When you think of the great BBQ capitals of America, like Texas, North Carolina or Tennessee, you’ll notice that East Coast states never make the list. Yet John Stage, founder of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, has spent the last 25 years working magic with a smoker, producing some of the tenderest brisket, tastiest pulled pork, and most lip-smacking ribs you’re likely to find North of the Mason-Dixon line. “Of course, when I first started out in the 80’s, I was just throwing stuff on the grill and thinking that was real BBQ,” Stage admitted. “So it definitely wasn’t an overnight process to get where we are today.”
Since opening his first branch of Dinosaur in Syracuse, New York in 1988, Stage has made the honky-tonk smokehouse an established BBQ brand, with locations in Rochester, Troy, and Harlem, as well as in Newark, New Jersey and even Stamford, Connecticut. And this May, Brooklyn will get their very own outpost of Dinosaur, set in a converted tool-and-die shop along the banks of the Gowanus Canal. “Every time we open a restaurant we get inspiration from the neighborhood,” Stage said. “And believe me, this particular neighborhood has plenty to get inspired by.” What can we expect? A sit-down joint with what Stage dubs, “Custom ‘cue.”
We spoke with the East Coast pit master about building a business from scratch, why BBQ is a social and economic equalizer, and whether or not New York will ever rank as a mecca of great ‘cue.
What inspired you to get into the restaurant industry?
I was up to no good before I got into the food business. So the food business and me were right for each other.
What was your first job in food?
I think my first job was a dishwasher. I worked at a Sub shop for about a minute. But I’m pretty much self-taught.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que started out as a mobile concessions cart, that you took to bike rallies, festivals, and state fairs. How did it evolve into a full-fledged business?
At the biker events I’d go to, the food was so lousy, and I really saw a need there. Necessity was the mother of invention. So I started out in 1983 under the name Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, selling stuff like Sausage and Peppers and Steak Sandwiches. But once I started crossing the Mason- Dixon Line, I realized I wasn’t doing real BBQ at all. I was just grilling. It inspired me to learn more about what real BBQ was. After a while, I got burned out after all the travel, and I moved back to Syracuse and opened my first restaurant there. It’s our 25th anniversary this year.
So how did you learn how to make authentic BBQ, especially since you didn’t grow up in the Midwest or the South, where BBQ is essentially a religion?
When you look at all of the books and TV shows and East Coast restaurants focused on BBQ now, it’s easy to forget that it just didn’t exist in the mid-80’s. It was very much a south of the Mason-Dixon line experience. So I was very fortunate that my concessions business took me there. And when the festival season petered out in the fall, I hopped on my Harley and rode down to Memphis. I just started talking to people and asking how they did what they did and why. Everyone was very gracious. After that, BBQ became an obsession.
The rules of what constitutes authentic BBQ differ wildly throughout the US. What are your primary influences?
Texas and Memphis without a doubt. But honestly, everyone that does BBQ right does exactly the same thing. It’s about cooking meat for long periods of time over indirect heat. What makes the difference are your spices and sauces, and whether you’re slicing, pulling, or chopping. Your side dishes and ambience are also distinguishing factors.
What other BBQ businesses in the city do you particularly respect, and why?
You know, just about everyone right now. I think there’s really good BBQ all over the city, from the new boys in Brooklyn to my friends at Blue Smoke and Hill Country.
What do you think are some of the most common mistakes BBQ restaurants make?
Taking shortcuts, not smoking the meat properly, drenching it in sauce, doing a lot of reheating. BBQ can go from really good to really bad really quick.
Two other BBQ joints have recently opened in Brooklyn that are barely a stones throw away from Dinosaur. Does this worry you?
We’re just gonna do what we do. We offer a different experience. The other places offer counter service, and ours is sit down. Plus, we’re going to offer different menu options that have a foot in BBQ but aren’t entirely traditional. Custom ‘cue, if you will.
Since all of the outposts of Dinosaur are slightly different, what about the upcoming Gowanus branch really reflects the neighborhood?
I’m talking to the guys around the corner at Brooklyn Brine. We’re going to be doing some stuff with them. We have a local artist that built this whiskey bottle installation for the dining room. I found some old reclaimed wood from the Coney Island boardwalk that’s going up too.
What attracts you to these industrial neighborhoods, and rough around the edges locations? The Dinosaur in Syracuse is in an old auto body shop, Rochester’s in an old train station, and Harlem’s under a bridge. Now Gowanus is in an old tool shop by a slightly stinky canal.
I’m a sick bastard, I know. But I’m all about architecture, and when buildings strike me, they strike me. I like a funky neighborhood. I don’t think we’d fit in if it was too proper. BBQ is a great social and economic equalizer.
New York is definitely not considered to be an authentic BBQ hub, although we have plenty of BBQ restaurants. Do you think we stand a chance of ever ranking amongst the big guns, like Texas or Tennessee?
I think if people look beyond perception, they’d find that there’s some really good BBQ here. No, it’s not steeped in tradition like in the Midwest or South. There haven’t been smokehouses around for 100 years here like there are there. BBQ is kind of a new phenomenon. So we definitely have to play catch up, that’s for sure.
Is there one dish you would say that you’re unanimously known for, throughout all of the Dinosaur restaurants?
I call it The Big Four. The ribs, the brisket, the pulled pork, and the chicken wings. Although the ribs are our number one best seller.
What’s your favorite item on Dinosaur’s menu?
I pick on everything. The butt comes out and I pick on the bark, I’ll take a taste of brisket. I definitely eat brisket and pork more than I’ll eat ribs, because I’m always picking.
What’s your least favorite?
I’m trying to avoid french fries like the plague these days. I did an experiment one time. I took everything and threw it into a bowl to see how much I pick at each day, and it was unbelievable. French fries took up about half that bowl.
How do you split your time amongst all of your businesses?
Well, I’ve lived in Harlem for over 10 years. All of my downstate restaurants are easy to access from there. And I have a little place upstate that I stay at when I want to hit up all of those restaurants.
How often do you actually man the BBQ pit, nowadays?
It’s more supervision. I’m not working too many pit shifts right now. But I’m always messing around, especially since we’re doing menu development for Gowanus now.
After the dust settles with the new Gowanus branch, what’s next for you?
We’re going to be opening another Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Buffalo. I’ve always liked that city.