St. Louis is a BBQ town.
Outside of St. Louis, what we know as “St. Louis Barbeque”, is a pork spare rib cut where the ends of the ribs are trimmed so they’re all the same length.
However, within St. Louis, BBQ is much more than just a cut of pork…
We take a deep dive into the St. Louis BBQ Tradition with owner and operator of Pappy’s Smokehouse, John Matthews.
Pappy’s Smokehouse was started over 9 years ago and now has multiple locations and lines out the door. What started as John, his business partner and 3 employees, has now grown into a 50-plus person operation.
We speak with John about how he started, how he hires, markets and much more on the latest episode of Small Business War Stories.
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A summary of our interview with John Matthews of Pappy’s Smokehouse is below.
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- How is it that you got started here? What made you do this?
- What does that mean? What is Memphis-style barbecue?
- Can you tell me a little bit more about the history of barbecue in the town of St. Louis?
- Can you tell me about the evolution of Pappy’s Smokehouse?
- What’s changed from nine years ago to today?
- Tell me about your hiring process. How do you find these people?
- How has this location grown over the years?
- What are some of the oddest, wackiest things you have seen?
- Do you do any paid advertising? How do you find your customers?
- Do you dovetail the things you do on the charitable front with what you do with social media?
- Tell me more about your social media strategy.
- Do you have an internal messaging document? Do you have your principles outlined somewhere?
- Has there been a time where you had somebody who was otherwise a good employee that maybe wasn’t a cultural fit with your values and your principles?
- What would you say is the number one lesson or piece of advice that you have for small business folks who are listening to the show that you’ve learned in your journey?
- Can you give me an example of a time when you reached out to somebody else in the community?
- Where do you see your business going the next 10 years?
St. Louis is a town with a very rich history of food, of music, of arts. A big part of that is the St. Louis barbecue. So, I want to hear from you. Tell me more about Pappy’s. How is it that you got started here? What made you do this?
John Matthews: My partner and I are local St. Louis boys, grew up around here, had a good time. We got into the competition barbecue thing with the amateur stuff, smaller stuff, local festivals. We did relatively well. We actually got to a point where we graduated to what I call the major leagues. We’re talking the American Royal in Kansas City, Memphis, and more.
You can go into different categories. You can do brisket, you can do ribs, you can do whole hog, you can do chicken. The list can go on and on as far as what kind of categories somebody’s going to have. But what we got into specifically was the ribs. When we actually got to a point where we were invited to the American Royal and then Memphis in May, we really got into the Memphis-style barbecue, which is what we serve here.
What does that mean? What is Memphis-style barbecue?
John Matthews: Memphis-style means that everything is dry-rubbed and indirectly smoked. There’s no sauce on anything until you put it on there. The way we prepare our meats, the meat is good just the way it is. It doesn’t really require sauce. But if you have a palate for that, it’s available.
Is it one of those things that if you put sauce on it, it’s like putting ketchup on your sushi kind of thing?
John Matthews: No, no, no, no. It’s not that bad. Not that bad.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the history of barbecue in the town of St. Louis?
John Matthews: St. Louis is a barbecue town. I’m 51 years old, so I’ve been here my whole life. It’s going to be an open pit in your backyard. It’s going to be a cut of meat called a pork steak, which is the same cut that we use for our pulled pork. You’ll hear people call it a pork butt. It’s actually a pork shoulder roast. They call it a Boston blade roast.
It’s pretty much unheard of when you get beyond a hundred miles radius of St. Louis, if you go and ask for a butcher in St. Louis for a pork steak, they’ll look at you like a cow looking at a new gate. They don’t know what you’re talking about. But here in St. Louis, that’s the biggest aspect of St. Louis barbecue, as well as spare ribs. You’ll see St. Louis barbecue throughout the country, and the only place you don’t see St. Louis barbecue is St. Louis.
