Talking about Monroe's Bar-B-Q with owner Keith Waller
1. Tell us about Monroe's.
Monroe's was started in November of 2007. It was a branch from our catering operations, RSVP Caterers. It's all slow smoked meats. The meats are cooked low and slow overnight and all sides and dressings are home made by us. There is a lot of love that goes into producing good barbecue and people appreciate the effort we put into it. They can tell barbecue that's taken its time, rather than being rushed.
…is RSVP Caterers focused on barbecue?
No, RSVP Caterers does a little bit of everything. We've been catering since 1990. We do both formal affairs and casual picnics. At some point we became the exclusive caterers at a few venues and barbecue was the main thing we were asked to cater in those particular venues. People started asking us if we had a restaurant and our answer was always "no." But the barbecue became such a talked about part of what we did that we thought we needed to create a brand for it. We basically diversified the catering business with a barbecue division. So we now have a barbecue brand with Monroe's and an upscale catering brand for formal affairs. We can now serve the gamut of all events for every budget and style.
2. How is Monroe's Catering related to RSVP Caterers?
Monroe's Catering focuses on barbecue items from Monroe's whereas RSVP Caterers will do a much wider range of items. Sometimes we'll incorporate the two together and bring the Monroe's side into a more upscale event. It's a great working combination.
3. What makes Monroe's barbecue distinctive?
I think it's just the time and preparation put into preparing the barbecue. We're in the day and time of shortcuts and people want to do everything fast and quick, but barbecue's not fast and quick. You need to take the time for the seasonings and the rub and to do everything the way you want to get the best product. People can taste the difference. When you invest the time to make sure it's cooked right, the temperature is where you want it, and you do everything you can so that when you put it on a plate it's the best you can put out, then people will come back.
4. How would you describe Monroe's barbecue style?
I think it's our own, but we also incorporate some regional styles. We offer a Carolina pork, which is a chopped pork with our own in-house Carolina sauce, and it's one of our best sellers. Everything else we do is dry rubbed and served dry. We put 5 or 6 sauces on the table and let you choose the type of sauce you like.
5. How did you come up with your barbecue style?
It's a combination of our years of catering. I had done barbecue from a catering standpoint for many years, but never from a restaurant standpoint. I needed someone from a restaurant background to come in and tweak our cooking methods. In the catering business everything is fresh right off the smoker. You know how many people you're cooking for and when everything needs to be ready. It's all pretty simple. With a restaurant you need to make sure everyone's getting the same fresh food throughout the day. I brought someone in to help me with that in the beginning.
6. What would you recommend to someone coming to Monroe's for the first time to give them a sense of what Monroe's is all about?
Wow, there's so many options. Our wings are very popular because of the way we season, dry rub, smoke and flash fry them. We serve them wet or dry with a couple of different sauces. They're a big hit. Our ribs are fantastic; so is the brisket.
7. Can you tell us why you call your wings "famous?" How are they different from other wings?
Most places that do wings just fry them. We slow smoke them with our special dry rub. Then we flash fry them to crisp them up. You have the smoke flavor coming through and then you have the crispiness. If you eat them just like that we call them dry. They can also be tossed in our Monroe's chipotle sauce and eaten wet. They're a hit, whether you eat them wet or dry.
… do most people have your wings wet or dry?
In a large group most people order them dry because we have sauces on the side and everyone can use their favorite sauce. I think that when people order for themselves, wet seems to be the most popular.
8. What would you recommend to someone who's been a few times and is looking for something a little different?
Well, we have a sandwich that is becoming almost cult like that I created a while back. It's called the Granny Sandwich. It's a 6 inch sub roll that we toast. We have beef brisket on one side, pulled pork on the other side, a long sliced pickle lining the roll, and cheese sauce. Most people also add barbecue sauce. You have the combination of the smoked brisket and the smoked pork coming together with the cheese sauce and little snap, crunch from the pickle. People are ordering this more and more. It was one of the first requests we had when we opened Beach Boulevard.
