Barbecue business markets to vets, service members

By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

7:25 PM EDT, July 15, 2013

Two local men are on a mission to bring what they consider to be the best barbecue to more people and to do so quickly.

Bill Kraus and Steve Newton want to have a restaurant chain with more than 40 outlets and $100 million in annual revenue by 2018. Right now, they have two locations, in Glen Burnie and Perry Hall.

A big reason they think they’ll be successful: The ubiquity of military service members, police officers, firefighters, their families and friends.

In addition to smoking meat, Mission BBQ is focused on honoring public servants. The national anthem is played in each eatery at noon and diners are asked by a recorded voice to stand and pay their respects.

On a recent weekday, customers packed the Glen Burnie restaurant just before the noon singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Two men in Coast Guard uniforms sat at a corner table, and Anne Arundel County Police Department employees filled a picnic table at the center of the dining room.

“We’re going to be opportunistic,” Kraus said when asked whether the new locations, like the current ones, would be military installations. “At the same time, too, who doesn’t love barbecue? And whether or not there’s a large veteran population, hopefully patriotism is alive and well everywhere.”

The next two restaurants Kraus and Newton plan to open will test their hypothesis: that good barbecue with a side of patriotism can succeed nearly anywhere.

This week, they’re launching one of their “fast casual” restaurants, with ordering at the counter and self seating, in California, Md., a small community just outside Naval Air Station Patuxent River, the largest employer in St. Mary’s County. In October, their fourth location will open in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood, an eclectic but far from military-dominated locale.

Their final new restaurant this year will open in York, Pa. They said they’ve identified locations for about half of the remaining stores they want to build, focusing at first on the mid-Atlantic region.

Even with a built-in customer base, the expansion Newton and Kraus have planned will be difficult, said Dan Simons, co-founder of the Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group, a restaurant consultancy and management company based in Washington.

“What they’re saying they want to accomplish is difficult and the odds … are clearly stacked against them,” Simons said. The main predictors of the success of a restaurant chain are the availability of funding, the experience of the leadership, and their ability to find and keep good employees, he said.

“It isn’t so much, ‘Does the brand have legs?,'” Simons said. “It’s really: ‘How well capitalized is the company, how experienced is the leadership and how good is their judgment and decision-making at setting and executing strategy and dealing with hardship?'”

In spite of the challenges that face restaurants, Kraus and Newton seem confident in their ambitious expansion plan.

“We think we’ve got the blueprint to make it happen,” Kraus said of their revenue goal. They both came from companies with yearly hauls of more than $1 billion, so $100 million in annual revenue seems manageable, he said.

Kraus and Newton, both 49, have professional pasts that trained them well for co-owning a restaurant chain. Kraus spent most of his career in sports marketing, including as an executive for Under Armour. Newton has worked in the restaurant industry for about three decades, spending two of those with Outback Steakhouse, where he was most recently a regional vice president.

They see barbecue as an untapped market — where “steakhouses were 20, 25 years ago,” before the emergence of national steak chains, Kraus said.

Kraus and Newton believe they have developed food that will appeal to a wide audience.

Mission BBQ’s meat is smoked behind the counter and is served undressed, which allows people to season to their own taste. On the tables sit bottles of signature sauces representing different regional barbecue flavors, including “Bay-B-Que,” which has an Old Bay flavor. Texas, the Carolinas and Missouri are all represented.

Making mass-market barbecue is a tough job, Kraus said, because many people identify it with “a taste of home.”

One way they’ve been trying to give their stores a local feel is by decorating them with items donated by customers. Among the photos of soldiers and military scenes hanging on the walls are hundreds of patches, representing different armed forces units, police departments and fire-rescue companies. Two-thirds are there because division members, family or friends asked for them to be displayed, Kraus said.

It gives each location an aura of “Cheers” — a place where everyone knows your name, he said.

The desire to recognize members of the military, police officers and firefighters isn’t just about marketing to a particular subset of the population, Newton and Kraus said. Although their overarching goal is to make money, they genuinely want to use the restaurants to acknowledge public servants, they said.

That aspiration largely stems from Kraus’ children. He has one son in the Marine Corps and another just started at the Naval Academy. Although he’s always been patriotic, he said, his children’s dedication to their country has been inspiring. Neither Kraus nor Newton served in the military.

They said they don’t keep track of the amount of money they donate to charity, but Newton said it’s more than 10 percent of their profits, which was the floor they set for themselves when they opened the restaurant. Eighty percent of their marketing budget is dedicated to philanthropy and the remainder goes to promoting their philanthropic work, Kraus said.

Beginning Wednesday, as is tradition before the opening of every Mission BBQ, the California restaurant will hold charity nights to raise funds for local police and fire departments and the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit helping injured soldiers. In addition to raising money at special events, Mission BBQ donates $2 to the Wounded Warrior Project whenever a customer purchases a $3.99 commemorative “American Hero” cup that is always on the menu.

Danielle Drayton, who said she is in the Army and stationed at Fort Meade, had no idea when she walked into the Glen Burnie location last Thursday that Mission BBQ was marketed to service members. She just likes barbecue and wanted to try something new, she said. Their patriotism is a plus, she said.

“I love that,” Drayton said when told about Mission BBQ’s daily playing of the national anthem.

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