For Famous Dave Anderson, adversity definitely had its advantages

The founder of the barbecue chain that bears his name had little going for him as a youngster. And that, he says, was what likely gave him an edge.

Believing you’re the dumbest kid in class definitely had its advantages for Dave Anderson, the former Bush administration official who also goes by Famous Dave, as in Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que.

For one thing, it fostered the conviction that immersive study of any topic, from sink fixtures to corn bread, could trump the quicker comprehension of those around him. Other thinkers might arrive at a conclusion in less time, but seldom with the depth of understanding Anderson pursued to counter what would be diagnosed eventually as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). (It wasn’t until he was being vetted for the government job, an assistant cabinet secretary’s post, that Anderson learned he was actually a genius with an IQ of 147.)

That propensity to plunge into a topic led Anderson on a lifelong quest to identify what made a barbecue joint the best of its breed. It wasn’t just a matter of hitting all the standouts in Chicago’s South Side, a neighborhood farther from the city’s Gold Coast and Anderson’s west side home than the distance shown on a map. He traipsed through the smoky hotspots of Memphis, Kansas City, the Carolinas and Texas, looking for the difference between good, great and oh-my-god.

In true Anderson style, he didn’t count on osmosis to fill his head with takeaways. Rather, he identified the features that made a place stand out, from rubs to the music, and then broke down the formula for putting forth the ideal version of that attribute. He called that charter the Best of the Best, and it served as his operational handbook.

To provide what he regarded as the best background music, for instance, Anderson developed a programming theory and formula that was rolled into every Famous Dave’s unit. He classified R&B and blues songs, his passion, into various types based on their content and tempo. Then he set the rules and selected the order of songs: No more than three consecutive tunes with a certain number of beats, with a switch to a very well-defined upbeat tune—definitely not a somebody-done-me-wrong selection, says Anderson—for Song No. 4 in the series. Then a new series would follow in the same fashion.

No one has any idea what it’s like to be married to someone like Dave.

When he buys anything at a grocery store—it’s never one thing.

If he needs mustard, he comes home with every mustard available!

He’s got this insatiable curiosity to understand why things are the way they are.” –Kathy Anderson, Dave’s wife of 45 years

Those nose-to-toes immersions in the narrowest of topics would fuel a business career that is a standout by any gauge. (It would also help him earn an MBA from Harvard in nine months, without an undergraduate degree on his transcript.) In addition to founding Famous Dave’s, with which he’s still involved, Anderson launched a limited-service barbecue concept called Jimmie’s Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse, named after his father, a barbecue fanatic who sparked his son’s passion for smoked meats.

Anderson would be inducted into the National Barbecue Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame, the National Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame and the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame. His brainchild, Famous Dave’s, would win about 750 best-in-class awards for its food.

In November, Anderson added the possibly unprecedented honor for a restaurateur of being inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame, a development that he admits brought more than a moment's reflection. “When they told me, I couldn’t believe it,” said Anderson. “It wasn’t like hitting a home run. It was more like, ‘Look how far we’ve come.’”

He voices particular pride in being a pioneer of selling a restaurant brand’s signature products in grocery stores. Long before most restaurant brands even considered licensing, he had several dozen Famous Dave’s products of his creation on supermarket shelves—“more than any big-name chef like Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse or Guy Fieri,” Anderson said. To this day, the potential for licensing is a key factor in deciding what restaurant brands should be acquired by Famous Dave’s parent, BBQ Holdings.

He notes that Famous Dave’s was also a trailblazer in accommodating off-premise business. Long ago, Anderson’s read of market trends led him to set up a separate entrance and service area for takeout customers.

Rags-to-riches stories abound in the restaurant industry, but seldom has that journey been as long and rocky as it was for Anderson, now age 68.

He was born to two Native Americans from different tribes and cultures. His father, Jimmie, was a Choctaw from Oklahoma. His mother, Iris, was an Ojibwe from the northern woods of Wisconsin. They met after both had been pulled from their homes and dispatched to a special boarding school for Native Americans. The intent was to accelerate their assimilation by muting their cultural foundation and teaching them the ways of the American mainstream.

The reality was often much more cold-hearted and brutal, particularly for his father. He would be whipped for any infractions, and both parents recalled being forced to eat soap as punishment for such violations as speaking in their tribal languages.

Jimmie gave Dave his love of barbecue. Iris provided the youngster with his first taste of the restaurant business. To boost the family’s income, Iris would rig up a lean-to tent at powwows and other Native American events to sell a frybread sandwich made with smoked venison meat. The menu also included a traditional Ojibwe wild rice soup and maple sugar candies.

