When Famous Dave started out, he wasn’t famous — and authentic Southern barbecue wasn’t the nationwide obsession it is today.
“Twenty-three years ago, the Twin Cities had only three barbecue restaurants,” said Dave Anderson, the founder of the Famous Dave’s restaurant chain. “Now there are 50, and each has its own interpretation.”
So why is Dave back with yet another barbecue restaurant chain in a highly competitive Twin Cities foodie scene at age 64, when he could be leisurely swinging golf clubs or packing for a cruise?
It would seem you can take the man out of barbecue — and maybe even the Dave out of Famous Dave’s (for a while) — but you can’t take the barbecue out of the man.
Dave, who currently works closely with Famous Dave’s as a consultant and brand ambassador, has also opened not one but four locations of a new fast-casual restaurant chain called Old Southern BBQ, also known as Jimmie’s.
Ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken and hot links, plus BBQ bowls, sandwiches, BBQ tacos and sides, can be ordered to eat in, to go or in large batches for catering.
“Everything is made from scratch, and just minutes before service,” said Dave, who recently opened his first Twin Cities location at 44th and France in the former Chatterbox space. “The sauces are totally different. I created all-new recipes. And people have embraced it.”
Indeed, customer reviews are quite positive so far online and on the street.
But Dave’s also extremely proud of the fact that his Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse in Hayward was recognized in 2016 by his peers as “One of The Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” in the National Barbecue News.
“This is huge,” he said of the award, given by top barbecue professionals.
Travel Wisconsin, meanwhile, recently named Old Southern BBQ one of “The Top BBQ Joints in Wisconsin.”
While Famous Dave’s restaurants are big, bold and sit-down, Old Southern is fast-casual and smaller with meals served, Dave said, “right out of the pit.”
That means locals can now not only compare two types of restaurants created by America’s Rib King, they can also sample two different sauce lines, including traditional Famous Dave’s products sold everywhere (including Famous Dave’s pickles at Costco), and now his Old Southern line, including flavors such as Chicago Blue, Dixie Red, Diablo’s Batch and Southern Gal (sold online and at his new restaurants).
If all that weren’t enough to keep the man busy, Dave is also active on the keynote speakers’ circuit and is planning yet-another book. (He’s written six already.)
He and his wife, Kathy, live in Edina and their two grown sons, James and Tim, live in the Twin Cities as well.
So who’s Jimmie — the new restaurant chain’s official namesake?
That’s Dave’s dad, a Choctaw from Southern Oklahoma who met an Ojibwe gal, Iris Johnson, from Hayward.
Both were both uprooted — “orphaned,” Dave puts it — by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and placed in American Indian boarding schools. But they didn’t cross paths until they met at the Haskell Institute for Indians, a junior college in Lawrence, Kan.
After serving in the Army in World War II, Jimmie steered his young family (Dave is the oldest of three) to Chicago, where jobs were to be had. But Jimmie was so homesick for Oklahoma southern cooking and barbecue that he drove back twice a month until his wife mastered the beloved southern-style techniques. (She’d been selling her fried bread and chicken-wild rice soup at American Indian powwows for years.)
“That’s how I got my passion for barbecue. From my dad. I was born into it,” Dave said. “But it was my mother who taught me how to cook.”
Those twin fervors fed both his stomach and his soul — which school decidedly did not.
“I was in the bottom half of my class in high school. Teachers made me feel dumb, always lost,” said Dave, who was then challenged by an undiagnosed attention deficit disorder.
A mind for business
At 18, Dave launched his own business. But it wasn’t barbecue.
His fondness for plants spurred him to create dish gardens, which he sold to Chicago’s leading florists.
“I hustled. I got up every day eager to go to work. I worked harder, longer, than anyone,” Dave said. “Nobody could out-work me!”
Not that salesmanship came easy either.
“I was shy,” he said. “I stood in the basement in front of a $5 K-Mart mirror with a book and read out loud so I could overcome my shyness about speaking.”
Then along came the infamous Chicago blizzard of 1979, closing city streets for the duration, causing florists to go out of business, and Dave right along with them.
Bouncing back — and by then a veteran of President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 task force studying the problems of minorities in small businesses — he joined a Fortune 500 company (the former American Can Co.) in 1979 and turned its worst territory into its best, bringing in more than $1.25 million in sales.
After his wife, Kathy, got a call from Minneapolis to manage the Eddie Bauer store in the Foshay Tower, Dave returned to his tribal roots. And Hayward.
He was hired by the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa tribal government to serve as the tribe’s first business CEO.
He put together a top-notch business board with all non-tribal members — an arrangement he insisted on when accepting the position — designed to separate the tribe’s business from the “roller-coaster politics of the tribe.”
“This was something I fought hard for and it was very special at the time,” Dave said.
The structure worked: Dave doubled revenues, vaulting the tribe’s business finances from red to black.
President Ronald Reagan paid notice, recognizing the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe as one of eight outstanding economically progressive tribes in the nation, according to his Presidential Commission on Indian Reservation Economies.
He also appointed Dave to a Bureau of Indian Affairs’ task force on reservation gaming. Back in Dave’s home state, a succession of minority-business and tourism appointments followed for the rising star.
The Bush Foundation also took note, naming Dave a Bush Leadership Fellow in 1985, allowing him to go on to earn a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, despite not coming into the program with the standard undergraduate degree.
Meanwhile, the management and investment company Dave had formed in 1989 to specialize in emerging gaming markets was lauded by Fortune magazine as “the fastest growing company in America.”
Selling ribs to Swedes
It wasn’t until 1994 that Dave began pursuing his lifelong dream by opening his now-aptly named Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant in his hometown of Hayward.
