Friday, February 5, 2010

Thoughts: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que Corporation

I've restrained my thoughts on this topic on the blog for about a year now. Mainly because I don't want to be the one who opens Pandora's box and I also don't want to assume or post anything that isn't true or slanders one of my top 5 restaurants of all-time. But after a recent article in the Post Standard started to shed some light on the subject, I feel like it's time for discussion (i.e. whatever the rumors are, whatever the truth is, whatever the future holds). And since this is a blog about restaurants in the City of Syracuse, I feel like it needs to be discussed. Especially when it concerns the one restaurant that just about everyone around the country associates with our city.

Last year, I learned two surprising pieces of information about Dinosaur: 1) that 70% of the ownership had recently been sold to the owner of TGI Friday's and 2) that everything sold (merchandise, grocery store food, sauces, shirts, books, ect...) all used to be under one name - now everything has their own LLC's more or less (the bottled sauces are now under their own name and sold through a company in Taiwan, if I remember correctly - you've probably noticed the new labels if you're a hardcore fan or have visited the actual restaurant in the past couple of months).

Also last year, was Good Morning America's contest for Best Barbecue In America. I was at Dinosaur when they announced over the loud speaker that they were the winners. Everyone was happy and yelled and clapped, including myself. Anything that puts Syracuse on the map in a positive light is a rarity and when it happens, you really have to soak up the moment. But that being said, does anyone really believe that Dinosaur is the best barbecue in the country? And at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, doesn't it make more sense for them to win a contest on national television if they now have ties to a national chain?

Whether these awards or behind the scene legal technicalities actually affects taste or not is for another discussion. I'm sure that the sauces and recipes will remain the same. But whether this changes the image of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Syracuse's most iconic restaurant of all-time, is absolute worthy of discussion and something that I'm extremely worried about.

Will we feel more proud or less proud of our city now that Dino is corporate?

Will the Syracuse business suffer if locations are built in Boston, Connecticut, and New Jersey?

Will talking with the waitresses while ordering food feel predetermined and fake instead of spontaneous and sassy?

Will some customers feel alienated if it starts to feel more like a generic and polished chain and less like a hole-in-the-wall?

I don't have the answers. Only time will tell. Maybe nothing will change. Maybe it will continue to be amazing and a great asset to the city. I'm not going to debate whether or not it's all good or bad. In the end, it is just a business. And businesses change. But my main issue is: what's going to happen if our most beloved restaurant ever and something that makes each one of us proud to say we're from Syracuse (isn't that rare thing?) morphs into a chain? What do we have left to brag about? And why the heck would we want to brag about it if it's just going to feel exactly the same as the other 9 imitations around the country?

I put the ball in your court.


Owen O'Neill said...

Even back in their earliest years - long before the Rochester location opened and before the sauce was even in stores - I felt that they were strategically creating an image. I have no issue with that - it's savvy marketing and brand building. Even way back then the majority of the oh-so-spontaneous looking graffiti in the men's room was planted strategically - not just the result of customers impulsively writing it.

For me it's all about the quality of the food. I've had better BBQ in Texas and a few other places but for the Northeast the Dino has historically been very good. Overhyped to be sure but can you fault them for success? My criticism is that the quality has become inconsistent for the dining in experience. In recent years my meals there have ranged from stellar to so-so. Yet during that time any food I've gotten from them for take-out has been consistently good as has the food I've had at a few different Dino catered events.

They could have one location or 100 and be owned by an uber-rich power broker or by a local co-op. I'm okay with all of that - I just want good BBQ. That said - I have always been a bigger fan of their pulled pork, chicken, brisket and sides and not so enthused about their ribs. That's because I prefer a different style of ribs - it's not a qualitative judgment (although the ribs I have had there have varied wildly in quality and consistency).

John said...

Dear Josef,

First of all thanks for your support over the years. I can understand your concern based on all of the rumors flying around regarding Dinosaur. I want to clear up a few inaccuracies and set the record straight.