Anderson said his mother was meticulous in her handling of the food, and he credits her with teaching him the importance of sanitation and service as well as how to cook.

Before he hit his teens, a young Dave Anderson was roasting meat over a grill he’d made from a garbage can overlaid with rebar. His first full-fledged restaurant would not come until 1994, when he was well into adulthood.

His OCD side was given ample rein in setting up that first Famous Dave’s. Realizing that many female potential customers viewed barbecue joints as a smoky man cave, Anderson dove into the task of making his venture more welcoming for women.

To soften the place’s rustic lodge design, he adorned every tree on the drive up to the entrance with a hanging basket containing a flowering plant.

The effort extended to the ladies’ room. The basins were imported from Italy, where they were adorned with hand-painted roses. The fixtures were plated with 24-karat cold, and the counters were surfaced with marble. He covered the walls with what he describes as a fortune’s worth of tasteful art.

The approach worked, Anderson recalls. The bathroom became a destination, and the restaurant itself morphed into a landmark. It was located in the backwoods area of Hayward, Wis., a town of about 2,000 people just outside the reservation of his mother’s tribe. Before long, the Famous Dave’s was serving 6,000 people a week.

“If you were running for governor or some other office, you had to come eat there,” Anderson recalls. On a weekend, the parking area would be filled with cars from surrounding states. “People came to have their picture taken outside the restaurant—we were the most-photographed restaurant in Wisconsin.”

Other Famous Dave’s restaurants would follow. The second store, a 50-seat, 2,900-square-foot joint in Minneapolis, would generate sales of $80,000 per week.

Anderson experimented with alternate formats, including cavernous blues clubs that he intended to operate in collaboration with soul master Isaac Hayes.

It was no coincidence, Anderson stresses, that his restaurant success came after his wife, Kathy, sprang an intervention on him to halt his drinking. “When I started, everyone in the business was drinking—it was just what you did,” he recalls. But in his instance, he says, alcohol abuse brought him close to death at least four times and led to three bankruptcies before his career found traction.

Among Anderson’s few regrets about his life was that he didn’t quit drinking earlier.

Another was selling Famous Dave’s to the public only two years after opening the Hayward prototype. Anderson said he was swayed by the recommendations of lawyers and financiers. He didn’t appreciate how much control he’d have to cede as head of a public company, even if he was the founder, and how his frame of reference would be shortened to the next quarter. Deep research into an aspect of the business didn’t mesh well with Wall Street’s demand for immediate results.

“I should have kept it,” he glumly remarked.

Today, I am so grateful my wife had the bravery to plan my intervention. My life has been totally turned around and while I can never get back the 20 years I spent as a functioning alcoholic, I am committed to sharing openly my story for the one purpose of helping others live a better life." —Dave Anderson

The chain’s rapid growth brought problems, and shareholders flexed their might. Famous Dave’s would cycle through several CEOs, while Anderson moved up to chairman, a post he would hold until he was asked by the George W. Bush administration in 2004 to become assistant secretary of the interior with responsibility for Native American affairs.  He would serve through the Republican’s second term.

After leaving government, Anderson launched Jimmie’s. He also saw the concept bearing his name slip farther into disarray. Among the veterans who were called in to run Famous Dave’s was Ed Rensi, a onetime CEO of McDonald’s. Rensi had the audacity to take Anderson’s cornbread off the menu and to reduce portion sizes. The moves clearly accelerated the brand’s tailspin, leading to Rensi’s ouster and a request that Anderson rejoin his creation.

He did in 2014 and remains involved with the chain today, serving as an advisor and brand conscience to Jeff Crivello, CEO of Famous Dave’s parent BBQ Holdings. Under Crivello, the company has acquired a number of other concepts, including the Granite City brewpub chain and the Tahoe Joe’s steakhouse group.

Crivello has also added new formats to Famous Dave’s arsenal, enabling the brand to sell meats prepared according to Anderson’s recipes through a variety of means, including a fast-casual riff and even a drive-thru.

Anderson offers high praise for Crivello, not only for the results he delivered by also for his work ethic. Any time he calls Crivello, Anderson said, the much younger man is working, usually while driving someplace in his car to check out an opportunity.

At age 68, Anderson said he’s no longer eager to spend hour upon hour turning ribs on a wood-fired grill. But it doesn’t mean he’s idle. The Hayward restaurant is still open, and Anderson now rents out a few adjacent cabins he owns. He and wife Kathy also have a small farm nearby, and the Anderson family has started a winery in the area.

He’s also written several books, including one called “Famous Dave’s Life Skills for Success” and another that candidly recounts his embrace of sobriety, called “Getting Sauced.”

Not bad for the dumbest kid in the class.

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