“Ever since I was 14, I’d been tinkering with barbecue sauce. Still, people told me, ‘You’re nuts! In Northern Wisconsin, with all those Swedes and Norwegians, you don’t stand a chance.’
“But from the outset, we were serving 6,000 customers a week in a town of 2,000, with no advertising, just word of mouth,” Dave said.
Fans soon begged for more: “‘Chicago! Minneapolis!’ So I took over a former gas station in Linden Hills with 2,500 square feet and 50 seats.”
Lines formed down the block.
And from that point on, he was smokin’.
Nation’s Restaurant News, the industry’s bible, called Famous Dave’s “the hottest concept in America.”
“Top-quality food and service,” Dave said. “I hire smiles.”
That led to a second store in Roseville, which eventually morphed into a national enterprise with more than 170 locations, including company-owned sites and franchises in more than 30 states, plus Puerto Rico, Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
Next came what Dave looks back on as his “biggest mistake.”
In 1996, he was advised to allow Famous Dave’s to be publicly traded.
“Barbecue is a lifestyle,” Dave said, a nuance that didn’t mesh well with the world of Wall Street execs and quarterly reports.
Dave increasingly felt the leadership that took over Famous Dave’s wasn’t making decisions in the company’s best interests.
“I’d never do it again,” Dave said. “I didn’t work to make money, but to make people happy. I always believed that if I made people happy first, then the money would follow.”
On March 31, 2014, Dave became “emotionally, legally and financially separated” from Famous Dave’s.
Today, however, new folks have taken over the reins with Famous Dave’s — and they’ve encouraged the brand’s founder and namesake to come back as a consultant to bring back the company’s authenticity and credibility, Dave said.
“I am tasked with working on recipes and making sure the core legacy recipes are staying true to the original formulations,” Dave said.
He’s also been asked to be the face of Famous Dave’s through the company’s marketing efforts, including social media.
The Minnetonka-based chain, according to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, is the state’s 55th-largest public company when ranked by revenue.
Sales at Famous Dave’s have been down in recent years and news stories have focused on the struggling company’s string of CEOs who have come and gone in rapid succession during the past decade.
Sporadic restaurant closings, including Twin Cities locations such as the Mall of America, Eden Prairie and, most recently, Stillwater, founded in 1997.
Mike Lister, who in October became Famous Dave’s chief executive and operating officer, is a longtime friend and business associate of Dave’s.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dave for the past 20 years,” Lister said. “He is the ultimate entrepreneur, mentor and visionary, and has earned his title of America’s Rib King by staying committed to his passion for all things BBQ. He is a Famous Dave’s ambassador who truly lives our BBQ culture.”
In the years leading up to those difficult changes surrounding Famous Dave’s, Dave kept busy.
In 2002, in fact, he got a call from the White House, then occupied by George W. Bush, stating: “The President would like to interview you.”
It was regarding a post as assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs: “Would you consider it?” they asked.
When it comes to public service, Dave’s never been one to back away.
After a Senate confirmation and FBI clearance — a process that took a year — he was on the job, responsible for a $2 billion budget and 10,000 employees.
It was a frustrating experience, however.
“I learned the government is basically broken,” he said, “and that the real strength of America is what happens in our own communities where we live.”
Back in the community, the high-school dropout had made the American Dream come true. So what does this self-made man do with a lot of money? He gives it back.
He and Kathy established The LifeSkills Center for Leadership, a private nonprofit foundation created with a $1.5 million gift from the Andersons. Its rigorous training program, provided by Dave’s son, James, is designed to help at-risk Native American youth learn — as Dave stresses the make-or-break factor — “job skills not taught in school.”
For this kind of personal commitment to others, Dave received Oprah’s Angel Network Award, cherished among his 700-plus accolades.
Jim Smart, a principal at Smart + Associates, a Minneapolis-based design firm that specializes in restaurants and shops, describes Dave as a “wildly creative” guy who always has a “brilliant idea” to share.
“He’s got the biggest heart of anybody I know,” Smart said. “He puts his money where his mouth is — a real sweet guy.”
His toughest battles
During his multi-faceted career, Dave has overcome a multitude of challenges amid the many honors and awards, including bankruptcy (during his floral days), a life-threatening auto accident and even chemical dependency: He’s been sober 22 years, since 1995.
“I don’t think you can ever overcome life’s greatest adversities if you never accept responsibility,” Dave said. “A lot of folks have often asked me about my toughest challenges being an entrepreneur, expecting me to say that being a minority might be a road block or not having access to capital in the early days. But I surprise them when I always answer that I have been my own toughest challenge.”
Dave credits his wife, Kathy, who stood by him during their toughest times.
“We never gave up,” he said, adding that he hopes his willingness to share his life’s ups and downs can help others when they feel hope is lost. “There isn’t anything that can’t be overcome if you never, ever give up on your dreams,” he said.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to be humble enough about asking for help when times are tough.”
Those words, of course, aren’t just talk. Despite a heartbreaking separation from his most treasured brand, Dave is, yet again, starting something new — and even building bridges with his original brand, after all.
Though the original location of Famous Dave’s on Round Lake near Hayward was destroyed by a devastating fire in 2014 — and has since been replaced by a new waterfront restaurant, Props Lading Waterfront Grille — Dave Anderson’s presence in that town continues on with his new already-renowned Old Southern BBQ Roadhouse. And that’s not to mention his Old Southern BBQ locations in Rice Lake and Hudson, Wis., and in Minneapolis’ Linden Hills neighborhood — yet another return to his original entrepreneurial roots.
“I am at the top of my game when it comes to barbecue,” Dave said, noting that he’ll be inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame this fall at an awards ceremony in Kansas City. “So I’m back in the business.”
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.