Talking barbecue with John Rivers
1. Tell us about 4 Rivers Smokehouse.
There are three differentiating factors that make 4 Rivers Smokehouse a unique concept. 4 Rivers Smokehouse strives to de-regionalize barbecue, pulling the very best in styles and flavor profiles from different regions; we have a strong focus on quality and freshness; and we believe in creating a great environment that is based on community and giving back.
4 Rivers Smokehouse leads with our 18 hour smoked brisket, which I discovered in Texas. Their style of barbecue was very different from what I grew up with here in Jacksonville, which – by the way - has some great barbecue. Growing up I was a huge fan of Bono's and other neighborhood mainstays. Much of Texan barbecue is focused on beef, whereas the Southeast has a greater focus on pork. Over the years I’ve pulled what I feel is the “best-in-show” in protein preparation from each of the different regions and created our de-regionalized barbecue menu.
We put a strong emphasis on fresh, high quality food - everything in our smokehouse is cooked onsite, every single day. For example, we bring in ears of corn daily, hand shuck them, grill them, and hand carve them to remove the kernels. Our briskets smoke for 18 hours overnight with our two smokers running 24-6. Our attention to detail doesn't stop at the Smokehouse - at The Sweet Shop we make every cake, cookie and cupcake fresh. We even make our own caramel and fudge sauce in house.
I think some of the reasons people are so kind to us and keep coming back has to do with our emphasis on quality of food. Everything that's left at the end of the day is donated to a local charity.
The third differentiator of 4 Rivers Smokehouse is our fun, high energy environment. I want our customers to be part of the energy and the cooking process itself, so our design lends itself towards an open-style kitchen concept, which allows the guest to see our talented staff at work.
2. What exactly is Texas style barbecue?
Our style goes beyond just Texas to encompass the regions of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas City. The style of barbecue that most defines these regions is their emphasis on beef brisket. In Texas, the smoking process is done over wood for long periods of time and doesn't use charcoal to create a higher temperature, which is a common practice in the Southeast. At 4 Rivers Smokehouse we use hickory wood, which is brought in daily from the Carolinas. We go through a full pallet and a half every day in each of our stores.
Our Texas style barbecue is really a nod to our brisket more than anything. During the 20 years that I was working in health care I would travel around and research barbecue, because I loved it. While doing this I always looked for the “best-in-class” barbecue style for each type of protein. I would then come home and try to emulate what I'd found, testing until I could perfect the style. My ribs are more of a North Carolina style, my pulled pork was taught to me by a good friend from Alabama, and our tri-tip is a nod to California barbecue.
However, our sauce is truly exemplary of our approach to de-regionalized barbecue. Barbecue recipes tend to be heavily influenced by a region - vinegar for the Carolinas, molasses for Kansas City, or mustard for Georgia and North Florida. Finding a blend of all of those regions and putting it into one sauce was very challenging to do. When you taste my sauce you'll notice that I do have vinegar in it, and mustard, and ketchup. However, I don't put molasses because the flavor is so strong that it'll overtake everything else. Hopefully when you try our sauce it will stand out as being unique and not representative of just a single region.
3. How do you get the distinct flavors for your barbecue?
You can drive flavor in meat a few different ways - one of which is through the rub. I couldn't have great barbecue without having a good, quality rub. Another way to drive flavor is through the type of wood and then of course, the sauce. In our view, the sauce should only be looked at as an accompaniment, not as a means to drive flavor.
4. Can you tell us about your in-house rubs?
A good rub is essential to a barbecue and different meats need to have different rubs. Our rubs were developed in tandem with the development of our barbecue itself. It literally took me 18 years to develop our barbecue brisket.
One of the reasons you don't often see brisket in the barbecue world is that it is the most difficult piece of meat to cook. It's the front breastplate of the cow and it's a thick, very tough piece of meat. Raw, each piece can weigh between 15 to 18 pounds. You have to cook it for a long period of time at a constant, low temperature to capture the moisture that you taste in our brisket.
My brisket has a rub that's more concentrated on salt and pepper, just like you'd put on a steak. My pork has more of a sweet rub with brown sugar. My turkey rub is completely different, made with a herb-based seasoning of sage, thyme and rosemary.
