Part Four: Andy Husbands- Advice for Beginners

Andy Husbands' restaurant is a barbecue lover's dream

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

Part Four of Our Continuing Interview with Barbecue Pitmaster Chef Andy Husbands

Andy Husbands, if you were encouraging someone to start a restaurant, what would you tell them?

Use professionals. That is a business planner, an architect, a lawyer, and not your cousin. Use somebody who actually writes restaurant leases. Someone who actually designs restaurants. I know that your friend’s sister is really good at designing, but if she hasn’t designed a restaurant before, you don’t want her making mistakes on your dime.

Money Costs Money

The one thing you have to understand about opening a restaurant, at least in my scenario, is every dollar I spend costs me $1.25. You’ve got to pay that money back, unless it’s your money.

Every dollar you spend is going to cost you something. So you have to be very judicious on what you spend your money on. That’s part one. Part two is don’t spend any money. If it was me, and I was redoing it, starting today, I would find myself a pizza place that was going out of business. And try to keep the equipment they have. I would spend the bare minimum. And I would reinvest. Now I know that people dream of having a fancy restaurant. I get it. And they want to spend two million dollars. I guess that’s just not my path right now. But, you know, it’s hard. People think that everyone’s going to love it. The reality is, that’s not true. Not everyone’s gonna love it. Sorry. I would just be cautious.

 

Talk about that a little more. I try to tell people, if you go into this thinking you’re the best cook in the world and everybody’s going to love your food, you just don’t understand people. Our tastes are as diverse as our skin colors. How do you deal with the fact that everybody might not like your barbecue?

Ha ha, there are lots of people who don’t like my barbecue. One time I was called to a table, and they were like “did you guys make these collards? They taste canned. They’re awful.” And I was like “okay, let me get you something else.” I gave them something else. I go to the next table. They were like “did you make these collards? They’re the best collards we’ve ever had.” It’s like music. If you want to open a restaurant, and you want to think about yourself, ask this question. Why would everybody like your food? Because it’s like writing a book. Why would anybody read your book? Like making music – why would anybody listen to your music? Why are you so great? I think you have to be honest with yourself. 

Your Restaurant is the Best Restaurant Ever, Until You Open the Door

What’s crazy is – your restaurant is the best restaurant ever, until you open the door. And when you open the door, and Yelp starts coming in… It’s tough. You’ve got to be strong, mentally tough, and you’ve got to say “okay, we’re going to do this.” Run your team to win. On the flip side, you’ve got to be honest, and you’ve got to go “not everyone’s going to like me.” And that’s okay. 

Own It

When they don’t like you, try to fix it. Maybe you can, and maybe you can’t. If you go right now to our Google reviews, I can tell you that 99 percent of them have been responded to by me, personally. Every Google review, I respond to. That’s not somebody else responding, that’s Andy Husbands. It is important for me to know what people are saying. It’s important for me to interact with them. And when they don’t like it, they’ve had a bad experience, I’ll own it. Own your mistakes. Because you own your wins. When you get that Beard award, you’re like “woohoo, I got this because of me and my team!” But when you get that one-star review on Yelp or Google, you have to say, “I got this for me and my team!” You don’t get either-or. 

We All Make Mistakes

We all make mistakes; we’ve got to own them. Try to have more wins than losses. It’s what you need to do. Sometimes chefs get in their own way. We use a thing called Upserve. Love Upserve. They give you data on all your customers, through your credit card sales, through your POS. Likewise, they also do our processing. I can look at this thing called the magic quadrant. Not so much for my barbecue restaurant, but for my old restaurant. I could see dishes that people order, but don’t order again when they come back. Even though you may love it, that dish maybe needs to go. 

What you want is a dish that people come back for. That’s what you need to understand, is that just because someone ordered it, it means you wrote a marketable menu, that’s all that means. If they order it again, if they order it multiple times, then you’ve got something. 

That’s the same thing with you guys [Winston]. You guys have a good pitch. You pitched me at that Sleep No More thing, and talked about it, and I’m like “okay, good pitch.” And you brought me down there – great. But unless it really worked, and I really liked it, I’m not going to order another one. I keep ordering more CVaps.

Talk a little bit about CVap. Why do you think it’s good? What has it done for your business?

It changes the rules. I know it helps on labor. It helps on cooking. The style of restaurant that I do doesn’t use CVap to 100 percent advantage, like Tony Maws when he had Kirkland Tap & Trotter. He would take a whole pork loin, a marinated bone-in pork loin, and hold it in a CVap at about 130°F. Pop off a double chop, grill, and out it goes. 

What does that save? Time, which is table turns. Labor, because it doesn’t take that long to cook it. And my understanding is it shrank 7%, instead of 14%. Over years those little percentages, they do add up.

A Just-Cooked Barbecue Experience

Now for Smoke Shop, what it does for us is it enables us to offer a just-cooked experience. That is really what we want to have. You know, as a pit master who comes from the competition area, we are cooking it, we are timing it, and we are serving. And we’re cutting those ribs, and we’re giving them that just-cooked experience, besides all the other junk that we’re doing with it, but that’s what we’re doing, right? 

