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Yesterday I talked with Husky Hog Bar-B-Que owner Joe Woodel about how he got into competition barbecue—the romance of competing mano a mano with smoke and fire. Well, today's more about the gritty reality of having a food truck and a stand-alone restaurant and trying to make a living making barbecue. Husky Hog is in Bridgeport, a rare example on the south side of Tennessee-style barbecue, which doesn't revolve around rib tips and hot links like most south-side barbecue. Instead Woodel's primary meat is pulled pork shoulder, usually served with a sweet sauce (though he also makes Carolina-style vinegar- and mustard-based sauces). Customers don't always understand the particulars of different regional styles, and he finds that his very good pulled pork (served dry unless you ask for it to be sauced) and his sliced beef brisket and burnt ends (also good) seem off to some customers, who have their own firm idea of what barbecue should be based on the style in a different part of the country. Nonetheless, he carries on, starting his fire around three each morning to be finished cooking by lunchtime, and building an audience in every way he can. Here's his frank account of the reality of running a barbecue operation in Chicago.
Michael Gebert: So you did competition barbecue for how long before you got your food truck?
Joe Woodel: We competed for two years, and I said, man, I need to practice more. I'm getting beat because these guys are practicing, practicing, practicing. I just need to practice more. Cooking at your house—sometimes I'd cook a whole case of shoulders, and what are you going to do with a whole case of shoulders? You can only give away so much. The neighbors loved me. Though some hated me—oh my God, he's out there smoking again! That's the great thing about barbecue—some people love it and some people hate the smoke; it's the same thing when we come to cook on site. That's what we tell them, you need to contact the neighbors and maybe the fire department because when we bring our big hog smoker, it's a lot of smoke.
How did you get started with a food truck?
Initially, I didn't want the food truck. I wanted a competition trailer, with a closed-in environment and the smokers on a porch. So I tried to get some money up to buy one of those. A competition smoker's going to cost you seven or eight grand, a trailer's going to cost you ten grand.
So I called all my family members and said, I need $25,000 to start this competition team. So they asked, how much money was I going to make a week in competition. And I said, there could be months where I don't make a dollar. And they said, well how are you going to fund this? And I said, I'm going to work my ass off at Home Depot, but this is what's going to make me—and I really just wanted to compete, I didn't want to make a name for myself.
My uncle Norm and my mom talked about it and they came back with a proposal. They said, well, we heard about this food truck law. We'd be willing to help come up with the money for the food truck. Well, the competition truck was only $25,000, the food truck was more like $125,000. Because I didn't want to do the food truck! Man, all you hear is about how hard it is with the city, and the problems. And it was a brand new thing [the law allowing cooking on a food truck].
But I thought maybe if I just do the truck on Monday through Friday, that would pay for me to go compete on Saturday and Sunday. So my uncle helped us with the money to do the food truck, but I still wanted to do the competition trailer, not the food truck.
But that was successful?
Oh man, when we came out in July, two years ago, it went really really well. I was getting up at two o'clock in the morning, smoking all the meat, shredding it at eight, nine o'clock in the morning, loading it onto the food truck and driving it downtown. When the food truck scene first happened it was pretty easy to get a food-truck spot. And so, yeah, it was really good. But that winter was really tough. Two years ago, that was the worst of the worst.
But it could be 12 degrees out and we would still do 50, 60 lunches per day. I just couldn’t believe that people were still coming out for barbecue in the cold! I thought, either these people are really crazy, or we're doing an okay job.
We started doing requests and we got a lot of private parties and we made it through the winter. This year we took January, February, and most of March off, and we do Fooda events, we go places like Groupon or Motorola, set up a pop-up kitchen, and sell barbecue to them. It's the same we would do on the food truck, except the fried items. You have to pay a site fee, but you get to reach out to new consumers, people who normally wouldn't leave the building for lunch.
We've taken the food truck out since January probably ten times, we've done a lot of breweries, a couple of birthday parties, a fundraiser—those kind of events aren't like freelancing or free balling, where you hustle until the police run you off. That'll pick back up more in April and last through December.