5. What do you use your coffee rub for?
Good question! I actually don't use it for anything in the store itself. I developed it because it goes great on a prime rib. I make a cowboy cut prime rib eye steak and the coffee rub brings a very unique flavor to it. People will ask about using my brisket rub on steaks. You can, and it tastes good, but I thought the coffee would bring a new perspective to a rub. When you use coffee you need to offset the acidity with brown sugar. That blend of a strong espresso flavor with the smoothness of the brown sugar really does well on a steak.
6. After 18 years of development, have your recipes settled, or are you still tinkering and changing them?
The core recipes have settled, for the most part, with the main meats and sides being locked in. The majority of my recipe “tweaking” was done when I moved from my garage to the mass production of a restaurant. The last change I can think of was increasing the cooking temperature of the chicken by about 10 degrees - and that was the most drastic change I've made.
7. If someone is coming to 4 Rivers for the first time and they've been to many local Jacksonville barbecue places, what would you recommend to give them a good sense of what 4 Rivers is all about and how it's different?
I always recommend starting with the brisket, especially if you're coming for the very first time. It's so different from what most people are used to. If you are coming with a group, or a big appetite, I’d expand the list to include ribs and pulled pork so that you can get a true appreciation for the different flavor profiles we use. Following that, I'd encourage people to venture out to try one of our sandwiches, like a Cuban, the Destroyer or the Longhorn.
8. What's the most popular item at 4 Rivers?
The brisket by far; it comprises nearly 60 percent of our sales. We've been told that we're the largest private purchaser of brisket in the country now. This year alone we’ll purchase more than 2 million pounds of brisket.
9. Where does turkey fit into 4 Rivers?
It started when we were cooking in my garage for different ministries, charities, and just friends and neighbors. I love Thanksgiving, and turkey is one of my favorites. Our recipe at 4 Rivers is the one I developed for friends and it's something that stuck.
Serving turkey in a smokehouse was one of the most challenging meats for us. When you use a smoker at home you keep the turkey whole and you tend to cut it all at one time. Whenever air hits a lean protein, like turkey, it immediately starts to dry it out, so we really had to adapt our process. We always maintained the integrity of our recipe, but had to adapt our holding and cooking processes to ensure we held the moisture.
10. How do you get your turkey to be so moist? Often turkey is quite dry.
We brine every turkey for 24 hours - that's what gives it the flavor and locks in the moisture, so it's not lost in the cooking process. Every Thanksgiving we smoke and sell whole turkeys. They have to be pre-ordered because of the volume. Last year (2012) we sold close to 600 turkeys at Thanksgiving. We also sell our turkeys online all year long.
11. Do you have any items that you really like but that people don't tend to try right away?
Oh yes. There's a higher end and a lower end gem. I love the prime rib. I developed that recipe for Christmas years ago. I wanted to take one piece of meat and combine the flavors of both smoking and grilling. That's how we prepare the prime rib - we smoke it and we finish it off on the grill, giving it that nice crust on the outside. That's something good to splurge on.
Something that we've kept on the menu since day one that isn’t even close to being our most popular item is our Smoked Chicken Salad. We use our smoked chicken with honey and a few other ingredients - it's just so mild and delicious. When people try it, they get really excited about it.
12. Is there anything that you didn't expect to be popular but was?
Yes, fried pickles!
This is a true story: we put fried pickles on our opening menu and when the first order came through we still hadn't developed a recipe. I literally turned to the kitchen and screamed "fried pickles!" and everyone stopped and looked at me, wanting to know how to make them. I had to tell the kitchen to slice them, make a batter, put them in the batter and fry them. It’s a crazy popular item and, ironically, I didn’t even want to put them on the menu. I never ate them growing up, but people buy a lot of them.
13. What's a Stacker and how is it different from a sandwich?
I tried to do something different with a Stacker –combining both traditional and non-traditional flavors to make an excellent barbecue-inspired sandwich.
The Messy Pig is probably the most popular Stacker we have. It's a style of eating pulled pork that I found in South Carolina and it's how I eat my pulled pork. It has two layers of cole slaw, on the bottom and top, with pickles and jalapeños. It's big and it's messy - it’s the Messy Pig.
The Texas Destroyer is probably our next most popular Stacker. It's our brisket with onion rings and melted provolone cheese on top of it. It's a unique combination of flavors.
The Longhorn Stacker offers a unique play on a barbecue sandwich. It's a combination of sausage that we bring in from Texas and brisket chopped up on a sub roll. I like onion rings and provolone so I put both on top and melted the cheese.
