Talking Barbecue with 4 Bones Barbecue Owner Joel Baker
1. Tell us about 4 Bones Barbecue.
We are a traditional, classic Southern barbecue joint. We slow cook our meats over red oak for 12-14 hours. One thing that makes us a little bit different is that ordering is market counter style by the pound, half pound or whatever the case may be.
…why red oak?
A lot of folks use hickory and a lot of folks use oak. I particularly like the little less sweet flavor that I get with red oak. It's a nice, strong, smoky flavor but it's not quite as sweet as what I pick up with hickory.
2. How long has 4 Bones been open?
We opened January 8th (2013).
3. Where does your restaurant name come from?
It's kind of a funny story. We had been struggling with a name for our restaurant. I didn't want to be Joel's BBQ or Baker's BBQ. I knew what I didn't want to be - I didn't want to be a cartoon pig riding a motorcycle, smoking a cigarette and wearing shades. But I couldn't think of what I wanted for a name. One evening we were polishing up our rib recipe and fine tuning things at home and I was sitting on the couch after having eaten ribs all day. I was pretty full. My wife hollered to me from the kitchen that she was putting the ribs away and wanted to know if I wanted any more. I was full to the gills at that point but thought "well, maybe some more" and said "Honey, how about bringing me about 4 bones?" And then it just clicked.
…did it click with both of you at the same time?
It probably took my wife a little longer. I thought it sounded pretty good and it didn't take her long. It just sounds good the way it rolls off the tongue. There wasn't much debate after that.
4. What attracted you to your location in Jacksonville Beach?
A few things. It's a great neighborhood with awesome demographics. In the center where I'm located I have some great neighbors - there's a brand new church next door. They are a large congregation of some great people. The top thing though is that my landlord is awesome. He did a lot of work with us to get us in here. This little area was hit hard by the recession as well as the road construction out front, and it's just making a comeback. Our little center is almost fully leased out. Hobby Lobby is doing real well right next to us. It's a comeback area and I'm happy to be here to be part of it.
5. Why did you pick market style service?
It wasn't part of our initial design but when I started researching menus I got tired of trying to figure out non-descriptive names. What's a "large" sandwich? What's a "half rack" of ribs? I decided to go market style so folks know what they're getting. It's kind of a throwback to some traditional places - especially down in Texas, a lot of them still do it that way. Barbecue joints kind of evolved from butcher shops and grocery stores where you really were buying at the counter and taking a pound of this and a half pound of that. I like that concept, rather than saying that you have a regular sandwich or a jumbo sandwich. That was just leading to confusion. I wanted people to know exactly what they're getting, what they're paying for. We cut our meats to order, weigh them off every time, and so we're up front about what you're getting.
6. When people buy market style are they mostly buying for themselves or are they buying multiple items and sharing around a table?
It's been a bit of an eye opener for me, in a good way. When people are buying market style they are a little more experimental and are willing to pick and choose and try some things they might normally not think of as going together. Or if they're not sure about chorizo but want to try it out they'll order a quarter pound and split it with others so everyone gets to sample.
7. You offer sandwiches as well don't you?
Yes we do. We have two main parts of the menu. There's our market, style which is the barbecue meat, and there's the specialty sandwiches. Most of those get cooked on a 7" crusty hoagie roll which we grill to order. We're using a great bread made for us here in town by Village Bakery.
8. What's the balance of what people are selecting?
Right now we're barbecue heavy, which I expected it to be, having the word BBQ in our name. But I'm already seeing the trend from regular customers that have been here 3 or 4 times already, moving away from the barbecue and trying the sandwiches. We use the meat from the pits in our specialty sandwiches. Our brisket cheesesteak really is that slow cooked brisket that we top with sautéed peppers and onions and provolone cheese. And we use the same brisket in it that you would get if you ordered a half pound of brisket market style.
9. Do you barbecue in the store?
Yes, we cook here every day.
10. Do you do the cooking?
11. Where did you learn to barbecue?
I guess it's from being an old country boy! I've been cooking backyard barbecue growing up since I was a teenager. When I was literally 17 or 18 years old I got a little $100 offset pit at Lowe's or Home Depot. That was 20 years ago now. Since that time I've been constantly cooking, grilling, barbecuing, and smoking. It's just been a part of what I do. When we got ready to do this restaurant we tweaked our recipes a bit to go from a back yard kind of deal to someone who could do it with consistency and being able to put out the amount of meat you need every day.