…is the Granny Sandwich served on your food truck?
No. There's just some things we can't fit onto the truck based on space availability and the time to prepare. Things that are more labor intensive we try not to do on the truck because it's a two man operation with limited space. We try to do things we can produce in a timely manner.
9. What's your favorite item at Monroe's?
I love the smoked turkey. We do something different from a turkey standpoint. A lot of people use a pre-cooked turkey breast. We use a natural, boneless, raw breast that we season and smoke to perfection. The turkey's fantastic and I love it. Collard greens, turkey and black eyed peas would be my best meal.
10. Have you been surprised by the popularity of any items or surprised that certain items aren't more popular?
I guess I was surprised with how well the wings took off. Also, the collard greens. Ours are made different from any others you'll ever eat and we have a lot of customers who have grown a great appreciation for them.
11. Is your menu pretty stable or does it change a lot?
We have a standard menu and then we have daily specials at both locations. We're always creating something new. Our newest creation is cornbread soufflé. Our prep cook just started this two weeks ago and its fantastic. It's so good that we're introducing it to the Beach Boulevard location this coming week. I think it's going to turn out to be really popular. We'll be putting it on our regular menu because I know it's going to be a keeper.
…can you tell us more about the cornbread soufflé?
Well, my prep cook just told me one day that she wanted me to try cornbread soufflé. I tried it and thought "wow!" and couldn't stop eating it. It's almost like a pan of cornbread with a soufflé texture, so you get that good texture of the cornbread with the sweetness of the corn. When it comes out hot it's just fantastic.
12. How do you come up with all your recipes?
It's a combination of our years of catering, some suggestions from our staff, and a little research and testing. One of the really fortunate things is that we have a catering company with a creative chef as well as a barbecue restaurant. The chef produces a wide variety of things that we can sometimes incorporate into the restaurant.
13. What attracted you to your Highway Avenue location?
When I was looking for our first location I already had a big catering operation with a lot of equipment and had been leasing space. My goal was to buy my own location with a restaurant as a part of it, along with space for offices and storage for our mobile equipment. The location I found was the former Pat & Mike's Restaurant which was a landmark on Westside. I was able to purchase that and re-do it exactly how I wanted it to fit my restaurant and my catering operation. I later bought the property behind it, which serves as our catering offices and a place to hold our equipment. It really served two purposes - a retail location for our restaurant and a space to run our catering.
…and what attracted you to your location on Beach Boulevard?
I was familiar with the location and really liked it. The visibility, the access, and the drive-thru capability all created a great location. I was also looking for something completely outside the demographic we draw for our other location. We were already drawing from a pretty good radius, all the way downtown, and I wanted to expand our reach. It just turned out to be a good opportunity.
14. When did you open your Beach Boulevard location?
In November of 2012.
15. Are the menus the same between your two locations?
They're really close. The main difference is that the Beach Boulevard location is more of a dinner time location. It's open 7 days a week for dinner, whereas our Highway Avenue location is only open twice a week for dinner. We have a bigger appetizer menu at Beach Boulevard and we're offering more dinner options, and more varieties with beers to cater to the dinner time crowd.
16. When did you start your food truck, Monroe's on the Go?
It's funny; I bought that mobile kitchen back in 2000. I bought it then because a chef who came to work for me was big into catering for the film industry and he had this mobile kitchen designed and built to the specs of the film industry. They'd tried it for a couple of years before the company decided they didn't want to continue. The chef came to work for me and talked me into leasing the mobile kitchen to keep doing film industry work because he had the contacts. So, I ended up purchasing the mobile kitchen and used it in our catering operations - primarily for film industry work, weddings and that sort of thing. Over time that started to drop off as everyone got tighter budgets. So the kitchen was sitting around, not doing a lot. I almost sold it a couple of times. It was in the summer or fall of 2010 that I was watching a food truck race on the Food Network and a light just went off and I said "we need to do a food truck." It would let us expand our brand and put the mobile kitchen to use. The process started then. We launched in March of 2011.
