While the food obviously plays a huge role in these honors, if Q-BBQ served up poor customer experience, the restaurant wouldn't have been so well received.
In terms of operational style, Q-BBQ is probably closest to a fast-casual establishment, but it eschews many of the features that define that sector. When customers walk in, an "ambassador" meets them. This Q-BBQ team member takes the customers to their table, explains the concept and offers some recommendations. After ordering at the counter, a staff member brings customers' food directly to their table.
The ambassador position is an unusual one for a fast-casual concept, so it makes sense that it was first created out of necessity. The original Q-BBQ location had only 46 seats at its opening. With such limited space, employing a greeter/seater prevented solo diners, for example, from taking large booths while larger parties waited for a table to open up. By promoting the efficient use of space, this extra staff member — two extra on Friday and Saturday nights — more than makes up for the additional labor costs, says LaPidus.
More important, he adds, this staff post improves customer service and the restaurant's overall atmosphere. The chain, LaPidus said, doesn't sell food; it sells reasons for diners to visit again in the future. In addition to offering a welcome and a warm smile, the ambassador, "calms down the dining experience. When you walk into a Panera or Chipotle, the lines are busy. Sometimes there aren't enough seats." LaPidus emphasizes, "Food shouldn't be stressful. It should be a really pleasant experience. Adding that person up front to welcome the customer, find them a table and organize the seating has paid off tenfold."
Q-BBQ's decor helps welcome customers and makes them feel comfortable. This, LaPidus notes, distinguishes the chain from many independent barbecue joints, even the nationally renowned ones, which offer little more than a table and a roll of paper towels.
The front of the house includes many of the colors and materials one would associate with barbecue. At the newest location, the top half of the walls features a welcoming red, with solid cedar planks covering the lower half. Cedar and cedar tones, in fact, appear throughout the restaurant, including on the tables and front counter. The floors are made of oak. In a nod to its barbecue forebearers, pictures of old barbecue joints, along with images of the other Q-BBQ locations, decorate the walls.
Features shared by all three stores include a large farmhouse-style sink in the dining area where customers who really dig into their food can clean up, as well as bench-style seating along one of the walls, which helps the chain accommodate large parties, notes LaPidus.
While the front-of-the-house areas at all three Q-BBQ locations share some important features, the back-of-the-house areas are a bit more distinct. LaPidus designs each kitchen to match its given space, and strives to improve the layout and workflow of each new unit based on lessons learned from earlier locations. "Our third store is better than our second, and our fourth will be better than our third," LaPidus says.
Q-BBQ's Lakeview store was previously occupied by another restaurant. Rather than investing in a complete remodel and overhaul, LaPidus made use of much of the existing layout. As a result, the unit has three distinct back-of-the-house areas: one for storage, one for prep work and one for cooking. The storage area includes a large dry storage space and a walk-in cooler measuring about 7 feet by 15 feet, which holds meat — delivered several times each week. A doorway connects the storage space to the prep area, which includes two four-foot worktables, various smallwares and two reach-in refrigerators used to hold prepped product like lettuce, coleslaw and portioned salad dressings. It's in this space that Q-BBQ's meats get their start.
A culinary staff member removes the meat from the walk-in and brings it into the prep area, where the meat sits at room temperature for about an hour. This slight temperature change helps the meats better absorb flavors from the chain's dry rub. After applying the rub to the meat and letting it sit for another hour, staff take the meat across a hallway to the cooking area, placing the proteins in one of two smokers. Briskets, placed fat-side up, cook for 22 hours, while ribs go for 7.
The long cooking times mean the stores basically operate at least one smoker around the clock. At around 3 p.m., staff start cooking briskets for the next day's lunch, while at around 9 p.m., they do the same for the next day's dinner. With such constant cooking, LaPidus says, each store goes through a face cord of wood every week. (A face cord is a collection of 18-inch logs in a pile measuring 8 feet wide by 4 feet tall.)
The smokers themselves are absolute monsters, each measuring nearly six feet wide and eight feet deep. They're both capable of cooking up to 72 briskets, roughly 1,000 pounds of meat, at a time. The racks in the smokers rotate automatically when the door is closed, or via a foot petal when it's open.
Getting permission to cook with a wood-fired smoker in the middle of Chicago was a challenge, which actually delayed the opening of the Lakeview store for about three months. One big reason was the exhaust system for the units. Because of the store's location, Q-BBQ had to send the smoke through a flue and then up a venting system to the top of the building, a full seven stories up.
Across from the smokers sits a six-burner range, where staff boil pasta for the mac and cheese, blanch cut potatoes for french fries and more. To the immediate right of the range sits a fryer rack, where the blanched potatoes dry overnight. Next to the rack sits a bank of three fryers, one of which features an attachment that allows staff to hand crank hush puppy batter directly into the fryers. Next comes a small table with a heat lamp used for holding pulled pork, followed by a conveyor toaster used to toast sandwiches.
In the middle of the kitchen two pieces of equipment sit side by side to form an island. One is a table with refrigerated wells, where the chain stores its salad ingredients. The other is a steam table where items like baked beans and mac and cheese are held.
While Q-BBQ makes a point of learning from its previous units, it will likely be several months before it puts the lessons from its latest store to use. The chain has grown deliberately since opening its doors in 2009. That's
due, in part, to LaPidus' decision not to franchise. After being a franchisee himself, he recognizes all the obstacles that business strategy presents. Plus, he simply cares too much about his restaurant to trust it to other people. "I want to be able to hire and fire my own managers and control my concept," he said.
Looking ahead, though, Q-BBQ will likely remain in the Chicago area in the immediate future. When it expands out of the region, its destinations will probably be other cities in the Midwest, as well as cities on the east coast like Washington, D.C., a standard expansion path for up-and-coming fast-casual restaurants.
No matter the path and pace of Q-BBQ's expansion, though, LaPidus will be sure that each new store will hew to his original vision. "I wanted to develop a restaurant for people like me, who want to eat great food, have it authentic, but also a little creative. That's why Q-BBQ was founded."