Stamping a signature

Carson’s has been a Chicago destination for baby back ribs since 1977. How did the restaurant—which now numbers four locations with its recent expansion to Milwaukee—develop a menu item that’s been a best seller since day one?

Start with the meat

“We have an incredibly tight spec for our baby backs,” says Dean Carson, president and owner. “The size is super-important. The whole rack of ribs must weigh 1.75 pounds so you get uniformity of cooking when you make hundreds at a time. The rack can only deviate by 1/10 of a pound.” Carson buys only domestic pork baby back ribs—nothing from Denmark, Canada or Mexico. He has to work with a couple of suppliers to get the quality and quantity he needs.

Natural-born flavor

Carson’s most important differentiator: “We do not season the ribs in any way before cooking. No marinades, no brining, no dry rubs,” says the founder. “These are just euphemistic words for tenderizing.” Instead, the characteristic flavor comes from smoking the ribs in a Southern Pride smoker fueled with hickory wood. “The cook controls the time and temperature and we’ve developed a signature system to turn out consistently flavorful, tender baby backs,” Carson adds.

Secret sauce

Carson’s proprietary tomato-based BBQ sauce is a blend of 15 ingredients created to appeal to personal taste—“tangy and only slightly sweet. No hot peppers, no mustard and no vinegar,” he states. It took more than a year to develop, is made in-house and has been the only one available—until now. “A hot version of our sauce is in the works. It’s based on the same flavor profile but we give it a little kick of heat.”

Going retail

Another recent development at Carson’s is its online retail operation. The ribs are made according to the signature recipe and packed in cryovac to ship out to consumers. While many restaurants contract with an outside vendor for retail sales, “we rent out commercial kitchen space and have a fulltime employee dedicated to cooking and packing the ribs,” notes Carson.

Making the cut

Before Carson’s perfected its cooking technique, they tried par-boiling the ribs and baking them in sauce. Neither method met expectations. Meatier St. Louis-style ribs were also given a trial run “but I don’t consider them the best of the best,” Carson claims. The baby backs won out, as did smoked bone-in pork chops and chicken—two other customer favorites.

Today's top stories

1
First impressions count. And for many of your potential customers, especially millennials, those initial impressions of your operation will be formed via a glimpse at your website. So, how can you...
2
For several years, trend forecasters have been predicting that Native American would emerge as the next hot cuisine . But it’s taken a while for the supply chain and dining public to get the message...
3
Unable to find a buyer, the parent company of the Taco Cabana and Pollo Tropical quick-service chains has appointed a new CEO, fine-dining veteran Rich Stockinger, and revised its board in a renewed...
4
McDonald’s is cutting drink prices in its latest bid for bargain-hunting customers. The chain plans to offer $1 sodas and $2 McCafe specialty drinks for a limited time beginning in April. The deals...
5
A delay in mailing federal income tax refunds has put a crimp in consumers’ restaurant spending, adding to a traffic downturn from bad weather in many areas of the country, chain executives told...
6
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has called on the city to adopt a 2-cent-an-ounce tax on sugared soft drinks as a way of simultaneously discouraging consumption and raising money for education. The surcharge...
7
Last-minute shift changes would require restaurants to pay affected employees for at least four hours, whether the time was worked or not, under bills likely to be heard next week in the Oregon...
8
Starbucks is pulling the plug on another of its secondary restaurant concepts, this time the Evolution Fresh cold-pressed juice chain. The coffee giant intends to shut the two remaining Evolution...
9
One thing I’ve loved about writing this column over the past seven (!) years is that by using real reader-submitted questions, I am always learning new things, due to the complexity of running a...
10
Chipotle has finished rolling out its new “Smarter Pick Up Times” platform to all of its locations that offer digital ordering. Through “Smarter Pick Up Times,” the chain says it’s able to monitor...