The Legend of Famous Dave’s BBQ Restaurant~ America’s Rib King: Part III | Grilling with Rich The Legend of Famous Dave’s BBQ Restaurant~ America’s Rib King: Part III

The Legend of Famous Dave’s BBQ Restaurant~ America’s Rib King: Part III

Posted By: Richard Wachtel
Published: April 15, 2013

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Have you ever wondered how the Famous Dave’s Restaurant chain got started? Well, I was lucky enough to get the full story to share with you: The BBQ restaurant Famous Dave Story told from Famous Dave himself: Dave Anderson!

I have decided to split the story up into various parts, so tune in each day over the upcoming week, as we get to know: The Legend of Famous Dave Anderson: America’s Rib King! [ Click here to read part I and click here to read part II] 

The story is told from Dave’s perceptive.  The article is edited only for clarity 

“The only man alive that is barred from visiting Hog Farms because if just one pig gets a glimpse of this man…it will set off mass hysteria amongst all the pigs and they’ll never be the same! In fact, I’ve seen Famous Dave walk down an aisle of barbecue equipment and immediately, you can tell this man has achieved a special place in the world of barbecue, as the BBQ grills all bow down in complete reverence like sacrificial virgins, wishing that Dave would pick one of them to use for smoking his meat. This man has that aura of smokiness and self-confidence about him the same way The Most Interesting Man in The World drinks Dos Equis.”
~Factual eye witness account by Hog Farmer, Jimmy Baird
Uniontown, Kentucky

Famous Dave BBQ Logo

A Tarp Covered Sapling Lean-To Becomes Dave’s First Restaurant Experience: Selling American Indian Fry Bread with Mom at American Indian Pow-Wows!


In my later years to help make ends meet during the summer, my mom would take us kids to her reservation, the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, to set up a food stand at the tribe’s annual Honor the Earth Celebration Pow-Wow. This is a magnificent gathering of the tribes held annually, during the third week in July. Indian families across the Midwest gather at the Lac Courte Oreilles Pow-Wow grounds and for four days they honor our mother earth through Indian dancing, feasts, and give-a-ways. My mom always had an Indian Fry Bread stand, where she made Indian Fry Bread and served it with tasty grilled Venison. She also made a wild rice soup that was so deliciously tasty people lined up at her food booth waiting for her soup to be done. My mom was a hard worker and I learned the importance of impeccable cleanliness from her even though this was only a tarp covered lean-to. My mom took great pride in everything she did and today this is where my unwavering work ethic to do every thing to the best of my ability so I will never have to apologize for something I served.

Take Pride In Everything You Do

One of the greatest memories I remember working with my mom was how she loved greeting people and she always had a ready smile no matter how much she was hurting from standing all day and working sun up to way past midnight. I watched how my mom never wavered on serving a good looking plate of food with a smile…as a result we sold out of everything we made every day. My dad was her teammate, as he reminded me of a honey bee… he was always running around shaking everyone’s hands and talking to folks. I think if my dad were still alive today, he would have loved to be a host at my restaurant.

It Doesn’t Matter Where You Start Out But Where You End UP!

Today, I still serve this tasty wild rice soup in my Original Famous Dave’s restaurant in Hayward, Wisconsin. Cooking at these Indian Pow-wows, I learned how to serve large numbers of people helping my mom cook and waiting on the long lines of hungry Indian dancers and spectators. This is where my passion for wanting to be in the restaurant business developed. Who would have ever guessed a tarp covered Indian fry bread stand made out of saplings, at an American Indian Pow-Wow would eventually lead to the creation of Famous Dave’s Legendary Real Pit Barbeque!

Young Dave Learns What Real Pit Bar-B-Que Is All About!

