Interview with Mike Babb of Babb Bros. BBQ & Blues on Lessons from Phil Romano, Slow Smoked Ribs and Incubators
Mike Babb of Babb Bros BBQ & Blues
Driving over the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and across the west bank of the Trinity River, one quickly enters the Trinity Groves Project. If you're not heads-up about it, you could easily miss the sign announcing it. But, most likely you'll sense a revival in a part of Dallas that has been left to its own devices for several decades. It's amazing what a few coats of bright paint can do.
The word "incubator" has been attached to the real estate venture, created by Phil Romano, Stuart Fitts and Butch McGregor. It's supposed to serve as a safe warm nest for burgeoning cooks and hopeful restaurateurs. This group of successful businessmen wants to create a truly unique Dallas experience brought to you by the people of Dallas who otherwise might not have the resources to start their own business.
The first restaurant in the incubator concept is Babb Bros BBQ & Blues at 330 Bedford Ave. I met Mike Babb a couple of years ago while covering the tailgating scene for the Dallas Cowboys. We talked about ribs, smoked slow and low and the paramount rule of serving sauce on the side. (He's from Kansas, where they've been known to serve sauce on the meat.) Babb has a gregarious character and everyone in his party loved his food. Even Nate Newton once tried Babb's ribs and told him to call him if he ever opened his own place.
One very apparent personal trait of Babb is that he shoots straight. So, I was anxious to get his insight on this incubator concept.
This Wednesday afternoon when I arrived at the new spot, which would be open in less than 24 hours, more than a dozen workers were busy around the building tidying up loose ends.
Walking in the restaurant I was overwhelmed with the glorious smell of smoke. It's amazing how great a place looks when it smells good. There were about seven cooks in the open kitchen, all working on different things. One of the cooks had a thick head of white hair; he popped his head up to look at me when I walked in. Phil Romano was cooking in the kitchen.
Babb walks up and we start to chat. Two guys at a nearby table finish eating and get up to leave. I smile at Babb, "Thought you weren't open yet?"
"We're not. But, they came walking up the parking lot, and I told them we open tomorrow. Then Phil says, 'Oh, we've got some food ready. Come on in. We'll fix you up,'" Babb says with a laugh. "I guess that's why he's in charge of that part and I should probably just stay in the kitchen."
We walk out to a table on the back porch, which looks like a fantastic spot to enjoy ribs and beer, by the way. Babb points out where they're building a small stage for music. Live tunes too. Awesome. That patio and lawn will be packed soon. But, on Wednesday we nabbed one of about 20 empty tables, not far from a carpenter sketching out a small plan on a sheet of scratch paper. Last time we talked, you were in the Cowboys parking lot and you were catering a tailgating party. How did you wind up here with a restaurant in Trinity Groves backed up in part by Phil Romano, one of the most successful restaurateurs in the city? You know, I was doing my catering business and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it. I thought about doing a food truck. I thought about doing nothing. You get to that point, where ... catering comes and goes. We all have families to take care of and everybody doesn't live the same dream you do.
Were you doing anything else besides the catering business? Coaching basketball for kids. Skills training and stuff like that.
How did you first hear about this? A friend of mine, who is a chef, saw me at church one day, and we were talking about my business plans. Then, later that day he calls me and says, "Come by my house today, I want to talk to you about some friends of mine and this West Dallas development they're working on."
Sure, something some friends are working on ... I'm sure you had a lot of confidence in that. Yeah, right. So, I go over to his house and he pulls out these big floor plans and shows me this place over here, and he says, "But I don't think they've found anything yet that they like."
Because it had to meet a very specific criteria, right? Like local and not a chain. Yeah. So, the next day he calls me and gives me a number and tells me to call them. I called on Tuesday, and they basically told me to get all my food and equipment, get a concept together and bring it over.
That's quick. No pressure. Well, I went through the Internet and pulled off images of things I liked and made a little book out of it. And took six or so items for everyone to try, I introduced myself and told them a little about myself. It was funny because Romano was sitting over there with his phone out texting. And I thought, 'Oh no, I don't have his attention.'
So, I walk around the room and ask people what they think and I get to him and he says, "You know, your barbecue sauce is a business in itself."
