"Famous" Dave Anderson is one half Choctaw Indian and one half Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe. He learned how to cook at Indian pow wows in his mother's fry bread stand — saplings tied together with a tarp draped over the top. He learned to love barbecue thanks to his dad piling all the kids into the car so they could drive to the South Side of Chicago for the best ribs.
Anderson's father Jimmie was born and raised in Oklahoma, which sits in the crucible of southern barbecue tradition — Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas. The elder Anderson had a deep and abiding love for smoked meat.
"Once people get a taste of real deal barbecue, they get addicted to it," says Dave.
By the time Jimmie married Anderson's mother Iris and the two relocated to Chicago to find work, Anderson's dad would drive his mother down south every other weekend "until she learned how to cook southern."
In the interim, the family survived on newspaper-wrapped rib racks that they bought in the black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago.
"Barbecue isn't a business. It's a lifestyle."
Tell that to the team of CEOs who set out to make Famous Dave's the first (and biggest) national chain of barbecue restaurants in 1998.
Famous Dave's now has 200 locations nationwide, inspired by the original one that Anderson built in Hayward, Wisconsin, in 1994. The place was an instant hit, drawing about 6,000 diners weekly in a town of 2,000 — people regularly drove in from the six-state area. When he opened a second location in an abandoned gas station in Linden Hills a year later, there were instantaneous lines around the block.
"People were literally fighting for seats," Anderson recalls, and the place was raking in over $80,000 a week in sales, a breathtaking sum for any restaurant, much less a humble barbecue shack.
With over a million dollars in annual revenues, Dave's places were no longer shacks. It was time to go public. The mid-'90s was a time when the stock market was booming and everybody was going public. For a little context, Rick's Cabaret, the strip club, was publicly traded. Anderson says his attorneys pushed him to do it.
"It was the worst decision I ever made. They said I should get street-savvy casual dining experts to run my company. I should have never went public and I should have stayed running my company."
Almost immediately, the place began showing losses, rather than profit. A revolving door of CEOs began. By 1999 the company was losing, not earning, millions.
The company never lived up to expectations of a fully corporate barbecue chain, perhaps because it goes against the grain of the barbecue lifestyle Anderson talks about so passionately. The most recent CEO (who also recently stepped down), Ed Rensi, is a former McDonald's exec. The way Anderson characterizes it, "These Wall Street guys thought they could turn Famous Dave's into McRibs!"
Changing recipes, removing beloved dishes, and trying to pass off a 10-rack of ribs as a 12-rack were a few of the wrong moves the execs tried to implement, further pushing the company into financial doldrums — franchises continue to flail.
Last year, Anderson says, he exited the company completely. "I left. I told them I wanted no part of this. I think they were surprised. Wouldn't you be if the founder left? I got to where I was because of integrity. You can't try to fool people. They will know. They've shot themselves in the foot."
But like a literal Phoenix (the original Dave's in Hayward burned down in 2014), the "Real Deal Dave's" has risen again. Jimmie's Old Southern BBQ (named for Dave's dad) is now open in Hayward, and Anderson says he's running it like the real-deal pitmaster he is, and once again enjoying those crushing lines out the door.
Just one thing: He doesn't go by his old moniker anymore.
"It's like the Prince thing. I'm formerly known as Famous Dave. Now I go by 'Dave Anderson: America's Rib King.'" He says he has no "sour grapes" with current Famous Dave's leaderships, and he wishes them well.
Jimmie's Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse is now open in Hayward, Wisconsin, using Dave's original recipes in a fast-casual environment.
15768 US Hwy. 63