What is your role at Blue Ribbon BBQ?
I’m partner and owner. I basically run the place.
How did Blue Ribbon come about?
Back in the dark ages, like 20 years ago, my buddy Chris Janowski and I would get together socially and drink and eat. Our wives worked at Ocean Spray over in Middleborough. Over beers one night, Chris had the idea for Blue Ribbon. He had spent half a dozen years in the South during college, and he thought it would be cool to open a barbecue restaurant in the North. He remembered seeing a lot of barbecue joints in the South and thought it was weird that there wasn’t one here. He thought, "Why wouldn’t a barbecue place work in the North?"
So, you both decided to open Blue Ribbon?
We both had other jobs at the time. I worked as a certified public accountant, and Chris was a video film editor. Chris quit and went to culinary school at Cambridge Culinary and then apprenticed for Chris Schlesinger at a restaurant called Jake & Earl’s in Inman Square to learn how to make really good barbecue. He was the ideas guy. I worked with the numbers. I’m the sole partner now; Chris relocated to Virginia with his family.
The three founding partners, shortly after opening. From left: Geoff Janowski (retired from the business at the end of 2014), Ron Stoloff, Chris Janowski (moved to Virginia around 2000 and is predominantly an absentee owner)
Why did you open in West Newton?
It was really by coincidence. We originally tried to find a place in Needham, because that’s where we lived, but the city didn’t like the idea of a wood-burning oven and a smoker going at all times.
We picked West Newton because we could stand out and because we were new and didn’t have a reputation. The landlords gave us space even though we didn’t have a background in restaurants. At the time that we opened, there was a dive bar down the street, and that was it. We showed the restaurant community that West Newton could support a funky restaurant like us.
Do you remember the first week after opening?
Yes, very well. We opened our first location in November of 1995. We had a great opening party, and then after we cleaned up, we just prayed that someone would come in and pay money for what we were doing. Business started off slow, and then people started to trickle in.
When did business start to take off?
About three months after we opened, we were reviewed in the "Cheap Eats" section of The Boston Globe. We didn’t know it, but the reviewer at the time lived in West Newton and would pass our store every day on his way home. He wrote a glowing review, and after that, our business tripled overnight.
When did the second location of Blue Ribbon open?
The second location opened February of 1997 in Arlington.
Pulled pork platter with mac & cheese, mashed potatoes, and cornbread
What’s the best-selling menu item?
Our pulled pork is our number one seller, followed by the spare ribs. Barbecue is very regional and varies depending on where you’re at. I don’t think that any barbecue style is better than the other, per se. Our vision with the menu was to sort of cherry-pick our favorite styles in terms of barbecue. We decided to go with a North Carolina-style pulled pork because we liked it the best. Same with the Kansas City burnt ends and the Memphis-style spare ribs.
Do you ever have to deal with skeptics or barbecue purists?
You know, one of my favorite things is when a Southerner comes in and says, "This couldn’t possibly be that good," and then by the time they’re done eating, they say "This isn’t as good as home, but it is really good."
Being in the restaurant industry is sort of like being an entertainer. You’re putting yourself out there for people to enjoy or not to enjoy what you do. For me it’s really satisfying when people like what we do. Chefs even come to us to get our food. Ming Tsai comes here for barbecue. That’s validation for me.
What do you see for the future of Blue Ribbon?
It’s definitely a team effort here. Having talented people like Chris was essential. I’ve got a really talented team now. Scott Gubitose is the manager and chef, and I’d be nothing without these talented people doing the heavy lifting. Our catering is so busy that we had to open a commissary to handle it. Now, we think we’re ready for a third store, and we’re actively looking for a location.
You know, I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue doing what we’re doing now. We’ve really been about slow growth. We're taking it "low and slow," which is the barbecue motto.
Header image of Blue Ribbon in Arlington/Facebook; photos of beef brisket and Blue Ribbon's three original partners/Courtesy of Ron Stoloff; photo of pulled pork platter/Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater.