Part Three: Chef Andy Husbands-Moving on to the Next Thing

The Smoke Shop is one of Andy Husbands' latest concepts.

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part TwoPart Four

We asked Chef Andy Husbands about his decision to close Tremont 647 and move on to his next project.

So, I’m about 20 years into my old restaurant. I knew I wanted to do something different. It wasn’t that I wanted to reinvent myself. You know, try doing anything for 20 years. It was time. Five years ago, me and this guy partnered, and we were like, let’s do something together. We both admired each other, and had different strengths and skills. Originally we were thinking about doing a Japanese Izakaya. I love Japanese Izakaya, that’s what I’m going to do. It begs the question – what do you know about izakaya? About this much [holds thumb and index finger an inch apart]. I could make a couple dishes. There’s a lot of history and knowledge that you have to have. And time to learn. 

My partner looked at me and was like “why are we not doing barbecue?” And I was like “I have never thought about opening a barbecue restaurant. Give me a couple days, let me do some research. Let me think about this.” And I came back, and I was like “I think I want to do it.” I didn’t want to…don’t know how to say this…I didn’t want to shit where I eat. My love of barbecue is so deep. I didn’t want to make it just a thing. Really wanted it to be special.

I didn’t want to do something I wasn’t passionate about. Just because I am passionate about izakaya, it just doesn’t mean I can cook it. I’m very passionate about barbecue. And I have been successful at it, and so, that’s how I get here. We knew we wanted to open up multiple units. And so now we’re working on our fourth unit. We couldn’t be prouder. It’s certainly a challenge every day, but, you know, that’s how you get here.

It makes it hard when you’re passionate. You’re not too easy on yourself, are you?

I tried to explain to my younger employees that nobody’s telling me to go to work. I don’t have a schedule. And that’s a place that you earn, and you get to. It’s a passion. More than just barbecue. When I talk about barbecue, to be clear, I’m not just talking about smoking meats. I’m talking about hospitality, about a way of life. Barbecue is a noun, right? Not just a verb. It’s an event. I just love the process.

Andy Husbands' restaurant is a barbecue lover's dream

Focusing on Childhood Hunger

Tell me some of your thoughts about charity. You probably get ten asks a day. How do you determine what to support? How to support? And on the other side, what kind of support are you getting now that you’re in need?

Wow. Let me answer the latter question. A lot of the people who we’ve helped throughout the years have bought gift cards and helped promote us in different ways. Just because they’re charities, they don’t necessarily have any money either. They’ve been giving us a lot of support, promoting us, things like that. We’re always thankful for that partnership.

In the very beginning, I had partnered with Share Our Strength, which their hashtag is #nokidhungry. It made sense to me. I come from a family that was federally assisted at some point. Had the cheap school lunch. And I just think it’s important to give back. 

I think giving back in a food-hospitality way makes sense to me. Other people focus on diabetes or cancer, and I think that’s really great. The thing is restaurants are more than food. They are the neighborhood living room. They’re a place of celebration, of gathering. It’s important to recognize that, and to give back in that way. 

I think it just ties together; it just makes a good puzzle piece that just goes together. So, for me, childhood hunger is something I’ve been focused on, even more so now that I’m a father. Tremont 467 donated over a quarter million, in cash, in the 20 years it was open. I’m very proud of that. It’s a team effort. 

When people are asking us, pre-COVID, post-COVID, to donate, we have the things that we focus on, which are really charities for children. I’m also a member of the Rodman Celebration, which is about children’s charities. So that’s our focus. It’s nice that we’ve aligned with that. It also enables us to say “no, “thank you for the ask, ask us next year. But just so you know, this is what we do.” We’re known for donating and being active. And it makes us able to say no. Look, I can’t support every charity. I would love to, but we have a business to run.

Can-Do and Cashflow

You’ve mentioned encountering challenges over your career. Which did you find the most challenging, and what did you learn from them? You’re here, 30 years in the business, quite successful. That’s not easy to do.

I think you have to have a positive, Can-Do attitude. That’s how I get through life. I think the biggest thing I’ve had to learn, which has to do with all the things I’ve talked about, 9/11, the bombings, COVID, my one piece of advice is cash flow. Understand cash flow. 

You often hear, these guys in music, they have a big single in music, they think they’re the cat’s meow. They think they’re going to have this money, and have this money forever. That is a rare, rare day. Same with restaurants. 

There are some restaurants that just print money all day long. But most restaurants have a cycle. And even the ones that print money have a cycle. They all have a cycle. In New England, at least for us, this is a normal time. We’re doing great, we’re doing great, spring and summer, it’s barbecue season. And fall’s doing pretty good. It slows down a little bit in winter. Slows down a lot in the deep winter, in January.

