At one point in time, entrepreneurs would develop some recipes they liked and build a restaurant company around them. But this is 2018. In the ultra-competitive world of restaurants, it’s not enough to simply sell prepared food to consumers. Operators have to stand for something.
Nine years ago, friends Bill Kraus and Steve Newton came up with their “mission”—to honor America’s military, police officers, firefighters and first responders—and then developed a menu to carry out that plan through a fast-casual concept, Mission BBQ.
“We started with our why,” Kraus says. “Why we wanted to be in business, and what we wanted to do to serve, honor and thank American heroes. And then we worked on footprint, menu and the service component. But it’s all about ‘Why are we in this business?’”
There’s little doubt about the results. In the years since it was started in a Baltimore suburb on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Mission BBQ has become one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains you likely don’t know much about.
Mission’s system sales grew 61% in 2017, according to Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report. Unit count grew by a third. Beyond systemwide numbers, its restaurants get strong ratings on Yelp.
The fast-casual chain, which expects to finish 2018 with 80 locations in 16 states, gives a “significant portion” of its profits back to the community, through military nonprofits and charities for police and firefighters. “We’re not afraid to step up and write a check,” Kraus says.
The walls of Mission’s restaurants are adorned with patches, pictures and other memorabilia donated by the local community.
And every restaurant shuts down for two minutes at noon. The kitchens stop working. The restaurants make an announcement and play the national anthem. Everything stops for those two minutes. “The best two minutes of the day are when the registers aren’t ringing,” Kraus says. “I’m in one of the restaurants almost every day at noon. I hear people singing and see people crying. They want to feel better about their country. It’s food for the soul every day.”
He adds, “If that’s not something you want to partake in, come in at 12:02. But I’d rather you come in at 11:55.”
Kraus had been a vice president of marketing for Under Armour, and Newton a regional vice president with Outback Steakhouse. They attended the same church and their kids went to the same school, but they ultimately bonded over golf. “We were two Midwestern kids growing up on the East Coast and had a lot in common: faith, family and friends were important,” Newton says. “We struck up a friendship.”
That comradery was based, in part, on traveling. Both were on the road a lot for work, and they would often talk about the restaurants they dined in while traveling. Newton spent a lot of time in top steakhouses, while Kraus went to a lot of barbecue restaurants. “I fell in love with it,” says Kraus. “I didn’t find it readily available in the places I lived or was living.”
Kraus ultimately retired from Under Armour to spend more time with his family. Then the two friends decided to do something together. Kraus’ two children joined the military, his eldest son joining the Marine Corps in 2008. “I’m the proud papa of two active duty military,” Kraus says. “It’s amazing what you learn from your children about what’s important. It opened my eyes wide to a community I didn’t have nearly enough appreciation for.”
After devising their purpose, Newton and Kraus decided that barbecue was the best fit for the company they planned to create. “We wanted to build something that had meaning and significance,” Newton says. “Barbecue is a true, American-type cuisine, with protein, mac and cheese and comfort food.”
In addition, the two felt there was a lot of potential in a barbecue chain. “The barbecue space reminded me of what I saw when I first got started with Outback Steakhouse,” Newton says. “Steakhouses were independent and kind of regional.” Outback helped change that.
There are some large barbecue players, Newton acknowledges, but local and regional players are dominant. “There’s a little bit of ocean, a little bit of blue sky,” Newton says.
The friends then took a tour of barbecue restaurants in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Kansas City, St. Louis, the Carolinas and Tennessee. “We started eating and taking notes,” Newton says. “We started doing some market studies of what the icons have done for a hundred years and settled on our product.”
Newton says the company insists on everything being fresh. “There are no microwaves or freezers,” he says. “They’re not allowed.”
The restaurants smoke meat in the morning for lunch, and in the afternoon for dinner. “Barbecue is low and slow,” Newton says. “It’s a labor of love.”
The service style is fast casual, but Kraus calls it “fast comfortable,” because the food and the environment is more comfortable. To build it, they’ve leaned on Newton’s background in casual dining to improve service level. “I like the casual-dining level of service,” he says. “Servers come to your table, see if you need a refill and try to take care of your needs.”
While the company is expanding aggressively, it says it focuses on finding people first. “My philosophy on expansion is we need great people first,” Newton says. “Before we go into any market, we try to do a good job today wherever we are.”
Still, there is demand for the concept in more markets, as its growth numbers demonstrate. To Kraus, it’s proof that the company’s mission resonates in many communities. “It’s more than just pulled pork at Mission BBQ,” he says. “It’s patriotism at its best.”