Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is a New York-based barbecue concept that got its start on the road in 1983.
It all leads back to a mobile concession stand and three business partners: John Stage, Mike Rotella and a guy who “would just go by Dino,” according to Stage, owner of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. They called themselves dinosaurs because they listened to old blues and rode old Harleys. Together, they would serve barbecue rubbed sausages, peppers, onions and steak sandwiches at fairs, festivals, and motorcycle shows.
People really enjoyed the food, but once work led them to cross the Mason-Dixon line some customers started to say: ‘Wow, this is good... but it ain’t barbecue.’ Stage, who began working at 22-years-old, admitted he knew nothing about smoking meat having grown up in the state of New York. He was simply grilling, pouring barbecue sauce on meats and calling it barbecue.
“It was really the fair business that drove me south and got me that taste of barbecue,” said Stage. “Then, I got on my motorcycle, rode off [from] New York to Memphis, and just hit every barbecue joint I could come up, just to get that taste profile.”
That’s when the quest for barbecue began. Soon after, as Stage looked to settle down from his gypsy lifestyle, the first Dinosaur Bar-B-Que restaurant followed, opening in downtown Syracuse, N.Y. circa 1988.
Stage got himself a fire pit and began to teach himself how to smoke meat through trial and error.
“[At the time] there weren’t really any barbecue places north of the Mason-Dixon line. No internet, no cookbooks. It was mostly trial and error,” says Stage.
Now, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que has expanded to nine locations across the northeast and is best known for its ribs and seven barbecue sauces, which can be found online and in the shelves at Whole Foods for purchase.
Foodable sat down with John Stage to learn more about his most popular dish, new menu offerings, and outlook on the restaurant industry, among other topics.
Q&A with John Stage
Foodable: When you went to Memphis, Tennessee in your quest for that barbecue taste profile, was there a barbecue joint that was memorable for you?
John Stage: There are so many places, but I do love the Cozy Corner.
Foodable: Can you walk me through the cooking process of your best selling item at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que?
John Stage: It’s the ribs, definitely. We use St. Louis ribs. We have our proprietary spice rub that we put on it. We give it about 24 hours with the seasoning. And then we slow cook it from 225 to 250 degrees. We use a mix of hickory, apple, and oak wood depending on what’s plentiful at that time and we smoke it until the meat gently tears. It’s not falling off the bone, but you could pull it off the bone. Then, we put it on the grill for a minute just to re-carmeralize it and brush some sauce on it.
Foodable: How long did it take you to master this process?
John Stage: “It’s a never ending process. I don’t think you ever want to say you’ve mastered something because then you have nowhere to go but down. I just would like to think it’s a continual work-in-progress. I’m always trying to get better”
Foodable: What is your best selling sauce out of the seven you offer?
John Stage: The Original. But, my favorite is the Habareno Hot Sauce. I also like to mix the Original sauce with the Habanero Hot Sauce.
Foodable: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que added a vegan bowl to its menu in seven locations. Why is it important to your brand to cater to non-meat eaters, as well? Are there any other new menu items in the works?
John Stage: The vegan bowl is really a collaboration between us and a local restaurant in Syracuse. They did some of our pulled pork and we smoked their tofu. We developed a couple of other bowls. More vegetables and less meat while still getting that barbecue taste. Our veggie burger is with smoked mushroom. We are testing it in Brooklyn... People sometimes come and they don’t know what to make of it. People come in and they have meat on their mind… but it’s a dish for those who want to come in, hang out with their friends and also have something healthy to eat.
Foodable: What are your expansion plans by 2020?
John Stage: We are focused on what we got. I never say never, but our goal is to improve every aspect of the businesses we got.
Foodable: When opening a new Dinosaur Bar-B-Que location, your team opts for repurposing existing buildings rather than building new ones. What are other elements that are factored in when deciding where to open the next location?
John Stage: We choose to open in cities that are closer to each other to maximize resources and have some continuity.
Foodable: How do you go about choosing which charities and organizations the restaurant decides to partner up with?
John Stage: It starts with hunger, and organizations that help people help themselves.
Foodable: How important is to find an experienced pit master for Dinosaur Bar-B-Que over taking the time to train one?
John Stage: There is no one formula. No. 1 is the attitude... Do they want to learn? We have a great training program. It’s repetition and giving a shit. Teaching people judgement. You gotta be there for them during those decision processes. It’s also very physical. We have men and women doing the job. We have a few badass female pit bosses. In order to be a managing partner, you have to have spent a considerable amount of time in the barbecue pits and we have seven female managing partners and two males. We never planned for it, it just turned out that way! It’s good to see.
Foodable: What is your outlook on the restaurant industry right now, while it's experiencing many changes and uncertainties?
John Stage: Recalibration. That’s why we are focusing on what we have, recalibrating for the realities of wage increases, labor shortage, construction costs, land cost. We live in a different regulatory environment. It’s a different world than it was five years ago. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and in the last five year, I’ve never seen so many external pressures on the industry as it is right now. And the amount of restaurants that are out right now. There are many many different ways people can get food right now. So, to me... it’s about recalibration of taking it all in and decide what’s the next strategy. Everything we are doing right now is to position ourselves with what’s next with all these challenges. That’s why we are just looking inward right now.