14. Can you tell us about The Sweet Shop? Why did you decide to add that to the restaurant?
Since we opened I’ve always subscribed to making everything fresh. With our first store only providing 1,300-square-feet of total space, I quickly had to acquiesce to not making our baked goods in house. So, I outsourced them to local bakers. While not ideal, I felt good about being able to support our local community.
However, the volume of cakes and cupcakes we were starting to sell at the smokehouse was overwhelming these small, private bakers. I ended up approaching Amanda, my favorite baker of our outsourced batch we used, and offered to buy out her company so she could join us as our head baker. Though still baked off site, that's how we started making our own bakery items.
Then, when I opened store number three, which had 5,500-square-feet of space, The Sweet Shop finally found its home. The store was much bigger than anything else we'd done and I didn't know what to do with all the extra square footage. The original plan was to put in a charcuterie and a butcher shop, but literally a week before permits were going to be filed I decided on The Sweet Shop.
It took a couple of weeks to land on our current bakery operation and bring it forward with a retail face. The summer before we opened The Sweet Shop I gained 18 pounds learning how to bake. Most of the recipes you see in The Sweet Shop we developed that summer.
The Sweet Shop is now a part of our business model. It gives me great joy to see how kids' eyes light up when they see the big cupcakes and cookies we have. I'm happy to share that Jacksonville’s Sweet Shop is selling about 30 percent higher than our other bakery locations.
15. Where did you get some of the cupcake flavors, like Coke and Chips?
I’m constantly thinking of new ideas. I borrow inspirations from things I taste and see along the way, but modify and enhance them to reflect the 4 Rivers Smokehouse brand. I think I got the Coke and Chips idea from a Food Network magazine where someone had put potato chips inside of ice cream. I thought that was such a neat idea and wondered what it would be like to put potato chips inside a cupcake, which I did. Then I thought if you eat potato chips with soda, then we should try adding soda to the recipe.
When Hostess announced their closing, Amanda and I released a limited-time-only Hostess renaissance line. It was so fun - we took all the basic flavors and recipes and tweaked them. Our Red Velvet Twinkie and Ding-Dongs still remain on Jacksonville's Sweet Shop menu.
16. Do you still work on recipes?
Oh gosh, yes. Constantly.
17. Where did you learn to cook?
I am self-taught. Mike Schneider, the originator of The Loop here in Jacksonville, gave me my first restaurant job. It was a dishwashing job - I wasn't the cook and he never let me in the kitchen.
Through my college years I worked at restaurants as it provided great income. I was always around food and fascinated by it. Later in life, to ease the natural pressures inherent in my corporate job, I would cook as a way to release stress. It became an outlet for me and naturally evolved when I combined cooking with creativity.
18. Did you have any particular influences on your cooking?
I'd come home and watch tapes of Paula Deen, who was probably the most influential. Emeril Lagasse was also a great influence. Truly full circle, I've had the chance to cook with both of them in different Food Network-sponsored events we've participated in. As I honed my craft in barbecue, Chris Freytag offered great influence; I cook with him now from time to time.
19. Where do your recipes come from?
I'm a cookbook addict. I collect them – all kinds and from all places. I buy them from Amazon continuously. I'll go into stores and find them, and I love regional cookbooks. I'm finishing my own cookbook now, so I can appreciate the incredible number of hours that go into making a cookbook.
If I'm starting from scratch I'll look at several recipes laid out side-by-side and compare the recipes looking for similar ingredients. I then take all the input and write my own recipe. Sometimes it will take two or three tries before I lock it in.
20. Can you tell us about your cookbook?
It's called Southern Cowboy. My family roots come from South Carolina around Charleston and down here in the Jacksonville area. It isn't designed as a 'for chefs' cookbook, it’s for my customers - those inspired by Southern cooking, and of course, barbecue fans. I wanted people to be able to buy my cookbook and make some unique dishes at home. I love to teach people and I don't mind sharing my recipes.
21. When does the cookbook come out?
Well, if I can finish, it's supposed to be out this fall (2013). We're very close; I have just one more of the 111 recipes to do. It's a Bacon and Spinach-Stuffed, Bone-In Rib Eye Roast. The recipe is done, but what takes so much time is writing the introductions. I want to personalize my recipes so when people read it they understand where the recipe came from.
