Burnt Ends and Brotherly Love at Blue Ribbon BBQ in West Newton
Geoff Janowski, owner of Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q, talks about how his brother got him started down the barbecue path, how a meat smoker can improve reheated food and why the Blue Ribbon truck is looking for a potential new home.
You might think that Geoff Janowski would attribute the tremendous success of Blue Ribbon BBQ to his keen business acumen. Or his many years of being a chef in a variety of local venues.
But no- Janowski says that someone else should be given a good share of the credit: his older brother, Chris.
“It was really Chris’ idea to bring this barbecue concept to Boston,” says Janowski. “He had the dream; he had the vision.”
Ten years ago when Chris left Massachusetts and Blue Ribbon and moved back to Virginia (where he’d gone to college), he still had a strong hand in running the business from afar. But after time, according to Geoff, he saw that his younger brother was very capable of doing things on his own and had learned well from him. Chris Janowski now owns two of his own barbecue restaurants in Virginia: Willard’s in Chantilly and Whitners in Virginia Beach.
Geoff touts Chris as both an inspiration and a mentor, and the older Janowski remains a silent partner in Blue Ribbon (the third partner is CPA Ron Stoloff). The 18-year-old Blue Ribbon “empire” is comprised of bustling storefronts in West Newton and Arlington, a Needham-based food truck with a line of customers that often snakes down the block and a catering business operating out of the Blue Ribbon Commissary off Needham Street.
Blue Ribbon is so successful, in fact, that it holds the unique distinction of having sold more Groupons during its 2010 offer period than any other restaurant at the time- and that is a national record. Blue Ribbon has had equally impressive subsequent “deals of the day” both for Groupon and Living Social – and there are more to follow in the next few months.
“We could probably open a food truck and just do Groupon deals out of it successfully,” jokes business manager John Kennedy.
But Janowski has yet another potential path to smoky superstardom: reality television.
iTV has filmed a trailer for a show based at Blue Ribbon’s Newton commissary. The show is being shopped around to Food Network and other likely outlets and would focus on the animated day-to-day goings-on in the warehouse setting where all of the delicious Blue Ribbon fare is produced.
After the food is prepped at the commissary, it is distributed to the Newton and Arlington locations or is loaded onto the mobile food truck (if it is operational on that day). Following suggestions from customers, to whom Janowski acknowledges “you really always have to listen,” the meats and ribs are reheated not in a standard convection oven like in other barbecue joints, but in the same sort of wood-burning ovens in which it was first cooked.
“It adds another layer of flavor,” Janowski states.
Speaking of adding layers, Janowski has big plans for his food trailer. He is soon going before the Needham Town Meeting to request a change to the bylaws so that the Blue Ribbon BBQ food truck can operate on private property.
Open only during warmer weather months (“We close when the food can’t stay hot enough,” explains Janowski), the food truck currently parks on Second Ave in Needham. But Janowski would like to see it move to a more central location, perhaps in the parking lot of Owen’s Poultry Farm or near the Starbucks across from the Needham Heights train station.
You may wonder why Janowski isn’t considering Newton as a new location for the very successful mobile aspect of his business.
John Kennedy shares that, “We went before the Newton Board [of Aldermen] and the Needham Town Meeting, and they (Newton) seemed to think it was a good idea but it was totally new to them; they hadn’t even considered it. Needham just moved faster, that’s all.”
He and Janowski acknowledge that it would be plausible to move the truck to Newton (or have a second mobile location). Kennedy even suggests having in Newton an Austin-style “food truck park, maybe in the VFW parking lot over on California Street” (where the Newton Farmers’ Market operates on Fridays during the summer).
And having a food truck in Newton may not be that far-fetched, as the Newton Board of Aldermen is in the early discussion stages of whether to allow food trucks in the city.
Regardless of whether or not the Blue Ribbon BBQ truck changes locations, Janowski doesn’t foresee opening another storefront. He thinks that things are going fine just as they are and doesn’t want to “mess with success.”
“People told us it would never work,” chuckles Janowski when asked about the Newton Blue Ribbon location. “But my brother said, ‘Barbecue is a destination meal. If you build it, they will come.’ It doesn’t matter where we end up- as long as we’re producing great barbecue, they’re gonna come.”