12. What do you mean by "classic Southern barbecue?"
To me, classic Southern barbecue involves cooking heavy cuts of meat for long periods of time at low temperatures over wood. We use whole briskets and pork shoulders. We season with a dry rub and let them cook for 12 or 14 hours in that great red oak smoke. There's no cheating about it - you don't boil them in a bag or put them in an oven, or shoot them up full of goo or whatever. You just rub 'em and smoke 'em. It's the traditional non-fancy, non-technological way of doing it.
…do you add sauces?
We don't sauce in the kitchen. I have a couple of sauces that we make here that are available on the table for those who want them. We have a sweet red sauce, a mustard sauce, a vinegar sauce, and a hot sauce. I personally don't use a lot of sauce and I don't think our barbecue needs it. I understand some folks like a little sauce and I think we have them covered with what we offer.
13. Do you make all your sauces?
Yes. Let me tell you, most items we sell are made here in the store. The kid's chicken fingers and corn dogs we don't make. The fried okra and sweet corn we don't make. We buy them from people who do them better than we do. Pretty much everything else you come across we've made in house, from scratch.
14. There are a lot of barbecue restaurants in Jacksonville. How will you differentiate 4 Bones?
I have eaten a lot of barbecue but not a lot in Jacksonville so I can't speak too much to other places. To me barbecue is a reflection of the person cooking it. Our pulled pork is my interpretation of pulled pork. It's the seasonings that I like. It's the wood that I cook over that I like. It may be completely different from what anyone else does. I hate using the comparison of art and food but it does kind of fit in this situation because I've chosen these seasonings and I've chosen this rub and I've chosen how to put everything together. So when I put something as simple as a pulled pork sandwich out there that's me saying "hey, this is Joel Baker's interpretation of what a pulled pork sandwich should be." That's the difference between me and the person down the road. And I think that'll be universal across all barbecue restaurants. For us you really do have someone in there doing the cooking. I don't have a corporate recipe card. I'm putting my stamp on it.
15. What can you recommend to someone coming to 4 Bones for the first time who's looking to understand your style of cooking?
If you're coming for the first time I'd recommend that you get the pulled pork sandwich. If you're a barbecue fanatic that lives and breathes barbecue, when you eat a pulled pork sandwich you're going to know right there if the rest of my barbecue is any good. Because if you can cook a pulled pork sandwich well it's a sign that you know what you're doing and people will be able to tell that. On the other extreme, if you're newer to barbecue, the pulled pork sandwich will give you a good idea of what barbecue is all about - it's slow cooked meats, seasoned and smoked. If you enjoy that, you'll enjoy barbecue. So come in and have a pulled pork sandwich and that will tell you all you need to know about me. If I can do that and you like it, then you'll like the rest of the menu too.
16. What would you recommend to someone who's been a few times and is looking for something a little different?
That's when you can start to explore some of our specialty sandwiches and the more complex flavors on the Latin side of our menu. It's not a heavy influence but one of the things that seems like a match made in heaven is that the Uruguayan culture is really a meat based culture. I joke with my wife all the time that in Uruguay there's 10 cows for every person. When you have that heavy beef culture it blends perfectly with barbecue. That gives us sandwiches like our Sausage al Pan, which is our sausage on a hoagie roll with lettuce, tomato and onion. We also have a brisket cheesesteak sandwich, a sausage and peppers sandwich, and the Chivito. You can really get away from just a plate of brisket if you want to.
17. What's the most popular item on your menu?
So far it's been spread out a bit. People are really loving our brisket. Apparently finding a good brisket is difficult so there's a bit of pent up demand out there. There are also people who are really enjoying what we're doing with our sandwiches. The turkey sandwich is a big, huge hit. I have a secret ingredient in my turkey - it's called "turkey." You know we cook a real turkey. There's no turkey loaf. It's a real bone-in, skin-on turkey breast and we're cooking several of those a day. Then we have some fun stuff like our bacon mac and cheese. We have an awesome, great, homemade mac and cheese we use and basically it's a grown up version of a kid's grilled cheese sandwich. We'll take our macaroni and cheese and put it between a couple of slices of Texas toast with some hickory smoked bacon and a couple of slices of cheese - a mozzarella and a provolone. That's a fun sandwich.