Although I grew up on the Westside of Chicago, my dad knew where all the storefront barbecue joints were on the south and west side of Chicago. I still remember Lem’s, it was one of my Dad’s favorites and been around for almost 70 years. Some of the others I remember are Sprag’s, Leon’s, Robinson’s, Farmer Brown’s, Barbara Ann’s, Uncle John’s, and the Rib Palace. These black owned, storefront barbecue joints all used real wood burning pits and homemade sauces were generally thin, which made it easy to mop & slather. Some of the more well known, so-called Chicago rib joints like Twin Anchors, Gale Street Inn, and Carsons…my dad said he would never go there because these places sold “citified ribs” or ribs that were boiled, broiled, or baked. Being from the south, he always said, “if there ain’t no wood…it ain’t no good!” Ribs were never supposed to be “stewed” in water like chicken  he would tell me.

“Life Changing Ribs” Brought Home In Dad’s Lunch Bucket

My dad was an electrician who worked on some of the big buildings downtown, which is how he found out where the best barbecue was in town. When it came time for lunch, his black co-workers always sent someone out to bring back real pit smoked ribs. My dad loved his barbecue and it wasn’t too long before he started to tag along with his co-workers… and soon he was bringing these ribs home in his lunch bucket! I was eight years old when I clearly remember the day I discovered what real hickory smoked ribs both smelled like and tasted like. I was coming home from school, and opening the door, I immediately smelled this wonderful aroma of wood smoke wafting throughout the apartment. I ran to the kitchen where I watched my dad was unwrapping these beautiful glistening ribs from yesterday’s old newspapers. This is how real barbecue was brought home back in the day. My dad gave me one of those ribs and as soon as I put this rib in my mouth… I knew right then I was going to be a Pitmaster! There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I was going to learn how to smoke these mouthwatering smokey ribs!

 Chicago Street Corner Bar-B-Que and Hungry Dogs

From then on, I begged my dad to take me with him whenever he traveled to the south side of Chicago to get ribs. Sometimes he took me to vacant lots where we could smell smoke blocks away and there would be a black gentleman with his 55 gallon drum smoker smoking up a storm. My dad would tell me, “this is the real deal…Old School Bar-B-Que!” To this day, I still remember these old timers sitting on tattered lawn type folding chairs next to their pit and the smoky aromas…Mm, Mmm Mmmmm. These old Pitmasters would show up late some Friday night and smoke all through the night, carefully tendering their pits until their ribs, rib tips, and hot links were ready. These were the legendary slow pit smoked slabs of whole spareribs that they lovingly slathered with their homemade secret barbeque sauces just like the old time Pitmasters used to smoke way down in the Deep South. Once you bought your ribs, these old guys would wrap your ribs in anything they had handy but it didn’t matter, all you could think of getting these ribs back home and eating them. Many times, the ribs never made it home…I don’t know how many stripped clean rib bones got thrown out of my car windows. One thing for sure is no dog ever found enough meat on my discarded bones to even bother with them!

My BBQ Lovin’ Family Was Different Than All The Other Families On The Block

“Going Out To Eat” was a special occasion back in the old days. We weren’t exactly poor but my parents watched every dime and penny to make ends meet and they made sure we always had good home-cooked meals on the family’s dinner table. Eating out in our family was a rare and special occasion that only the big old canning fruit jar could bring. Every once and awhile, my parents would get out the big old canning fruit jar that was hidden in the pantry and we would gather around the family’s kitchen table and count the pennies. We always squealed when we would find a big huge silver dollar in the pennies because it meant we had enough money to go out to eat at a “real” restaurant. Today, I now know that my parent’s sacrificed to hide that shiny silver dollar in the pennies. But whenever we found that silver dollar, I got excited because I knew where we were going…RIBS! Years later, I often thought about this and then I realized how different our family was from all the other families on the block because when their parents took their kids out to eat… it was for burgers and pizza. On the rare occasion my dad took us out to eat… it was for barbecued ribs…that’s how I knew our family was different! We were also the first family on the block to get the first charcoal grill.

