Barbecue CEO: Roland Dickey Jr. is Smoking the Fast Casual Industry
Take a second to think of some of the largest fast-casual chains in the United States today. Jersey Mike’s Subs, Bruegger’s Bagels, Wingstop – all of these companies have managed to grow some of the most well-known restaurants in the country that you can expect to find in almost any major city you visit, and more in between. Not only that, many have managed to turn a once regional American dish into one that has national recognition. The Italian submarine popularized by chains such as Jersey Mike’s originated from the Italian-American community in the northeast, Bruegger’s Bagels brought the New York-style bagel from the Jewish community of NYC, and Wingstop took an idea from one woman in Buffalo New York, and turned it into a phenomenon.
While many fast-casual chains have roots in the northern United States, one of the fastest-growing franchises in the country is taking southern hospitality national and beyond: Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. Bringing the slow-smoked meats and comforting side dishes from the Lone Star State to 45 others, as well as internationally, is Roland Dickey Jr., the third generation to run the family-owned company since the original restaurant opened in 1941. Since becoming Chief Executive Officer of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. in 2006 Roland Jr. has sought to propel Texas barbecue to national heights, creating a deliberate and yet aggressive growth strategy that focuses on utilizing information technology to create data-driven results. Under his direction Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants quintupled its number of locations in just five years, making it the largest barbecue chain in the world. Ahead, we take a look at the history of Texas barbecue, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, and the strategies Roland Jr. implemented that made it a household name.
Texas barbecue roots
Although the Native Americans, Spanish, Mexicans, and black population practiced styles of barbecue across the country (and indeed even within the large state of Texas itself there are regional differences) Dickey’s owes its modern translation to the German and Czech immigrants who came to Central Texas in the mid-1800s. The hard-working settlers opened grocery stores and meat markets where they would smoke leftover meat to prevent it from spoiling, and because the slow-cooking process made the quality of the meat inconsequential it was considered a cheap option and soon became a popular choice for cowboys and cotton pickers. Because they were purchasing their meal from a grocery store rather than patronizing a restaurant, they would eat the barbecue off of the butcher paper it had been wrapped in, and for sides would pull the crackers, pickles, and onion that were commonly stocked on grocery store shelves. After the Civil War, cattle drives solidified the popularity of barbecue in Texas as cowboys drove longhorns northward along the famous Chisholm Trail all the way to Kansas City.
A family tradition
In 1941, World War I veteran Travis Dickey opened Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Dallas, Texas. An extremely personable man, Travis loved slow-smoked barbecue almost as much as he loved a good conversation, making a barbecue restaurant the perfect outlet. With an original menu consisting of just beef brisket, pit hams, barbecue beans, potato chips, beer, bottled milk, and sodas, Travis would work the pit and prepare all the meats while his wife Ollie Dickey would serve behind the counter. For over two decades the two of them worked together to run the little restaurant while also raising their sons Roland Sr. and T.D., raising them to develop the same passion for barbecue that so many other Texans felt.
When Travis Dickey died in 1967, he left a city mourning the loss of a great pit master. Although Roland Sr. was in college to become a lawyer at the time, he left to join T.D. in helping their mom run the restaurant, and soon found that the hickory wood pits where he had grown up were his true home. He started to develop his own recipes to compliment the ones his father had put in place, and their popularity saw them able to open additional locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. By 1994, the brothers realized that although demand was still growing for their signature meats and sides, they had reached capacity in the amount of locations they were able to manage on their own and worked to develop their first franchise location which is still operated by the original franchisees to this day. As the brand continued to grow in popularity they dipped their toes into new waters by opening a location outside of the state for the first time in Denver, Colorado.
To the next level
Like his father before him, Travis Dickey Jr. grew up hanging around the hickory wood pits, and even drove the company’s catering van as his first car. However, unlike his father he always knew that Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants was where he wanted to build his career. After graduating from college and spending a few years gaining experience at other companies he officially joined the family business, and by 2006 he became cChief Executive Officer for the company. Soon after taking over the global financial crisis triggered the Great Recession, and Roland Jr. knew that then more than ever people would be in search of delicious comfort food at affordable prices. He proposed they take Texas barbecue nationwide, pushing for rapid growth that would eventually see them rival fast-casual staples such as Chipotle or Pei Wei. In order to ensure Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants was prepared to take Texas barbecue to the masses, he made significant capital investments in information technology, marketing, advertising, construction, real estate management, logistics, accounting, and field operations. By 2015, there were over 500 Dickey’s Barbecue Pits across the United States.
In order to be competitive in any industry today one must keep up with the fast-evolving technological trends that have the ability to make businesses better. Roland Jr. recognized this from the beginning and working with his wife and marketing whiz Laura Rea Dickey they integrated information technology into their business model. Aptly naming the program Smoke Stack, the proprietary data platform allowed them to synthesize information from point-of-sale systems, marketing promotions, loyalty programs, customer surveys, and inventory systems. By combining key performance indicators from across their business, they were able to ensure every decision they made was backed by hard data. They were one of the first fast-casual chains to implement a third-party delivery program, launch a consumer app in the iOS store, and most recently have received acclaim for their work utilizing Amazon’s voice technology within restaurant operations.
For Roland Jr., it was clear that unlike many other regional cuisines, slow-smoked barbecue and southern comfort family-style sides had the ability to appeal to most taste buds and compete with other popular yet crowded options such as burgers or pizza. To take the regional vibe of Texas barbecue to a national audience, he knew that they had to find a sweet spot between honoring their history while also engaging on a broad scale. On one end of the spectrum, they found that trying to capture the local flavor by changing their barbecue sauce to match the tastes of other locations such as in Kansas City, St. Louis or Nashville was no match for remaining true to their Texas roots, and they eventually changed back to their original sauce recipe that had been in place since the original location opened. On the other end, at one of their first out-of-state locations they decorated the restaurant with Texas flags painted all along the walls, but soon found that evoking the feeling of a homey barbecue joint with wood beams and neon signs worked much better for a national brand.
One of the most important aspects of maintaining a national brand is consistency, and Roland Jr. has worked hard to ensure that their menu is consistent whether you are in Texas or Massachusetts. Even on a national scale, they source the best quality meat, can never contain preservatives, and must be smoked every day on-site. In some cases this even means teaming up with distribution companies to assure quality control in the national supply chain, such as with their Polish-style sausage which has been made by the same company for over two decades and is provided across the nation through US Foods trucks. In order to become an owner-operator of a restaurant, one must go through an intensive two-week training program entitled “Barbecue-U” where they learn how to run a Dickey’s Barbecue Pit from open to close and everything in between.
In 2016, Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants had achieved such growth that the company restructured its leadership to better meet the demands of its growing business. Roland Dickey Jr. was made Chief Executive Officer of the newly created Dickey’s Capital Group, where he now oversees everything under the Dickey brand from real estate to retail products such as their signature barbecue sauce which was recently introduced as a product at Walmart. Thanks to Roland Jr.’s focus on quality, consistency, and scalable growth, he has successfully been able to turn the regional love of Texas barbecue into a national phenomenon, and with the recent announcement of multiple deals signed for international expansion of the brand in the UAE, Singapore, Japan, Pakistan, Egypt, Georgia, and Australia, it’s clear that the world may soon be ready to as well.