Name: Dave Anderson
Title: Founder of Famous Dave’s of America
Type of business: Barbecue restaurant franchise
How long in business: 19 years
Original investment: Several million
Advice for other business owners: “If you’re going to open a business, you need to apprentice under someone who has been successful in that particular business.” And, “Everyone in business faces tough times, but I think the most important thing is to never give up.”
He’s been called “America’s Rib King,” “The Pit Master” and you could even say he’s a grilling guru. No matter what the nickname, one thing is certain: Dave Anderson knows his barbecue!
Anderson, the founder of Famous Dave’s of America, was introduced to barbecued ribs by his father when he was a young boy in Chicago. Smitten by that unforgettable smoky-sweet flavor, he spent 25 years searching for the best barbecue joints and recipes in the U.S. Trekking from barbecue meccas like Memphis, Kansas City and Chicago to the tiniest smokehouses in off-the-map locations, the Choctaw/Chippewa native left no rib unturned.
After much travel, sampling and experimentation on his own grill, Anderson was confident that he had found the secret to great barbecue. An enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Lake Superior Band of Ojibwa of northwest Wisconsin, he began building his first restaurant near the reservation in Hayward on Big Round Lake. Curious onlookers would ask Anderson what he was doing and he’d respond, “I’m building the world’s best barbecue joint!”
People thought he was crazy to be peddling barbecue in a region with “so many Swedes and Norwegians,” he says, but he has an easy explanation: “My mom was from here and I had a dream that I never wavered from.” In 1994, he finally opened his doors in the town of just 1,800 people and by summer’s end, “we were serving 4,000 people who were driving from Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis to eat barbecue at this place up in the north woods of Wisconsin.”
Since that day 19 years ago, Famous Dave’s barbecue franchise has grown to 191 locations in 34 states and one Canadian province. His famously delicious menu of pork ribs, chicken, beef brisket, salads and desserts has nabbed more than 600 Best of Class awards. Notable honors include “Best Barbecue Sauce in America” in 1995 at the prestigious American Royal Barbecue Sauce Contest in Kansas City Missouri; and “Hottest Restaurant Concept in America” by Nation’s Restaurant News.
Like his famous barbecue franchise, Anderson has earned many accolades himself through the years. Standout accomplishments include a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, and he served two presidents and three governors in advisory positions.
The barbecue king is quick to point out, however, that success didn’t always come so easily. He went bankrupt twice. “But I have been able to come back. I just never gave up.” For him, failure is an event, not a way of life. “If you’re not failing you’ll never know what it takes to succeed. I have learned more from my adversities and failures than I have from being successful.”
His greatest challenge, he says, was struggling with alcoholism. “I have been sober now for 17 years. There would be no Famous Dave’s today if I hadn’t gotten sober,” he shares. “I am now living a highly rewarding life of sobriety. I am not embarrassed to share the tough times I have had in my life because I feel that God kept me alive for a higher purpose of making a positive difference in the lives of others…and for this I am humbled and grateful.”
Today, Anderson has become a sought-after motivational speaker and best-selling author, spreading his inspiring message that anything is possible, and that the American Dream is within reach for anyone who is willing to work hard for it.
Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.