Eddie’s Real Pit Ribs In Logan Square, Chicago

Back around in the 60’s, one of my family’s favorite barbeque restaurants was a place called Eddie’s Real Pit Bar-BQ, located on a side street across from the Logan Street “L” Train Station. This was the only real pit barbecue joints owned by white folks that had a sit down dinning room. I remember, once we got about a block away from Eddie’s, my dad would roll down the car windows and you could smell the heavenly wood smoke coming out of a big tall smoke stake that towered over the two story building. I used to get so excited that I couldn’t wait for my dad to park the family’s Buick station wagon and I would practically tumble out of the car to run up to the restaurant’s window.

Real Pit Smoked Ribs… CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP

Eddie’s had a smoker full of smokin’ spareribs right in the front window with a sign that boasted “We sell over 7 tons of ribs every month!” What I remember… is the “flame licked ribs.” I was mesmerized how the flames underneath the ribs would dance up and flicker around the ribs and the juices would drip on smoldering coals beneath and they would almost explode like sparklers…my mom practically had to drag me away from the window. Once we entered the restaurant, I remember the Pitmaster would pull slabs out of the smoker with a big fork and place the smoky slabs on a big heavy wooden butcher block where he would quickly hack the ribs apart with a big butcher’s meat cleaver. You didn’t need to put any sauce on these ribs as they were so smokey delicious right out of the smoker. Although, I loved their home made sauce, which was a family secret. Unfortunately, the Logan Square “L” Station got tore down and the train tracks were put underground and this caused Eddie’s to go out of business… but to this day, I can still hear the heavy “chomp, chomp, chomp” of Eddie’s smokey ribs being hacked apart and it makes my mouth water even now.

Sprags Bar-BQ, West Side of Chicago

One of my dad’s favorite barbeque joints on the west side of Chicago was called Sprags Bar-BQ. From time-to-time, I can remember my dad coming home late from work with a brown paper grocery bag full of newspaper bundles, and I knew immediately what he had in the bag because the smoky aromas spread quickly throughout the house. There was nothing fancy about these huge slabs of spare ribs but they were tasty! These spare ribs had a fiery bite to them made cleared out your sinuses and they were so smokey you could tell they came right out of the smoker and were immediately wrapped in pages of yesterday’s old Chicago Tribune. Nobody ever thought anything of getting poisoned from wrapping ribs in old newspapers back then. These spare ribs from Sprags, were my first taste of real “HOT” ribs. To this day, I haven’t been able to figure out what these old timers basted their ribs with… although I suspect it was a sop of vinegar and a secret mix ground up hot peppers and a few other secret spices. I can’t tell you how it bugs me to no end not to have yet figured out the secret to these smokey hot vinegary ribs. Unfortunately old man Sprag died and took his secrets with him.

“I don’t want you going to that BBQ joint alone!”

My dad never brought us along to Sprags and I never knew why until years later when I was old enough to drive. Although my dad was reluctant at first to tell me where Sprags was located, he did eventually tell me and gave me a stern warning to be careful! Once I found the place, I understood. On a dark street corner of Lake St. and Kedzie on the Westside of Chicago, Sprags Bar-BQ was located almost under the “L” train tracks and you knew this place was the real deal. It had a Chicago style “aquarium type” smoker in the front window and when you walked through the well worn door that was flanked by folding iron gates…you found yourself in a smoke-filled tight entryway with plain walls on two sides and a big bullet proof window for the third wall. Just walking in the front door, I had to stop and fill my lungs with that heavenly aroma of smoky slabs of ribs smoldering in the pit. It seemed like cloud of lazy smoke just hovered in a layer several feet above your head.

The Best Barbecue is Found In Buildings About To Be Condemned!

Then I had to yell out my order and shove my money through the inches thick, bulletproof window and then they shoved the ribs through a sliding tray. Just standing there, waiting for my ribs…I wondered what possessed me to risk my life other than the fact I couldn’t wait to get my lips on those mouthwatering, smoky barbecued ribs! I don’t know why, but I guess there’s truth to the old saying… “The best barbecue is sometimes found in a building that’s about to be condemned!”

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