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
In its first earnings report as a public company, Del Taco Restaurants Inc. Monday said it saw sales and profits increase in the quarter ended June 16. Comp sales for the Lake Forest, Calif.-based...
2
Darden Restaurants has named Todd Burrowes president of LongHorn Steakhouse, effective Tuesday. This move marks Burrowes’ return to the 470-unit steakhouse brand, as he spent more than 10 years in...
3
Higher average diner checks drove a 3 percent year-over-year increase in U.S. restaurant spending during the year ended May 2015, according to research company NPD Group. Combined with the fact that...
4
CSP Business Media is undertaking several critical steps to accelerate its long-range growth plan while continuing to enhance services to the Foodservice and Retail Convenience markets. The company—...
5
New York's Wage Board on Monday finalized its recommendation endorsing a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers in chain restaurants. The formal step by the three-member board is necessary before Gov...
6
Discounting often is considered a dirty word in the restaurant industry. “Oh no, we don’t discount,” many operators say, running from the notion of devaluing their product in any way. Those same...
7
For many years, health advocates have been on restaurants’ backs to put vegetables in the center of the plate and make protein the garnish. But few have listened. Perhaps it's the fear that customers...
8
Wendy’s Co. this week is starting to test new chicken products made from poultry raised without antibiotics, a senior executive said, the latest sign of a broader industry shift away from the drugs...
9
Sweetgreen will Tuesday debut the wastED salad—a collaboration with Blue Hill’s project wastED—as an extension of the brand’s commitment to reducing waste and repurposing more, the growing salad...
10
Shake Shack has beefed up its burger list with a new limited-time offering, The Roadside Burger, the company announced Monday. Known for a streamlined menu with few frills, the burger concept has...