There’s no better barbecue than the barbecue that’s pulled out of my pit and rested. And then served. That is what, with CVap, we’re able to do, with the level of browning, we’re able to keep that crust on the outside. The salty, peppery, sweet, whatever rub we’re using. Yet keep that meat so juicy and perfect, that it’s that just-cooked experience. By the way, if you use that tagline, I want some points on it. That is pure gold I just came up with right there. CVap, the just-cooked experience.

What does Chris Hart think about the barbecue coming out of a CVap?

He believes in it. Both he and I have talked about owning a barbecue restaurant. Before I found out about CVap, I don’t know how long you’ve been around, but I was like “meh, I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to have some silly barbecue coming out all dry, out of some silly hot hold thing with a water pan at the bottom that just like, pfft, comes up from the bottom [waves hands and fingers to imitate steam rising]. But he loves it. He comes in and checks us out all the time. 

You guys must be a major thing in the barbecue world. Everywhere I go, it’s mainly CVaps being used. I think people who know are fans. The people who need to know about it is burgers. That’s the number one thing people order. We know this. Anyone who’s serving lots of burgers should have a CVap full of just 120°F burgers. Sear it, out it goes.

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Part Two: Experience is the Best Teacher

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

What lessons have you learned along the way?

When I opened my first Smoke Shop BBQ, I was at the pass expediting and my business partner came over to me and said “hey, maybe this is not for you anymore.” I was just getting too intense about it, you know. I was just losing my mind. I had a different roll now, not just cooking.

I worked in a lot of great places. I was honored to work with a guy named Chris Schlesinger. He wrote the book on grilling, which is called The Thrill of the Grill. If you don’t have it, you should have it. It is the best book on grilling, and that’s still true 40 years after he wrote it. He taught me so much…like flavors. But he also taught me how to be a man, how to be a manager. And he was like, “no, you’re gonna take two days off.” You know, “no, I’m not going to crush you. I want you to work for me for a long time.” I and my other friends were working six, seven days, you know, getting crushed. And he was on me. I didn’t always take two days off. But sometimes I did, and it was nice. It was humane. It actually made me work harder on those days that I did work. You know, I’d still clock in, 13 – 14 hours, when I’m young, five days a week. And I loved it. And I got two days off…how cool was that, right? So, I worked for him, and then I moved on. I worked on a farm in Santa Fe. I worked in San Francisco, in a bunch of notable restaurants. I took a sabbatical from Boston. Rode my motorcycle everywhere on the west coast. And then I came back to Boston and opened my first restaurant in 1996. At the ripe old age of 26 years old. Tremont 647. And it was one of those things where you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know it. I’m glad I did it, but it was certainly a big learning curve for me. Had that restaurant for almost 21 years. It started off as a very cutting-edge restaurant. You know, whatever the cutting-edge trend of the day. It morphed into a really great neighborhood restaurant. I’m really proud of that. When we left, the neighborhood was bummed. If it snowed, you knew we were open. If it stormed, you knew we were open. We were always open, always there.

The thing is, during 9/11, during the marathon bombings, we were packed. Not just because people wanted our food and drink. It was because people wanted to be part of a neighborhood. We didn’t really have TVs, so it wasn’t like people were coming to watch what was on. They wanted to be together. We were like a neighborhood living room. And that to me was what I was very, very proud of. One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m good at building teams. And so, we had these teams that were there forever. I still have some of those people working for me at my new restaurant. It was really great. I’m still proud of everything that we did. We did a lot of charity and stuff.

All this time while I had Tremont 647…someone the other day said to me “oh, you did a really good job of re-inventing yourself.” That’s not really…I didn’t sit down and go “oh, now I want to be a pit master.” I don’t think anybody should ever say, “oh, I want to be a pit master.” It’s like saying “oh, I want to be a doctor.” You’ve got a long, long, long path to get there. So, in 1997, my buddy, Chris Hart, who I write my books with, we just started competing. And for five years straight, we just started losing. And losing bad. If you love barbecue, and you love competition, it’s all about family and friends, and bourbon, and cussing. It’s all about having a great time. We were awful, and we didn’t know what we were doing. And then, at about our five-six year mark, we started to get good. And the reason is, we practiced. You’ve got to practice. To learn any craft, it takes time and energy. We were able to, basically, parlay that into winning our region. Which is not a really big deal to Southerners, they don’t care. But then we won first place brisket in Kansas City, out of 510 teams. And then we won the Jack Daniels Invitational in 2009, becoming the first non-Southern team to win the World Championship. I do need to make one thing very clear. I am not the pit master of the team. I am just a member….. I’m like the Julian Edelman. Chris Hart is the Tom Brady. He really is the brains behind it. It’s his thunder. I’m a member of that team. We won it.

Read Part Three: Moving on to the Next Thing

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Part One: Facing the Latest Challenge

The Smoke Shop barbecue restaurant

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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