St. Louis ribs are basically a cut. It’s the pork spare ribs with the ends of the ribs trimmed so they’re all the same length. That’s where you get rib tips from.
What people nationwide know as “St. Louis barbecue” is those ribs, but you cannot really find them in St. Louis. It’s more of the sale point for that cut of meat: spare rib with the ends trimmed off.
For our Memphis-style barbecue, we use a loin back rib. So, it’s coming closer to the top of the back of the pig. They’re meatier and it’s a little bit bigger cut of a baby back. It’s a very expensive cut of the rib, but once you try it, you’ll say, “Yeah, I can see why you use those.“
Can you tell me about the evolution of Pappy’s Smokehouse? What’s that process from starting with your brother and saying, “Hey, it’d be cool to do this next weekend,” all the way up to national competitions and having and famous barbecue joint?
John Matthews: We had fun doing it, which was the important thing. Then we realized in the beginning, especially when you’re doing stuff like brisket, which takes 12 to 14 hours, is we needed to write down exactly what we were doing. Because you get something that takes 14 hours to cook, a few beers can go down, and then, all of a sudden you go”Wait a minute, what’d we do? How’d we do it?“
So, we actually started really taking care of our preparation process and documenting it, making them realize that, “Okay, this needs to be duplicated over and over again after we get it tweaked to a point.” We won whole hog in Memphis in May, third place in ribs one year. Unfortunately, a thing called life got in the way and we got out of it for a while.
Tell me more about that. What happened?
John Matthews: I changed jobs, schedules changed, and we just couldn’t accommodate the schedule of that. But luckily, we were having a conversation. We stopped for about six or seven years. My partner and I met up after work, having a couple beers, complaining about our respective day at work, and thank goodness the conversation evolved to, “Dude, what about the barbecue? I bet we could sell that.” That is the premise of how Pappy’s started. That was nine years, one month, and 26 days ago.
What’s changed from nine years ago to today? How has your business evolved? How are you doing things differently today than you did back then?
John Matthews: Just growth. Growth has been our biggest struggle. More employees, cook more food. For the readers, they can’t see the five big smokers that are sitting out on the patio here. We started with one of those. There are six, plus two more on trailers if we need them.
So, growth has been our biggest problem, which is a great problem to have. One of the best things I can recommend for anybody is to hire very good, intelligent people. Compensate them well and take care of them because they are going to be the ones who take care of your customers.
There’s a lot of misconception in the hospitality industry that your customer is your biggest asset. We have found that our staff is our biggest asset. They are the ones that do the heavy lifting every day.
Tell me about your hiring process. How do you find these people? How do you vet them? How do you make sure they’re going to fit your culture?
John Matthews: For the most part, it’s word of mouth. Our staff will recommend a friend of theirs, and that is an interesting process. That pretty much guarantees that whomever somebody brings in isn’t going to be a slacker because then they’re putting their own name on the line.
It’s worked out relatively well, and we’re in very close proximity to St. Louis University. We’ve got quite a few students that we get that they’re going to be here seasonally. But it’s a great spot for them. They enjoy it. It’s good money.
We started off with my partner and three employees. There were five of us. Counting my catering staff, I had 67 paychecks go out last Friday.
How has this location grown over the years?
John Matthews: The space that we’re sitting here right now is our second expansion. We’ve done a third, but we started off very small. We’ve been lucky to just simply grow.
We took over two more parcels of the building. My background is in residential construction and real estate. So, when we built Pappy’s, I was the general contractor for it. I actually framed these walls around you.
What are some of the oddest, wackiest things you have seen? I’m sure you see a lot of characters come through here. You sell great food, great drink. I’m sure some interesting stuff happens…
John Matthews: We’ve had, Pauly Shore came in one morning, came in with his folks and I chatted with him for a couple minutes. He went in the bathroom, came back with sunglasses on. I think he was stoned to the bejesus. He enjoyed the grub.