18. Can you tell us about your baked beans?
None of our side items are pulled out of a can. Our baked beans are a good example of that. They're made with 4 different beans. We start off with a showboat pork and bean. If you go to any roadside barbecue joint in the South they have probably opened up a can of showboat pork and beans, and that's their bean. We start with that bean and add butter beans, kidney beans and chick peas. We put smoked meat in those beans as well as onions and a little of our barbecue sauce.
19. On your menu you have pulled pork and Carolina chopped pork - what's the difference?
They both start out life the same. Both are the pork shoulder that we have seasoned, rubbed down, and smoked for a very long time until they're nice and tender. And then with the chopped pork we'll take it and break that shoulder apart by running our knife through it to very finely chop it. Then we'll sauce that. It's pretty well the only meat we sauce in the kitchen. It's not a heavy sauce. It's a vinegar sauce and it sits in that a little bit, which tenderizes the meat and gives it a nice vinegar, Carolina pop that people like. It kind of hits you right in the mouth when you first bite it. It makes a really nice sandwich. It's a nice complement to the pulled pork. The flavors are similar. The barbecue purists are going to prefer the pulled pork because you can really see the smoke ring and the bark and the 3 or 4 different colors in it. The chopped pork wipes all that out - but you make up for it with the increased tenderness and flavor that's built into it. I like them both - on Tuesday's I eat chopped pork and on Wednesday's it's pulled pork.
20. Can you tell us about your chorizo sausage?
I should tell you something about our restaurant. My wife is from Uruguay in Latin America. So you'll see some dishes on our menu that are influenced by her food and her culture. The chorizo is an example of that. We didn't want to do the same old sweet Italian sausage or Italian sausage that every barbecue restaurant in town has on its menu. We don't want to do anything that every barbecue restaurant in town does. Our overriding philosophy is: why open up another joint exactly like the 15 down the road? So all of our stuff will be a little bit tweaked. The chorizo is a great example of that. It's made for us by a Latin American company out of Miami and it is an Argentine chorizo and it's not spicy - it just has a nice flavor to it. It's a tough to describe flavor. To me it reminds me of an Italian fennel sausage and a bratwurst having a kid - you have a nice, hearty, earthy, meaty flavor to it without a lot of spice getting in the way.
21. What other menu items reflect your wife's background?
There's one item that is basically the national sandwich of Uruguay. If you think of a Philly steak sandwich in Philadelphia - for Uruguay it's the Chivito. It's a national item of pride. It's a sandwich that starts with a slice of grilled steak. On top of that we put ham, bacon, fried egg, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and sautéed onions and peppers if you want. I mean, it is a chin dripping type sandwich. You gotta be ready for that one. The Chivito is straight from my wife's side of the menu.
…is there a classic, one way, to make a Chivito, or have you added your own twist?
Oh no! There are 3 or 4 different hotels in Uruguay that claim to have invented the Chivito. There are Chivito restaurants that come up with different variations of it. But we use the basic components that everyone does and then build it our way. Some people use a boiled egg, but we use a fried egg. Each Chivito restaurant reflects the personality of the person who made it.
22. What's been the reaction to the Chivito? I can imagine that not a lot of people in Jacksonville are familiar with it.
They're not at all. But I'll make a prediction right now - as more and more traffic comes through and as people start exploring the menu a little more the Chivito will be one of our better selling sandwiches. It's just a great all around sandwich. It has already gained a small but loyal following as people try it out. I've had one guy proclaim it the best sandwich in Jacksonville already. It will be very popular once people start trying it.
23. You only have one dessert on your menu - banana pudding - is that by design or will you be adding more desserts?
We may very well add more desserts, but we're not going to have a 100 page menu. We're going to do what we do and stick to it each and every day. We're going to make sure it's the best product we can put out. Barbecue, if done right, is a time intensive deal. Our side items are also time intensive.
