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
How do you make a GreenRiver? One way is to dump that orange stuff in the river on St. Patrick’s Day. Another way, the operative one for Chicago food and drink news, combines the efforts of the...
2
Popeyes is kicking off summer with a new LTO: Smoky Garlic Chile Chicken. Customers who order the smoked-chicken offering will receive four battered-and fried tenderloins along with a signature side...
3
Focus Brands has named Bruce Schroder president of its Moe’s Southwest Grill chain, filling the vacancy left by the promotion of Paul Damico to group president. Schroder is a former COO and...
4
McDonald's Corp. MCD, -0.72% said in an emailed statement to MarketWatch that the news from the U.S. Department of Justice, regarding the arrests of a number of FIFA officials on corruption charges,...
5
Dec. 1 is looming large on the calendars of many restaurateurs. That’s the date the Food and Drug Administration’s new food-labeling rules go into effect as part of the Patient Protection and...
6
Limited-time offers have become a regular draw for one of every five consumers, and restaurant chains should pay particular attention to how their temporary menu products are wrapped or boxed,...
7
Yum Brands operates three fast-food restaurant giants: KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Of those, only Pizza Hut has a well-established delivery business. Taco Bell and KFC could soon be next. Yum YUM -...
8
Menu insight of the day, powered by Food Genius , provides daily restaurant menu data to help restaurant operators build better menus. Food Genius is a restaurant menu insight provider that collects...
9
Earlier this year, I answered a question on what items are best cooked in a Flashbake oven . Flashbake ovens use intense visible and infrared light to dramatically reduce cooking time. They are best...
10
The First Watch breakfast-and-lunch chain has acquired a direct competitor, The Egg & I, to form their crowded sector’s clear leader in terms of restaurant count. Terms of the deal were not...