Patrick Riha, owner of Beef Butter BBQ, read a news article about hospital workers and other frontline professionals pulling extra shifts without even stopping to eat amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospital cafeterias and many restaurants were closed, and takeout, if they had time to order, had limited availability.
When the going gets tough, the tough spring into action to help their community take on whatever challenge is making things tough. “The news article struck a chord with me,” says Patrick. “I’ve made smoked turkey meals for over 300 people each year on Thanksgiving at The Beacon, the day shelter on East Washington Avenue. This time, the community’s frontline workers needed someone to feed them.
“The smoked, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of Texas-style smoked brisket, pulled pork, chicken, and sausages is great comfort food that everyone enjoys. Especially at a time like this. I began to provide what we called First Responder Meals to give back to the community. I’ve always taken good care of the needs of my north side neighborhood. So I started donating food in my own backyard to the police and fire stations in the North District and Maple Bluff, and then expanded to frontline workers at St. Mary’s and UW Hospitals & Clinics. Any first responder also gets a 15 percent discount at the restaurant.”
As is often the case, the more you give, the more you get in return. “The immediate consequence of helping others was that my employees got to keep working, my food didn’t spoil, and it helped me to keep adapting the restaurant to meet the changing business landscape,” says Patrick.
When planning and preparation meet opportunity, destiny unfolds. Restaurants need to constantly adapt and be able to pivot based on current conditions in order to succeed. Patrick started Beef Butter BBQ after extensive research and planning. There’s much more involved in operating a restaurant beyond just the food. “I had a passion to open and operate a great local restaurant in Madison with Texas-style smoked brisket that melted in the mouth,” says Patrick. “I’m a research geek, so from the time I tasted my first Texas-style barbeque in Austin, Texas, my mission was to learn everything I could about what it took to succeed. I ate at great restaurants (I know, tough), attended pitmaster schools and restaurant training seminars, learned about costing cards, labor management, customer service, cleanliness, and more.
“To guarantee success, I started catering by outfitting a large trailer with a full commercial kitchen and a smoker. So big, in fact, it exceeded City of Madison regulations to do street vending. Instead, I set up the trailer at Woodman’s Market in Sun Prairie until I built my catering business for weddings, graduations, and business events. About 19 months later, in November 2018, I opened the restaurant on North Sherman Avenue and continued to cater events.”
During COVID-19, Beef Butter BBQ didn’t close, but instead pivoted and streamlined their operations. “When the seating area was shut down to comply with city regulations, I added online ordering to my existing website and eight parking stalls so people could drive up and get contactless delivery,” says Patrick. “Drive-through is now critical to double our capacity and give customers the social distance they want to stay safe.”
For customer convenience, “We added 14 freezer doors for our fresh smoked meats that are vacuum packed, so customers can take it home, heat the bag in warm water, and enjoy the taste like it just came off the smoker,” says Patrick. “The meats will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks or in the freezer for six months.”
With so many freezer backs, Patrick placed video screens on them to show customers how meat is smoked and fun facts that rotate every 15 seconds to educate and entertain people. Plexiglass dividers provide a sense of openness while keeping customers safe and happy. And before the end of 2020, the kitchen will double in size to include another in-house smoker and a walk-in cooler and freezer.
“There’s nothing harder nor more rewarding than to properly make Texas-style barbecue,” says Patrick. “It seems people start craving barbequed meat after about three days, so it’s always in demand. It starts with the purchase of the highest-quality meats, trimming them to achieve a perfect smoke, seasoning with special coarse salt and pepper, meticulous management of the fire for smoking to perfection, then properly cutting the meats.
“We have special water smokers with the seasoned oak fire underneath and a large bath of water above the fire with rotisserie smoking racks. The meats are smoked low and slow up to 12 hours, so the meat is fork tender. A great smoked brisket doesn’t have fat; it has beef butter, which gives the meat its great flavor.” The restaurant also serves smoked pulled pork, baby back ribs, chicken, and house-made sausages, and their hours will be expanding to include a breakfast burrito, coffee, and tea.
“I find if you just focus on exceeding expectations by providing quality food and service, and help the community when there’s a need, then everything else will take care of itself. I’m proud of our great staff, who have risen to the occasion amidst all of this year’s challenges and changes. It takes a team.”
Patrick’s staff helped pivot the business in 2020 to come out on the other side a more successful restaurant. “I kept John Lehman, of Jim’s Meat Market fame in the neighborhood, as our meat cutter and sausage specialist,” says Patrick. “Filipe came out of the FEED Kitchens Bakery Training Program, and I trained him to be the weekend pit master. I also have a couple of father-and-son teams, and I employ some people with special needs.”
Beef Butter BBQ has served over 250,000 people who have found that a 20-minute drive from anywhere is worth the trip to enjoy great barbeque.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison.
Beef Butter BBQ
3001 N. Sherman Avenue
Madison, WI 53704