As founder and prez of this company I still retain the same ownership I’ve had since 1991. Over 3 years ago my partners made the decision to retire. At that time, I brought in a private investor to buy out their percentages. We have absolutely no association with T.G.I.F or any other restaurant chain. My new partners are not involved in the running of the restaurants nor do they want to be. I’m still running this joint the same as I’ve been since 1983 when we started it. As for our sauces, they aren’t made in Taiwan. They are made in Rochester, NY at the same place since 1994. After 15 years of the same label, I decided it needed freshening up.

Suggesting the Best BBQ award was bought or compromised insults my integrity and the hard work of all of my staff. BBQ is the most debated food out there, and winning this award definitely sparks debate, but we won through the votes of our fans.

As for my staff, to suggest that my people are anything but genuine or will somehow become less so tweaks me more than anything. A lot of us have been together for up to 20 years, and to suggest that they would put up with any phony bullshit is ridiculous.

We are opening in Troy in late summer, early fall of this year. The Dino in Troy will have its own uniqueness. I will only expand if and when the time is right. I like growth for the opportunity to create something different and the opportunity it provides people to grow. Never will you see a cookie cutter Dino.

As far as Dinosaur being something Syracuse can continue to be proud of, I hope that will never change for people; it certainly won’t change for me or anyone at Dinosaur. It’s my baby, the original, and there will never be another one like it. It’s in my heart and soul.

Thanks for letting me vent, and I hope this clears things up.


John Stage

Owen O'Neill said...

I'm glad John jumped in and commented and I hope he accepted what minor criticisms I offered as being constructive (which was their intention). I think many local people are Dino naysayers in the same way that they are fair-weather fans of SU sports and always want to dump the coach right away when there's a bad run of games or a down season.

One doesn't need to look very far for outside independent validation of Dino's success and food quality. The Serious Eats blog, which is widely respected by good savvy people, just did a round up and taste test of NY City wings and Dino was the hands down winner. The staff at the SE blog aren't affiliated with any restaurants and I've never seen them play favorites.

And, although I should have said it in my previous post, it's unfair to suggest or imply that the Best BBQ in America award was won by any unfair means. It should be glaringly self-evident to anyone who observes the food and dining scene that "Best Of" awards and lists often leave out some worthwhile contenders. But the fact that some good BBQ places weren't included in the competition does not in any way negate the value of Dino's having won the award. To the contrary - they deserve praise for the hard work that won them the award and we (the local community) should be pleased to have the media spotlight shining on Syracuse - even if it's for just a brief period.

Josef Lorenz said...

hi john. thanks for commenting on my blog and shedding some light on the subject. i appreciate your thoughts and it's nice to be able to hear things straight from the horse's mouth. i hope you don't take too much offense as to what i wrote. i wasn't necessarily implying anything either way, so much so as i was/am worried about what could happen further down the road - just hoping that the current changes are not warning signs for the future. i don't at all consider myself someone who has any validity in saying what's right or wrong about a place - and i don't even consider myself a legitimate restaurant reviewer, or writer, or blogger, or food critic. this blog technically doesn't hold any facts whatsoever. it's just a space for me to vent my own thoughts and sometimes criticisms about syracuse restaurants. and my thoughts on this specifically were meant more or less as rhetorical "what if?" questions. i'd rather not see one of my favorite restaurants (and a favorite of mine since i was about 10) be jeopardized or compromised - because i think everything at dinosaur bar-b-que is and always has been perfect. and not only perfect as a restaurant but pefect for syracuse. because i'm much more passionate about syracuse than i am restaurants and i do get worried when i hear about things changing to one of the few, well-known gems that the city actually has.

it's extremely refreshing to read your love and heart for what you do. and for all that you have done and want to continue to do. honestly, i'm hoping nothing changes and i'm hoping that i will still love dinosaur 10 years from now just as much as i do now - as i'm just one person who was worried about changes to one of the best places that he's ever eaten at. thanks again for your thoughts and for responding.