One of the nicest people I ever sat down and talked to when I talked to him one on one for 40 minutes were here was Henry Winkler, “The Fonz“. What a very regular, nice guy. He was fun.
We’ve had multiple sports figures here. We’ve fed the band Muse when they were touring. We fed Lady Gaga and her crew when they were in town. So, yeah. It’s been interesting.
Do you do any paid advertising? How do you find your customers? A lot of our audience is small business people. That’s a big challenge for a lot of people. How do you think about that?
John Matthews: We really don’t do any print, radio, or television advertising. Our advertising is done with, ironically, social media and people like yourself who do podcasts, that come out and say, “Hey, here’s a really cool little diamond in the rough that nobody would know about unless you knew it was here.” We have grown so much. We don’t have a marketing budget. We do our marketing through charitable contributions.
We support fundraisers for different causes, St. Louis city firefighter gets injured and they’re having a fundraiser, we’re more than happy to help out with that. When we had the problems in Ferguson and they had FBI and law enforcement all over the country, we fed a group of those guys one day. So, it’s by doing little things that touch people’s hearts in a time of need. That’s primarily how we do our advertising.
John Matthews: No, that’s pretty separate. We wouldn’t want to exploit the fact that we’re trying to be good citizens or good business people in the society. It has its own merit if we keep it on the down low.
Tell me more about your social media strategy. So, you’re saying you do things on Instagram and Facebook?
John Matthews: Yeah, I actually have somebody that does that for me. I’m a whopping 51. I don’t two-finger text. I have a few people that do that, that take care of all that for me. They do a good job.
I pretty much give them a little direction and they run with it. They’re very creative, we have a dedicated staff that has their heart and soul into this, I pretty well let them have free range with that. They’ll come to me with questions as far as something’s a little off for a little bit. I can steer them a little, but for the most part, they’ve got it.
Do you have an internal messaging document? Do you have your principles outlined somewhere? Or is it something that gets passed on word of mouth from the staff? As you bring more people on, how do you make sure that the message and the culture gets spread evenly?
John Matthews: That’s going to be determined by a new employee’s interaction with existing employees. What you learn at that point is that everybody helps everybody else out and there are no slackers. That pretty much is the vibe around here.
Has there been a time where you had somebody who was otherwise a good employee that maybe wasn’t a cultural fit with your values and your principles? How did you handle that?
John Matthews: There are people who don’t work out. It happens. We’re somewhat selective to the point, and again, we’re lucky to the point that a lot of our employees are referrals. So, our staff reaches out and goes, “Hey, this guy would do a great job,” or, “This gal would do a great job.” It’s not really a big issue. It happens occasionally.
When you have a situation like that, legally, and this sounds kind of coarse or rough, but the first three months, you can pretty much let somebody go for whatever reason you deem fit. You just explain to them, “Hey, this isn’t working out. Sorry.” If we can give them a little severance package and say, “Hey, good luck on down the line with your journey through life. Good luck.“
What would you say is the number one lesson or piece of advice that you have for small business folks who are listening to the show that you’ve learned in your journey?
John Matthews: Hire good people, specifically management. Intelligent people. Compensate them well and take care of them. And lead by example to all your staff. These people, I’ve got six people working the kitchen right now and they all know that if they need help at any given point with anything, just stop me and ask me and I will stop and help them. I wouldn’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. In the beginning, I had to do everything myself.
Let’s talk about St. Louis a little bit. What’s it like to do business here? What’s your interaction with other members of the business community with maybe the city of St. Louis? What are the great things and maybe some of the challenges of doing business here?
John Matthews: I’m born and raised here. I love this town. It’s a wonderful place. We have very friendly people. We’re fortunate enough that one of my jobs here is to entertain the 30-40% of our customers who are out of town tourists. We’re almost a kind of ambassador for the city.