The food truck's been really good, I'm a little worried about this year because of how many trucks there are. Which is great for the consumer. You get to try all these different lunches every day now, instead of having Jimmy John's and Panda Express and McDonald's all the time. But the problem is, they've licensed all these trucks and they haven’t given us any more parking spots. This summer, the competition is going to be really really fierce.
So the food truck's making money?
Well, by the time I pay Fooda, if it's a Fooda event, and pay for my meat and the people, it's probably breaking even or maybe making a margin of 3 to 4 percent. It's really for marketing and to keep my people, and I'm luring people in for catering [or into the] restaurant to try the full menu. But the main thing is to keep my employees and to turn my product. Because when somebody calls for the food truck, you can't just call up three employees and say, hey, I need you. You've got to keep them on staff. Or I can't take my other cooks and say, hey, take the food truck, because I need them here.
It's mainly the winter in Chicago—man, if we were in LA, I was watching this show and this one food truck did like $400,000 in a year. But that's LA, you have good weather 365 days a year.
So the restaurant is the only part that does well year-round?
Yeah . . . when we had the big snow it was tough. You just hunker down because you know it's coming. You know January to April is going to be your hardest time of the year. So you don't wash your clothes as much, you eat peanut butter and jelly, and you watch your money at the house. You've really got to micromanage your budget and, like any business, you're just trying to make it to spring.
Let's talk about your style of barbecue. You do pulled pork, brisket, chicken—where'd you learn your style?
[Takes a sip and exhales a long breath] Barbecue is . . . so diverse in America, and that's beautiful. I like my stuff a little sweeter. I'm really into sugars, but that's the style that I grew up with in Tennessee. They cook at the grocery stores—you'd go to the grocery store and there would be a guy there with an old propane tank, and he would have ham hocks on there, shoulder, and you would just buy the whole shoulder from the guy in the parking lot. Brisket wasn't really big there, but they'd have some ribs on there. You went to the grocery store and you bought that there. And there'd be the hole in the wall stand, and you'd go to your neighbor's house and they’d have the smoker going. We burned wood for heat, and so we always had an ample amount of it.
Our neighbors in Smithville did it one way, and that was different from the guys in Nashville at the grocery store. The meat-and-three stores [restaurants] that I grew up with, those guys each did it different. But in Tennessee, the main thing was that the proteins were not sauced. The meat was just by itself and you always had squirt bottles and sauced it yourself.
Here it was really different coming to Chicago and doing the barbecue scene here. When I moved to Chicago I tried a lot of different barbecue places and I think Chicago is a beautiful barbecue market. The problem is, they want to eat rib tips and hot links, which is totally fine. I know how to cook rib tips, but I don't personally enjoy rib tips. But when I came here and served the dry meat, or people took home a pound of pulled pork and it didn't have sauce on it, people would call me and complain. I had to start putting a little sauce on it for the Chicago market because every third order, I would get a call complaining that there wasn't sauce on it.
You can still get it dry. When we cook our ribs on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, we leave it dry until you say put the sauce on it. We say, do you want them dry or wet? And if you want them wet, do you want them sweet or hot? I understand what market I'm in, and I'm trying to teach people the different style of barbecue, but it's still really tough in Chicago; every day I'll have ten people come in the door and ask for rib tips, and I totally understand.
I have traveled to the Carolinas, to Virginia, to Kentucky, to Kansas City, to Texas, to Louisiana, to Florida barbecue. I cook to the taste that, I guess as a kid, or when I was running around Tennessee, when I take a bite of it, I'll change it to what I grew up with. I'll tell my cooks that we need a little more of this or a little more of that because all I'm trying to do is a flashback to my childhood.
I don't eat much barbecue anymore—
I think that's an occupational condition—
But when I open up the smoker in the morning, on any of my rigs, to me that's the best smell—man, I love the smell of the smoker. I really love the burning of the wood and I'm really happy to see people eating the stuff, you know?