24. Can you tell us about your banana pudding and why it's famous?
What makes the banana pudding famous is my copywriter for my menu! It started out life as a home made banana pudding and I turned it into Gio's home made banana pudding. Our copywriter took it a step further and made it famous. If it wasn't famous when we opened, it is now! Everyone who's tasted it has said it's the best around. I'm hearing things like "the only one who makes it better is my grandmother at Christmas" - you're never going to beat grandma's banana pudding so we're pretty happy with how we match up.
25. What do you like the most at 4 Bones?
I'm a brisket fan, but it's like kids - it's hard to say I like my pork better than my pulled chicken. For our chicken we don't cook just part of the chicken, we cook the whole thing and cook it long so that it gets nice and smoky - then we pull a mix of white and dark meat, which is a little different from what most folks do. Normally you just get a chicken breast or a chicken quarter. Even with our turkey - I'm didn't used to be a huge turkey eater but as I started developing our menu and fine tuning things the turkey grew on me. It turned out absolutely delicious - it really is. I eat it a couple of times a week.
26. Are you going to add alcohol to your menu?
Yes. I like a cold beer with my barbecue. I wanted to focus on getting the kitchen running smoothly before we scale the business up and beer and wine is part of that growth plan.
27. Do you have catering?
We have several catering packages and can work with most budgets. People should call us for a quote.
28. Can you tell us about your background?
I started off my restaurant career with Carrabba's. I began as a server in the late '90s and worked my way up through all the various roles to become a managing partner for about 3 years. I left Carrabba's in 2009 and went back to school to take some night time business classes with the goal of opening up our own place. I wanted to make sure I had the business skills to go along with my restaurant skills. I was fairly comfortable that we could do the restaurant but I wanted to do this right and make sure we'd do it as a business that can thrive. So I spent a couple of years taking night classes at a college and worked at Olive Garden during the day.
29. What attracted you to the business and having your own place?
It's a personality trait - you want to be in charge of things and you want to have your vision realized. I think that goes for whether you're an independent plumber or restauranteur or any kind of small business person. They ultimately seek accountability and they have a high sense of pride in the work that they do. I think I fall into that category. I wanted to see my vision realized and I was willing to take the risk to do that. Hopefully there's some reward to it, but I think it's just a personality trait.
30. Did you always have your eye on a barbecue place?
It's always been the fallback, ever since we started thinking of doing our own place. I've been cooking since I was a kid growing up in Georgia. I think we're the only family I know that has pork butts for Christmas. As we were starting to put the business plan together we thought of a lot of different things. I think with barbecue it's a genre that allows you to express yourself and if you do that well you'll be okay. So we kept falling back to that and it soon became what it was.
31. How did you end up in Jacksonville?
That was a simple one. I told my wife: "Honey, I'm ready to open a restaurant" and she said: "Honey, I'm ready to live at the beach." So there you go, the great compromise. We'd been to Jacksonville a few times and it's a great city that's on the upswing. You can't beat the demographics of our area by the beach. There's just cool, really nice people here. I wasn't here for the tough times but I can feel things picking up. I couldn't be happier with our decision.
32. What have been some of the surprises or challenges getting your business going?
Fortunately, I've been around for a while so I could see the issues coming from a little ways out and I didn't get caught off guard with too many things. One great surprise was how easy the State of Florida was to work with. They're very progressive with their online stuff. Every person we needed to speak with in terms of permitting and all that was very helpful. I was a little intimidated doing it from scratch on my own without hiring an outside consultant but I didn't feel the need for any of that at all. Dealing with the State and the Health Department was a really easy process. I kept waiting for the big whammy but it never came.
33. Anything else?
We're just a Mom and Pop restaurant. My wife and I built everything from the table tops to the picture frames on the walls to the counters. My wife even made the lamp shades. I mean, we are a Mom and Pop. I get asked multiple times every day if we're a franchise. That is kind of a compliment. It tells me that we've done things well and people think we're bigger than we are. I just want people to know that we're small - we're cooking here every day and we'll be better tomorrow than we are today.
34. You don't mean that you actually made the tables do you? Do you mean that you picked them out?
No, I built the table tops in my garage. For our frames on the wall we got some reclaimed hardwood flooring from the Habitat for Humanity store. I took it back to my garage and cut it down to make the frames - then we found some pictures we wanted and blew them up and built everything ourselves. We really are a Mom and Pop, doing things on a budget.