22. Can you tell us about the charitable side of 4 Rivers? What do you do with the charities and how do you select the ones you work with?
The whole business started as charity support, I call it our “Barbecue Ministry.” Starting back in 2004-2005 and all through the years until we opened, we provided food for events for schools, kids in need, families or churches. We never did it commercially and we never took money for it. It was our way of getting involved and supporting people. It was important to me, once we realized that 4 Rivers would be a commercial endeavor, that we not lose those roots of how we started.
To this day we don't have an advertising line in our budget. We have a charitable donation line. I have a full-time employee whose sole focus is to manage “the spend” of these charity-budgeted dollars.
Last year, I think we supported somewhere around 380 organizations in one way or another, be it financial, through food or by participating in the auctions that so many schools have. Each store has a certain amount that's budgeted every month to support the local community. I think our charitable programs are part of the reason for our success and every year we increase the amount we distribute.
23. Have you had any big surprises launching 4 Rivers?
Yes, although more so in the earlier days. I come from the pharmaceutical industry where everything is very regulated and clearly defined. There's little to no gray area as far as delivering or launching a drug.
When you get into the food industry there's a lot of gray areas. I was very surprised to see the amount of variance in areas I thought were black and white. For example, we have four different stores now with four different health inspectors. It's by design that the health inspectors have the ability to approach things as they see fit, within certain guidelines.
I was also surprised to see how much of my business background I needed to run the restaurant. I would have never anticipated that. You need a high-level knowledge of cooking and an understanding of serving people to make them happy, but a lot of people get into this business and don't realize that a business mind is needed to complement the passion.
Truly though, the biggest surprise has probably been the need, on a day-to-day basis, to make so many business decisions; something I certainly didn't anticipate.
24. What do you like most about running 4 Rivers?
Every day I get to go to a store; I love that part of it. Unfortunately, I also have the role of CEO so I have to sit at my desk, answer emails and make strategic business decisions. But I tell you, when I can get away from there and just go, I love being with my team. I enjoy talking to customers and spending time with them, that's the highlight of my day.
I get so excited for Saturdays. To this day I have a hard time falling asleep Friday because I know that on Saturday I get to go to the stores, put my chef jacket on and cook all day. I think that as long as I still get that excited about it and still love it as much as I do, I'll keep doing it. I retired once in my career and I went into this because it's truly my passion. As long as it stays like that I'll keep going.
25. How did you pick your Jacksonville location?
We intentionally chose locations that are rundown and in need of a pick-me-up as it complements our mission of giving back to the community. Places like the St. Johns Town Center would like for us to have a location there, but we consider how much we can truly contribute to the community by being there, versus taking an older, dilapidated building and putting in revenue for renovations.
It's been a very rewarding process - in the first two weeks of our Jacksonville build-out we had so many people from the local businesses and neighborhoods come by to say “thank you” for increasing the aesthetic value of the neighborhood.
I chose that particular location as I grew up not too far away, just off San Jose Boulevard, so I was very familiar with the area. I like locations that are right off an interstate because as the brand continues to expand we'll pull in people from all over the city and not just the immediate local community.
26. Do you think you'll have more stores in Jacksonville?
Potentially. It's always a risk when you go into a new city. You don't know if the brand is scalable or will be recognized. Though I’m happy to share that we've broken every opening record we've had with our opening in Jacksonville. The reception has been so overwhelmingly positive and I very much appreciate it.
Typically, sales will start to level off after an initial restaurant launch. We're fortunate that we've avoided a lot of that with our other stores. If our historical trend of month-over-month continual growth is similar in Jacksonville to what we've seen at our other stores, then we'll definitely have another store here.
27. What's next for 4 Rivers?
We have four stores open now, including Jacksonville and currently in the works are openings in Gainesville and a new location near the University of Central Florida in Orlando. My rule has always been that we don't open the next store unless we know “all the wheels are on the bus” at the other stores. What's kind of nice is that it's just me and my family.
My personal goal is to have 24 stores across the country. There is no strategic rationale behind the number except that I feel that once you reach a certain size there becomes a heightened level of regulation and policy you need to have, which starts to take away from the fun and excitement of the business. I hope that by keeping it to 24 stores it'll still feel personal.
I like going to the stores, knowing the people there and having a relationship with them. Right now I feel like I'm running a family business and I want to keep it that way.