17. What sort of food do you serve on your truck?
It's basically the same food as what we produce in the restaurant each day. The same people who prepare the food for the restaurant also prepare what we need for the food truck. It's pork, brisket, chicken and all our sides. The meat is taken off the smoker and loaded onto the truck. It's cut or sliced onsite so that it's always fresh.
18. Do you have a standard location for your food truck?
We change around. In the very beginning it was a challenge trying to find spots that would be conducive to a food truck operation. Another food truck had started at Everbank Plaza and I thought that was a good location. At the time we started going there the other truck folded operations. They decided they didn't want to deal with the hassle from the city anymore. The city basically ran them off the Everbank location, telling them the zoning wasn't proper and other reasons. I really liked the location and didn't see any reason why we couldn't be there so I went through all the permitting processes and got all my licenses. We had to really work with the city to convince them that we could be at Everbank without impacting traffic. I don't know what changed; maybe the whole food truck phenomenon just raised awareness all around and the city was trying to be more open with it. That was the first place for us. Luckily we also have some big catering clients so we had a lot of contacts who liked our food enough to cater with us and were willing to have us come and use their locations to set up. So we started going to some of the large office parks. We now have 5 locations and we get requests all the time to come to other places.
19. Have you seen the reception to food trucks changing?
Oh yes! In the beginning it was a little tough. There was still a perception of the old roach coaches. What helped us is that we had a familiar name. People knew about Monroe's as a restaurant and it gave us a little more visibility. For those people who had heard of our restaurant but never tried it, the food truck gave them that opportunity. That was in the beginning, but from then to now the change has been unbelievable. People have really embraced the food truck industry.
20. Will we see a fleet of Monroe's on the Go one day?
I don't see that just yet. It was basically an opportunity for us to make use of something we already owned. One of the good things about the truck is that it spreads our brand awareness and allows us to serve people who might never get to our restaurant. It introduces people to our cooking and drives more traffic to our restaurant, so it's a great marketing tool. But we've just opened a second restaurant location and are pretty focused on that right now.
21. Are you a chef by background?
No, I'm not. I've never been a chef.
22. How did you get started in the restaurant business?
I was involved in a family business for many years and my job was as a food and beverage manager - I basically managed the food operations. My dad purchased some additional property to grow the business and it turned out that it had a facility on it that became a banquet hall where people would come in and have parties. He decided that he wanted me to be the caterer for that venue so I started learning the aspects of catering and bringing in chefs and other people to help out.
We ended up growing and we started being asked to cater events offsite. I was really hesitant because I'd gotten a system down in the banquet hall and was afraid to go outside in case I messed it up. Back in 1994 we were asked to do the company picnic for Merrill Lynch at the fairgrounds for 2,500 people. It was my first big offsite party and it turned out to be a great party and that was the stepping stone that got us into doing larger events. In 2002 I left the family business and went out on my own.
23. You have a 91% positive rating on Urbanspoon, which is really good. Do you have any thoughts on how you got to such a high rating?
I think that just speaks to the quality of the people who are a part of Monroe's. We have a great team of people who care about our customer experience, whether it's in one of our restaurants, with our catering or at the food truck.
24. Where does the name "Monroe's" come from?
It's my middle name. We were getting asked that all the time so we put a little background on our menus.
25. Where do you like to eat out when you're not at Monroe's?
That's a good question. I like to eat with locally owned establishments and there are a lot of good ones in town.
26. What's next for Monroe's?
Our second location was a big step for us. We're seeing a whole new customer base. So, it's exciting to hear from all the people who are just experiencing Monroe's for the first time. It gives us an incentive to do more but we're still in a real rocky time in the economy and you have to be careful how you proceed and the rate at which you proceed. We're just going to see how our new location plays out. There are other opportunities on the table for us now that we could move forward with but we just want to make sure we keep producing to our standards.
27. Anything else?
It's a labor of love. It's one of those things where you're invested in something and you're always striving to do the best you can. That's always our goal.