So, you need to plan this stuff out, just like you do at home. Don’t spend when you don’t need to. Put cash aside. And for me, what I did at my restaurant is, I got ahead of my bills. Say I had 30 days to pay on something, I would pay in 15 days, try to keep everything at ten to 15 days – still having that 30 days available to me so if things got tight I could stretch a little bit. Above all, that’s probably one of the most important things I ever learned was cash flow. It’s something people don’t talk about in a restaurant, at all. It’s so important.

Read Chef Andy Husbands | Part Four: Advice for Beginners, and Responding to Comments

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Part One: Facing the Latest Challenge

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Read all parts in this series: Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Andy Husbands is an accomplished Boston chef. Born in Seattle, Washington, he moved to Massachusetts with his father in 1984. He’s probably best known for his restaurant Tremont 647, a South End fixture from 1996 to 2018. He shuttered that restaurant to focus on his new barbecue concept, The Smoke Shop (which has three locations; in Cambridge, Boston’s Seaport, and one in Sommerville. A fourth is under construction in Harvard Square).

Andy has spent over 20 years on the competitive barbecue circuit (as a member of the IQUE BBQ team, winner of the 2009 Jack Daniels Invitational World BBQ Championships), and has earned national recognition, including appearances on The Food Network, and being named the 2014 Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s Chef of the Year. He’s also authored five cookbooks, including his latest, Pitmaster (co-written with Chris Hart).

When we spoke with Andy, the US was several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which was (and still is) having a massive impact on the entire restaurant industry. We asked him how his business was weathering the storm.

How’s your business? How are things in Boston, with all this craziness?

Things in Boston are interesting. I’m one of those positive guys, so I’m not going to be asking, begging for help. That’s just not how I do it. I put my head down and work. But things are okay. I’ve got a great business partner, and we feel pretty strongly that we’re going to survive; we’re going to be okay. And we’re looking toward the future. We are actually starting construction on a new place. Business-wise, we’re about 40 to 50 percent. For us, it’s going to be all about labor, and managing labor.

I’ve been through a lot. Nothing this bad, but I’ve been through 9/11, I’ve been through 2008 [the Great Recession], the Marathon bombings, and ten feet of snow in the winter. What you do is you circle the wagons. You make sure you have your key players in place. Make sure you’re taking care of your team as best you can. You’re just defending what you have. And that’s what we’re doing. So, you know, it’s going okay. We have lots of happy customers. Instead of serving the 3,000 people each location would serve in a week, now we’re serving about 1,000 to 1,500.

Chef Andy Husbands is a barbecue pitmaster

Is the majority of that curbside and carryout, or are people actually coming in now?

A fair amount is curbside, carryout, third-party delivery, and catering. When I say catering, it’s not like the old days. It’s parties of ten, parties of 15, people getting together. A lot of patio. We’ve been really lucky. In Cambridge, Sommerville, and Boston, where we are located, everybody’s let us expand our patios, or even have a patio – in the Boston case, they gave us some parking spots. I hope they let us do that every year. It’s awesome. So, you know, just kind of getting through, being as creative as possible. I’m working on a class I’m teaching this Sunday. Looking at different revenue streams, just figuring out what’s best for us.

How’d you get to where you are? Like you’ve told us, you’ve dealt with 2008, 9/11, now COVID. How’d it all start, and how’d you get to where you are today?

“As I look back on my life…., in fourth grade, I did a demo on how to make doughnuts. One day, I was at home. I was, what they called back then, a latchkey kid. So, I was home alone. I’d come home from school; I’d be home alone. I wanted to learn how to make doughnuts. So I picked up The Joy of Cooking, and I did it. It does beg the question, what adult lets their kid work with hot oil? But I just did it. I just always loved to cook. I like the process, and I loved seeing people enjoy it. To me, that was something that I always had. That’s fourth grade.

Fast forward to when I was 14. I’d moved out east. I wanted to get a job, and my first job was in a bakery. It happened to be down the street. I was a baker’s assistant, which meant I did a lot of cleaning. But he’d let me scale stuff out, measure everything. He eventually taught me how to make bread…taught me how to do all this stuff. Which was great, because when I went to culinary school, I already knew how to do it, so I only had to learn the why, instead of the how. I knew how to feel it. When you make a lot of bread, you just know how it should feel.

I worked in a lot of other restaurants until I went to culinary school. I wasn’t the best high school student, mentally. But I loved to work, and so, Johnson & Wales accepted me. I couldn’t believe it. And believe it or not, I was a straight-A student. Not just in the culinary. I got a bachelor’s in foodservice management. I just loved this business.

What’s really great about it, fast forward to today, is that this business changes. What I did in my early 20s is not what I do now. People say, “oh, you must be working all the time.” And I’m like “yeah, sort of, but it’s not a physical as it used to be.” It’s not the intensity of a line cook. It’s like football – you can’t keep that up for 15 years.

Read Part Two: Experience is the Best Teacher

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