d go out and buy 150 mustards and I would make that recipe 150 times ... until I got it right."
In the early days he smoked chicken, pork, brisket and ribs in a converted steel garbage can. He cut a hole in the bottom of the can to add fresh wood coals. Meats smoked and cooked on a grate installed near the top of the can.
Anderson worked on his recipes and competed for 20 years, going on to win almost every major competition and nearly $1 million.
Famous comes and goes
When Anderson told people he was opening a rib joint in northwestern Wisconsin, he says they laughed and said he should open the restaurant in Kansas City or Memphis or Nashville or someplace where people love barbecue.
"But Hayward, Wisconsin .... are you crazy?" people asked.
On the surface it seemed like good advice. Hayward is about as Northwoods-y as it gets. This is where you can see the world's best log rollers, wood choppers and speed pole climbers in action during the Lumberjack World Championships, or snap a selfie with a building shaped like a muskie at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. It's not exactly a destination for southern-style barbecue.
Still, Anderson persisted, and opening the first Famous Dave's in 1994 near Round Lake — 8 miles out of town — proved to be the right decision.
“Everybody will tell you you’re crazy at times, but you got to stay true to your dream because in this town of Hayward, Wisconsin, of 2,000 people we started serving over 6,000 people a week.”
Two years later, Famous Dave's went from a single rib joint in rural Wisconsin to a publicly-traded company. As the chain grew to about 180 restaurants in 33 states, Anderson's role shrank to consulting and marketing efforts including appearing in promotional materials.
Anderson left the Minnetonka-based Famous Dave's in March 2014 after signing a one-year noncompete agreement.
Still, when the original Famous Dave's burned down in November 2014, he says it was heartbreaking. Decorations with sentimental value and rare collectibles were among the losses. It would have cost millions to rebuild in that location, says Anderson, and been impossible to revive the original Famous Dave's experience.
Besides, he had plans for a fresh start.
Hayward is the epicenter for Anderson
The day after his noncompete was up, Anderson announced Jimmie's Old Southern Smokehouse BBQ — named to honor his father — would open in April 2015. The counter-service restaurant opened in Hayward.
"Hayward has a special place in my heart because it is where it all started," Anderson said. "I learned to cook in my mom’s Indian fry bread stand at powwows. I learned to smoke meats from my dad. I learned to keep a clean kitchen from my mom."
Old Southern returns to his roots, says Anderson. There's no high fructose corn syrup in the sauces and all sides are made fresh. There's brisket, pork and hot links in the baked beans. There are cornbread muffin tops (no stumps here) glazed with honey butter. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, mac 'n' cheese and coleslaw (creamy and tangy options) are among the dozen offerings.
Meals range from simple (a pulled pork sandwich) to comforting (a bowl that includes mashed potatoes and mac 'n' cheese) to I dare you (the Memphis Mayhem sandwich featuring brisket, pulled pork in Memphis Sauce, a hot link, cheddar cheese, pickled onions, party corn and BBQ sour cream.)
Smoked meats are at the heart of the restaurant with chicken, ribs and brisket getting a kiss of flames on an indoor grill to add that last layer of flavor.
As soon as the brown paper is unwrapped to reveal the smoked brisket, be prepared for a flood of bold smoky beef aromas. The fat that's been slowly melted into the meat creates a tender, flavorful brisket.
Demand for Old Southern started strong. Facebook posts regularly announced the restaurant had sold out of its barbecued meats for the day. Continued support led to more locations opening in Rice Lake, Hudson, Minneapolis and Arden Hills, Minnesota.
The Hayward restaurant closed in October. Ben Welshons, Old Southern's president, said it had outgrown its kitchen and seating capacity, but added that Anderson is always looking for a spot in Hayward. More than 200 comments on the Facebook post announcing the closure offered plenty of suggestions for new locations.
In the meantime, another Old Southern restaurant is expected to open in Chanhassen, Minnesota, this spring.
As Old Southern grows, Anderson is also back in the Famous Dave's fold. Though he calls the decision to take Famous Dave's public the worst of his life, he has wished the company well.
A couple of years ago, he was hired as a consultant. Last year, Famous Dave's CEO Jeff Crivello asked Anderson to help freshen up the menu and dining experience at the full-service restaurant.
With a spot in the BBQ Hall of Fame and two chains to his name, Anderson says he knows what it takes to achieve success from humble beginnings.
“It shows that in this great country we live in, it doesn’t matter where you come from, doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, is that if you’re willing to work hard, that anything is possible.”
Contact Daniel at (920) 996-7214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @HigginsEats and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/higginseats/.