A recipe for success

Founded by one of Utah’s best competition barbecue teams – R&R BBQ’s restaurants today serve some of the finest meals to ever hit their customers’ lips

From the beginning, smoking meats was always more than just a hobby for the founders of R&R BBQ, it was a passion. “The brand essentially got its start as a competition barbecue team including Rod and Roger Livingstone (R&R), first competing with friends and neighbors, and later winning contests in the state of Utah and the Mountain West district,” explains Brand President and industry veteran Neil Harfert. “The pair did extremely well, and they soon became recognized as one of the premier barbecue teams in the United States.”

During this time, the demand for the R&R team’s mouthwatering barbecue eventually led to the opening of their first brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City. “Driven by a maniacal focus on food and service, the first restaurant was incredibly successful. A second site followed a few years later, which was even more popular, and by now the growth potential of the brand had become obvious.”

In need of a capital partner possessing both the financial support to grow, as well as experience in building successful restaurant businesses, R&R would go on to partner with the private equity investment organization, Mercato Partners and their Savory Restaurant Fund. “They specialize in the development of high-potential, early stage restaurant brands, offering a wealth of support to operators in the form of accounting, payroll, training, design, real estate, construction, marketing, and more,” Neil reveals. “With the partnership, R&R opened an additional six restaurants – all in the state of Utah.”

Invest in people
One of the things that Neil steadfastly believes makes R&R BBQ so special is that it packages its fantastic food and customer service in restaurants that he calls absolutely beautiful. “Our restaurants are larger than most barbecue establishments, in that they seat between 80 and 120 guests in a fast-casual dining atmosphere,” he says. “When it comes to actually opening up a new location, another difference between us and some other brands is that we invest a great deal in our people. Our approach is to go all-in with both pre-opening training and post-opening support in order to give our team the potential to develop excellent proficiency in their roles which leads to long-lasting, incredible customer experiences.”

New initiatives
R&R BBQ promises its customers the finest barbecue to ever hit their lips, and those who experience its food universally attest that the company’s recipes are amazing. Staples of its core menu include its best-selling Certified Angus Beef brisket, as well as pork spareribs, shredded pulled pork, chicken, spicy Andouille sausage, and more recently, smoked turkey breast. The latter was originally introduced as a seasonal offering in the form of a smoked turkey cobb salad following the brand’s belief in food innovation, but the turkey has proven so popular that it may soon be featured on its core menu. Meanwhile, on the catering side, the company also offers an expanded selection of higher-end proteins such as smoked beef tenderloin, smoked salmon and other selections that it does not serve within its restaurants.

“When launching any new product such as our smoked turkey cobb salad, we spend an inordinate amount of time on its development, including exhaustive testing and sampling, with the aim of making sure that it completely resonates with – and generates excitement among – our customers,” Neil states.

This year – 2020 – has been one almost entirely defined by the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the face of this unprecedented challenge R&R BBQ has had to evolve in order to satisfy its customers. “One of the first things we did when Covid-19 hit was to trim our menu options by around 40 percent,” Neil says. “We knew we might need to reduce our staffing levels given the immediate drop in sales, and that this would require us to have a more efficient menu, one which we could execute quickly with limited complexity, while still providing best-in-class food quality.” In recent months, the brand has reinstated the vast majority of those items as sales volumes have returned to pre-Covid-19 levels.

“With respect to the catering revenue channel, there is currently a huge demand for individually-packaged meals, which we are providing in the form of our ‘BBQ in a Box’ products. We have five options that are not only packed with high quality, generously portioned food, but are also very economical for larger groups, and that is important at a time when budgets are tight.”

Meanwhile, R&R BBQ’s takeout and delivery sales have increased massively, going from around 20 percent of the business pre-Covid-19, to almost 50 percent or higher in some of its restaurants. “Bearing in mind that barbecue in the United States is very much a communal food that is typically shared with others, this was a massive shift for our business,” Neil confirms. “One of our current initiatives is in figuring out how to differentiate ourselves further from all the other food-in-a-bag concepts, and we want to do this by transferring the warm, welcoming and engaging experience that customers get inside our restaurants into the delivery arena. We’re working on things like improved messaging and branding, as well as “outside-the-box” ideas like thank you cards, clean up kits, etc. Whatever we choose to do, it will be another example of how we have been able to pivot our business to react to these challenges, and stay relevant to our customers.”

Another change for the company in 2020 was the retirement of its founders. “We will forever be thankful for the platform Rod & Roger provided. Their passion for amazing quality barbecue and genuine hospitality will continue to fuel some amazing growth and opportunities for our team,” said Harfert.

What of the future for R&R BBQ then? “The success that we have had – and continue to have – at our existing locations is certainly what we will replicate going forward,” Neil enthuses. “We were already on an aggressive growth trajectory prior to Covid-19 hitting, and this was only briefly paused over the past eight months, with new restaurants currently under construction and set to open in the next several months. We have a further five identified sites which will open in 2021, and within the next five years I can see no reason why we couldn’t see more than 50 locations in new markets across the United States. If we keeping doing what we have done historically, which is to provide unbelievably consistent, high-quality meals at a great value, and if we continue to find good real estate and fill the restaurants with amazing team members who we treat like family, then that is a recipe for incredible success!”