So, he was paying attention? Yeah, then a few minutes later a suit and tie guy walks in and Romano tells him to try it and he gets confirmation on it. Then he asked me, "How much room would you need to do a barbecue place?" I told him I was about to do a food truck so any amount of space is great. I told them I didn't have the money for a big space. Then, they explained how the incubator program works and they find investors and all that. How did it come together after that? Normally in situations like that they say, 'We'll call you later,' then you wait to hear something. Before I left the room they were ready to get me signed up. They really liked the entire concept with barbecue and blues music sometimes.
That's amazing it worked out like that. I'm truly happy for you. Tell me a bit about your menu. Ribs, sausage, brisket, pork, turkey, and Phil is actually ... well, there's Phil right now.
[Phil Romano walks out to check on us. He shakes my hand and plants his other hand on the center of my back. His handshake and back slap were so forceful and firm, they took my breath away. He walks away to let us continue the interview. I take a deep breath. He must work out.]
We're actually doing a meatloaf too. We're adding things as we speak.
How old are you? 53.
Well, this is a big deal for you right now. Are you surprised at how this all came together? You know, sometimes we think so damn small. We pray small. We don't really believe as much as we should. I tell people all the time, 'It's never too late.' Prior to this, I was getting frustrated for something it wasn't time for. I wasn't supposed to have a food truck. Did I think I was going to do this with Phil Romano and all these other guys? Of course not.
Can you summarize what you've learned in the past few months? [He makes big eyes and pauses for a second.] Wow. I think a lot of it comes down to consistency. About having a concept and keeping it simple. Your product has to be on point, your service has to be top notch, but we always stick to the "wow" factor. How are we going to stand out? When people walk in they have to say "wow."
The succulent smoke wafting through the air certainly helps. Are you surprised that after all the success Romano has already enjoyed that he still wants to take on huge new projects like this? He's had some success and some failures, you know. But, the man is 73 years old and he works all the time. I'll talk to him in the evening sometimes and he'll tell me to meet him over here. He doesn't ever stop working? No. I ask him, "Phil, why don't you take a rest?" And he says, "For what?"
But, I think he's at a point in his life now about making an impact. It's not about the money. I think he just wants to help people. I honestly believe that. I think he's at the point that when he leaves here he doesn't just want to be remembered for all his concepts, but that he helped people. And Stuart Fitts and Butch ... they are a lot like him.
What are you looking forward to the most? Is there a moment when you'll be able to sit back an relax and say "Ah ha..." I hope not. Not any time soon. It's not time to sit back. This is a long time coming. I'm 53, and I'm about to live my dream. This is a challenge, first of all. There was some opposition to this project. Some people don't think this is going to work. But these guys believe in me. So, I have to provide the best service and the best food. I think if we all do our part, we'll be good.
What have you learned about leadership from this group? Treat people like you want to be treated, first of all. We're not spending a lot of time training yet. Half the people we hire aren't going to be here long. You know, I didn't think that way, I like to be more positive, I told them, "Everyone we hire is going to stay here!' But, we've already lost three or four and we haven't opened yet. So, they were right.
What are you looking for when you interview people? Right now we go a lot on personality. I've really got to find people who have that same passion for cooking and customer service that everyone here expects.
They need to bring their A-game, huh? No crying fits? No, big crying babies don't work here.
Have you called Nate Newton? No, Nate lost too much weight.
Do you still have his number? I still do! But I haven't ever called him.
You need to! Just something like "Hey. Heads up, I did open a barbecue place." It would be sort of rude not too. Are you still going to Cowboys games? Hell yeah! [He says that like it was the stupidest question of the day. He's a big fan.]
Are you going to be able to sleep tonight? Nope. I'll probably be up all night. I'm excited.
Are you going to be in the kitchen tomorrow? Yep, I'll be at the pit.
Back inside the restaurant, Romano is now sitting at a table with large blueprints laid out in front of him. Then, someone catches Babb and they, along with Romano, walk out to the front to look at the sign they're about to hang. I point to my watch and look at Babb. He mouths, "I know."
By this time, Babb Bros BBQ & Blues is now open. Good luck, boys.
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