Emerging Brands

Famous Dave’s parent puts a spotlight on another BBQ star

The barbecue company plans to open restaurants affiliated with the next generation of sauce-slathering stars, beginning with Clark Crew BBQ.
Photograph: Shutterstock

It’s deja vu all over again for the parent of Famous Dave’s, the full-service barbecue chain that found its sizzle in the pit mastery of an all-star from the competitive cook-off circuit. This time, the rib-searing virtuoso is a master electrician named Travis Clark, and the company founded by Famous Dave Anderson would be perfectly content if the venture never reaches the scale of its older smoke-scented sister.

BBQ Holdings, the successor company to Famous Dave’s of America, paired up with Clark after a two-year courtship to open Clark Crew BBQ in Oklahoma City at the end of last year. If other units follow, they’ll be as long in the making as one of Clark’s wagyu briskets, according to BBQ CEO Jeff Crivello. Instead, the company is likely to grow by adding more Travis Clark-caliber barbecue stars, either home-grown or from the series of competitions that draw fans and talent the way a NASCAR competition pulls motorheads.

“This is something that can’t be viewed as a chain—everyone has to show up and see Travis there,” Crivello says. “There are only a few other people whom we would trust to open a Clark Crew BBQ. [However,] Travis does have his apprentices there, learning barbecue.”

The sort of barbecue they’re learning might not work everywhere, Crivello says. People in Oklahoma City are very knowledgeable about barbecue, with high standards and little tolerance for the unauthentic, he explains. Famous Dave’s has made more concessions to the popular palate.  

Clark Crew is also more upscale, with checks averaging $10 above the mean for Famous Dave’s, according to Crivello. The higher tickets reflect the availability of steaks ranging in price from $30, for a 6-ounce fillet mignon, to $46, for a 14-ounce New York strip. “Famous Dave’s isn’t really in that price point range,” Crivello says.

The bar is also showcased far more dramatically than it is in a Famous Dave’s, he continues. “Famous Dave’s restaurants aren’t very bar-centric. Only about 7% of sales come from the bar,” he says.

The restaurant, a conversion from a vacant Romano’s Macaroni Grill, cost $2 million. It measures 7,200 square feet, with an outdoor patio where BBQ intends to stage live music when the weather is appropriate.

Crivello acknowledges that the large footprint runs contrary to BBQ’s plan to build smaller restaurants. The typical Famous Dave’s unit encompasses about 6,500 square feet, and the company is aiming to shrink the building as the older concept’s off-premise business grows. “When more than half your business is for off-premise, you don’t need a 6,500-square-foot restaurant,” he says. The percentage of sales generated by takeout and delivery was about 35% just a few years ago, he adds.

A Famous Dave’s franchisee is even trying a fast-casual riff called Real Famous BBQ. “That will be where they give drive-thru barbecue a try,” says Crivello.

Clark Crew needs a bigger space than a Famous Dave’s because of its volume, says Crivello, though he declined to reveal sales figures from the first few weeks of operation. He says that the restaurant usually finds a line of 70 or 80 people waiting outside before it opens. Clark had to beg out of a scheduled interview call at 2 p.m. on a weekday because, he said, “We still have an hour wait for lunch.”

“Right now, we need a 7,200-square-foot restaurant,” Crivello says. And “We don’t have takeout turned on. We don’t have catering turned on. We don’t have delivery turned on.”

Enlisting a barbecue star such as Clark, whose crew has finished in the top 10 more than 700 times in well-known barbecue competitions, is “a huge step” in the turnaround of BBQ, says Crivello.

“We’re probably in the third inning of the turnaround for Famous Dave’s,” he continues.

Later innings will likely include the recruitment of more Travis Clarks. “We’re always looking for the next barbecue rock star,” says Crivello. “Dave Anderson was the Travis Clark of 25 years ago.”

Crivello says he first noticed Clark in high-profile competitions. “I reached out to Travis to see if he was interested in opening a restaurant,” the CEO recalls. “He said, ‘I’m a master electrician, but I’d be interested.’ But it had to be in Oklahoma City.”

BBQ Holdings posted a same-store sales gain of 0.4% for its 32 company-operated Famous Dave’s units and 2.1% for the chain’s 96 franchised stores for the third quarter ended Sept. 29.

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