As far as working with the city itself, they’ve got a very nice small business assistance program where they’ll come in, you come in and go, “Here’s what I want to do. Help me. I’ve never done this before.” In 10 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never done this before.“
They help you out with your licensing, issuing permits, guiding you, “Here, you want to talk to this office regarding this, this office regarding signage, here’s where our liquor office is, here’s who you need to talk to for this.” The city’s been very helpful for getting us going as well as business owners in the area that we got to know. We could get feedback off them from their experiences. Now that we’ve somewhat established ourselves, we’re happy to do the same for people who are just starting out.
Can you give me an example of a time when you reached out to somebody else in the community? How did that work?
John Matthews: Joy Grdnic owns a wonderful place called The Fountain on Locust. When we first started getting established as far as understanding our area and our market, she was a wonderful resource to walk up and say, “Hey, what is this area of the city like? Where are we when we’re over here? What time of the day are you busy? What kind of crowds can we expect?” She was instrumental when we first got up and going.
Several businesses are like that. Right now, two doors down the street, there’s a gentleman starting a microbrewery called Sunrise Brewing Company. He’s come up and said, “Dude, how do I do this?” We help each other out. A high tide floats all ships.
Where do you see your business going the next 10 years? You mentioned that in the last 10 years, or nine years, you’ve done a couple of expansions…
John Matthews: We’ve done a couple of expansions here. We have three other barbecue restaurants in the city. They’re not called Pappy’s. The biggest reason for the different names is that this is a one in 10,000 shot of opening a restaurant. On weekends, we have lines that are an hour wait. That’s unheard of. If you’re from St. Louis, you’ll understand when I say, “A bonafide Albert Pujols grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.” Again, it wouldn’t happen without a staff that genuinely cared.
The other reason is because we had no idea when we opened our newer stores how to duplicate this. I wanted to stay away from, in the aspect especially with social media and people reviewing restaurants, I didn’t want them to say, “The second one’s not quite as good as the first one and they don’t do this right.” I wanted to avoid that.
Got it. So, you wanted to have one flagship store. What are the names of the other ones?
John Matthews: We have Adam’s Smokehouse and Bogart’s Smokehouse. Then most recently is Dalie’s Smokehouse. Bogart was a name brought up by our pit master. The whole “Bogart“, I have a feeling that has to do with something he did a lot in college…
Adam’s is named after one of our employees who passed away from a terminal blood illness suddenly. It was devastating. It was one of the few days minus holidays that we closed the entire restaurant down for his funeral. But it’s named in tribute to him. Dalie’s is named after our pit master Skip’s maternal grandfather. Papa Joe Dalie was a judge down in Arkansas. When we were putting together the whole idea, we were sitting around that table and he said, “Well, I wouldn’t mind if I could” …
Papa Joe Dalie was the one that got him started in his smokehouse down in Arkansas and got him started with it. He said there was no question that was the right answer.
The interesting thing about that when you share it is that to me, it lands like each one has a image of its own small business vs. “Pappy’s is a chain,” right?
John Matthews: Correct. They know we’re associated, but each of the other restaurants, they do a little tweak to their barbecue and they might have a dish that we don’t have, say tri-tip or another one has pastrami. Another one has a house-made salami. So, a lot of the dishes are the same, some are a little different, and some are very unique to that store.
Is there anything else you want our audience to know about your business? Where can people find you? What are you social media handles, your website, everything?
John Matthews: PappysSmokehouse.com. Or you can just Google “best barbecue St. Louis”. It’ll come in there right close to the top. If you can check on Yelp and TripAdvisor where Pappy’s actually has double the amount of any restaurant out of 2,800 restaurants in St. Louis, double the amount of reviews. The one that’s second to that is Bogart’s.
John has some great advice for aspiring business owners: hire great people and lead by example.
He’s built a great business in St. Louis, one that is thriving and growing. He knows he couldn’t do this without great people to help.
If you have any questions or comments about today’s episode, please leave them below.