Jason Wotman is a native New Yorker. But he went to college in Nashville, where he spent four years consuming barbecue between classes at Vanderbilt University.
So when he came across an opportunity to open a trio of Mighty Quinn’s Barbeques on Long Island, Wotman jumped at the chance—even though he would be the first franchisee in the company’s history.
“I was exposed to high-quality barbecue at an early age,” Wotman said in an interview with Restaurant Business. “When I came back to New York, the New York barbecue scene was just kind of burgeoning. But some places have started opening, and there are a lot of good barbecue options in New York City.
“But it hadn’t extended to Long Island. Having grown up there, I knew the opportunity was there on a different level.”
Mighty Quinn’s opened its first location in New York in 2012. Micha Magid founded the concept with his stepbrother Hugh Mangum and his brother-in-law Chris Gourmos. Mangum is the chief pitmaster, and he had started out by smoking meats at Smorgasburg, an outdoor market in Brooklyn.
Gourmos had been in the catering business, and Magid on Wall Street, having worked at JP Morgan and then a hedge fund for a decade.
The fast-casual concept got a jump-start with a favorable review in The New York Times just three months after its first location opened. “That put the brand on the map in a big way,” Magid said.
“We served food on disposable paper goods,” he added. “The beauty of that is the review focused on the food, and not how much money was spent on the restaurant.”
The trio saw an opportunity to bring barbecue, a “universally loved food category,” to New York City. The review helped spur the restaurant’s popularity, and it has since grown to 10 corporate locations in New York and New Jersey, including a location in Yankee Stadium.
But the company also sees an opportunity elsewhere. “There are not only large urban areas that lack great barbecue but suburban areas that are under-restauranted,” Magid said.
To be sure, barbecue has proven to be a tough nut for the chain restaurant world to crack. Famous Dave’s, for instance, emerged in the 1990s and grew to become a national chain of casual-dining barbecue restaurants, but over the past decade has struggled with weak sales, management changes and closing restaurants.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, meanwhile, was one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the U.S. until recently, when it began struggling with unit closures.
But a new generation of barbecue chains hopes to change that history. Mission BBQ, for instance, is one of the fastest-growing chains in the U.S.
Mighty Quinn’s menu features smoked brisket, pork, chicken and sausage as well as ribs and spare ribs and sandwiches. Magid said the company uses only wood smokers and not gas. “Everything is done the traditional way,” he said.
One of the challenges with barbecue is the way it’s made. Making smoked ribs, pulled pork and brisket can take several hours, which can make operations challenging in a franchised business.
Many local barbecue restaurants, in fact, close for the day when they run out of supply. Magid, however, said that Quinn’s has developed systems to ensure its menu is available at all hours with “no compromise on quality.”
Magid sees potential to take Mighty Quinn’s to several parts of the country, though the chain is focused primarily on signing operators in the Northeast.
The company has established a three-week training system, and its employees will stay on-site for several weeks after a location is opened. Magid said the company is focused on finding people with multiunit backgrounds who understand the restaurant business. “It’s about finding the right franchise operator,” he said.
For Wotman, who has spent most of his career in the startup world, the opportunity to open a Mighty Quinn’s is exciting. “It’s a new industry I’m breaking into,” he said. “I love to learn and get my hands dirty, fully immersing myself in something.”
He also understands the risk of getting into the restaurant business. “There’s risks to any business,” he said. “There’s no such thing as an easy business.”