When Rick Malir devised a plan to create a barbecue joint in Columbus, the number one song in the country was “Believe” by Cher.
As unlikely as that seems in hindsight, creating a local staple out of Southern BBQ in the cold, gray Midwest might have seemed just as far-fetched.
While the City BBQ founder was in his backyard, perfecting his pork and brisket recipes and whipping up baked beans from his home kitchen, murmurs from other restaurant owners rumbled that his place would only last six months; that no one outside of Columbus would care about the barbecue he was making. Fast forward to 36 City BBQs open in six different states, suffice it to say Malir has silenced his doubters since 1999.
But the road to success came with potholes. He had to empty his life savings to open the first store. His market research was based on a hunch. Hell, at one point Malir was kicked out of his Dublin neighborhood, the neighbors burned up over the smoke billowing from his garage.
Like all good things in life—and good barbeque—it didn’t come fast or easy. It took grit, determination, and a shit-ton of hickory logs to get to where he is at.
With Columbus in the midst of a BBQ infatuation, Stock & Barrel had the chance to sit down with the meat mastermind Rick Malir and pick his brain about City BBQ’s place in the Columbus food scene.
A lot of cities across the country have this iconic style when it comes to barbecue like Carolina, Memphis, Texas, etc. Where do you see Columbus falling into with these categories?
I’ve never thought about our impact on the barbecue scene here. We were just trying to make really good brisket. I think it’s more of a craft of what it is rather than going by regions … my market research [in Columbus] was “there’s gotta be at least 400 guys in the city who love barbecue like I do.” That was basically my market research. I didn’t go into this thinking it’s going to be “this” or “that” and I’m not going to focus on “this region” or “that region,” I said let’s focus on really great ’cue… City BBQ literally started in a garage with some competition cooks. I was cooking baked beans and corn pudding in my neighbors’ ovens for some early catering jobs … but when I think of Columbus when it comes to barbecue, again, I think it’s more of a craft. barbecue, again, I think it’s more of a craft.
It sounds like you guys are literally your own taste lab. Just making food that you would eat yourself.
Oh, absolutely. And I try everything. I try not to be a dictator about it, but … I gotta be able to like it. If I don’t like it, I’m just like, “OK… So what’s the deal here?” The food has got to have a “wow” factor. It has to rock my world. It has to be really good—not just good enough.
Could you walk us through your process of creating the perfect plate? (One meat entree, two sides, a drink, and a dessert)
Full-cut brisket. I gotta do baked beans because I’m from Kansas City. I’m gonna have to do three sides too, I’m going to do a meat and three on you. I gotta go baked beans, some type of cole slaw, and round it out with French fries or corn pudding. And if I’m crushing it that day, I’ll do peach cobbler. But we are experimenting with burnt ends so once we get those perfected, I’d probably switch out the full-cut brisket for that.
Gas or Wood?
There are places in North Carolina that will just throw [the meat] in an electric oven, and nah, we aren’t doing that. We burn whole hickory logs, that’s how we do it. Some smokers will have gas assist and we have that because we live in Ohio and it’s cold. We need to provide some of that heat because, boy, if you tried to apply all that heat from just the wood, man, I don’t even want to think about how much wood we would go through. We have that supplement, but we still stick to the true hickory logs. I’m a believer in wood-smoked barbecue without a doubt.
Sauce, dry rub, or naked?
My opinion of barbecue is like the sign we had in our original store, “If you gotta put sauce all over your meat, you have something to hide.” We don’t put sauce, other than maybe a slight glaze, because we believe barbecue is about the art of cooking the meat, not just dousing it in sauce. If you’re doing that, just throw it in the crockpot!
City BBQ has become a staple in Columbus and for a long time you guys were one of the few who were doing BBQ in the city. Now it seems like BBQ shops are opening up left and right. How do you think City BBQ has had an influence on the barbecue culture in Columbus?
The mission of our company is to serve and create happiness. Take care of guests. Do what you gotta do. One of the coolest things—that is just as an example of what our teams do—was in Indianapolis when a lady wrote to us last week that said, “You don’t know this, but four years ago I went to your City BBQ in Indy. My husband had left me, I had $5 in my pocket, and I went there just to get some side dishes to feed my kids. The staff recognized I probably wasn’t in the best straits back then, so they kept bringing me more food until I was fed.” That’s what we want our folks to do: treat them well and do the right thing. [Things like this] are as important to us with the social impact we’ve had and the charities that we support—that’s as important to us as affecting [the] barbecue scene in Columbus. It’s not to get publicity from it—it’s because it’s the right thing to do.
City BBQ is currently in the test lab working on perfecting a meat alternative for vegetarians. For now, vegetarians will just have to get a second helping of mac-n-cheese. In the meantime, check out their original location on Henderson Rd. or head over to their website at citybbq.com.