How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: Tales From Opening Day

The opening day menu. [Photographs: Clay Williams, except where otherwise noted]

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Not since high school, when I was ogling my leggy English teacher while being bored out of my skull, has this statement rang so true.

Throughout this journey of building the Arrogant Swine—securing a lease, dealing with build-out, wrangling city inspectors—I've wanted to travel back in time and slap the guy who first uttered "It's the journey that matters, not the destination."

This journey sucked.

Managing contractors, flaky partners, and countless bureaucratic organizations, I could barely wait until I was finally open.

Two weeks ago, we finally opened for business. People asked me if I was excited. My answer was no, because I knew that despite the relief of finally opening, I was in for a world of hurt. Every single restaurant opening in New York is a clusterfuck, and the question isn't whether an opening will be awful; it's how awful will it be.

Boy oh boy, my opening delivered the pain in spades.

Setting the Scene

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Here's what happened the day before opening. While tackling last-minute plumbing and electrical work, we discovered that certain appliances were tripping the circuit breaker, so we scrambled to get the electrician to run secondary wires.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen: my staff was a mix of seasoned veterans of some of New York's best restaurants and members of the DOE Fund, a homeless halfway house in Bushwick from which I promised to recruit employees. I'd never worked with this crew before, and we were all nervous about executing our game plan in fewer than 20 hours. My new pit assistant had never lit a cigarette, much less a large flaming pile of wood in a burn barrel. Two menu items—our house-made smoked sausage ring and giant turkey leg—had only the most preliminary recipe testing.

My bar manager's orders were all streaming in at the last second. Thanks to some credit app confusion, we couldn't secure all the whiskeys we wanted, leaving us scrambling to fill the gaps. Our tiny beer distributor in Greenpoint, from whom we'd ordered some of the most obscure beers on the market, just told us they didn't have the equipment (sankeys) to tap the kegs. To add insult to injury, two of our most expensive beers didn't even have their proper tap handles!

We hired the floor staff with fewer than 24 hours until opening, and they were given a 10-minute training on the point of sale system and floor layout, with the request that they memorize the website. We'll do better on training in the future.

And the floor and walk-in refrigerator were complete chaos as tens of thousands of dollars' worth of inventory came flooding in and my team scrambled to find room for it all. We had no linens, only a few shelves, and a whole host of necessary kitchen equipment that was missing. A good third of our bar stools still needed to be stained.

Yeah, I said, this is gonna hurt.

Night Falls

Opening day at the Arrogant Swine

At 10 p.m. the night before the grand opening, while my partners and crew labored to get the last-second touches done, I got in my truck and went to sleep. At 2 a.m., my new assistant arrived, and we lit the first fires. We slapped two and half 200-pound hogs on my huge Carolina-style smokers and began the laborious process of burning wood down into coals and shoveling them into the pits. By 3:30 a.m. we amassed the right amount of embers under the hogs to bank the fire. This cooking process—what you could call Ed Mitchell-style—requires the pit be fired to scorching hot levels before shutting down most of the oxygen to level off the heat and prolong the fire. That's one way to stay warm at night.

We fed the fires every other hour after that. And I got in another hour or so of sleep in my truck between firings.

The original plan was for my partner to come relieve me at 6 a.m. so I could run home and take a quick shower. But he slept past his alarm and got slammed by horrible traffic, so he didn't make it until 10 a.m. So much for that shower.

The Pain Starts Early

One of my old school Carolina pits. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In addition to my hog cookers, I have a wood-burning commercial smoker which holds over 600 pounds of meat. This Texan machine uses whole logs for heat, but the venting system is controlled by an electrical system—a decidedly modern device compared to my fully manual Carolina pits.

The best part of old school tools like those pits is that there are fewer modern bits to break. Modern bits like you'll find in my Texan machine, and just like its ancestors at the Alamo, the machine knew that today was not going to be its day.

So now I was down one smoker with a pit assistant who was too green to help me figure out a solution. My buddy the electrician did what he could, but the Texan smoker was a complete lost cause. We had five hours until opening. So I started stacking and moving meat around my two pits like some sick carnivore's Tetris game. With all the hatch opening and added meat, we needed more fuel, and plenty of it, so we fired enough wood to start forging Viking broadswords.

Meanwhile, we still had no way to tap six of our kegs, and the day crew was running late. So I spent two hours on the phone, mostly yelling, getting them up to speed while seeking out a friend with the sankeys we needed to open the kegs.

All along the way, trash kept piling up. Our garbage company flaked out on the evening pickup, so we started piling construction debris, cardboard, and kitchen junk in the back of my truck until it looked like a towering Aggro Crag of trash.

The Calm Before the Storm

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For a moment, things started to gel. I finally was able to tap the kegs. Literally an hour before opening, beer and liquor arrived. The meat was finally cooked. I stopped worrying about my body odor because I smelled like a walking forest fire.

We started chopping and seasoning the hogs, and for the first time in a while, I felt like I was in control. I've done this part before. The cleaver felt right in my hand. The motions—hacking meat into the right size bits, mixing the hog with the vinegar sauce—are ones I've done thousands of times before. This is where I belong. I am a one-trick pony and this here is my trick.

The charred wood bar sparkled in the evening sunset. Its backdrop glowed amber as spotlights shined through the wall of bourbon. My friend Chris stood with his new crew of five bartenders, who were all nervously anticipating the evening rush.

This was the calm before the storm. While we prepped inside, street artists from the Bushwick Collective gathered outdoors to do some live murals to celebrate the opening. My neighbors from Gnostic Tattoos were on hand to give people free pig tattoos. We hoisted my pal and local music legend Vince Anderson, up on top of our bathrooms to play his keyboard. The sound system was wired up for the Bushwick Burleseque Company's show.

Let's Get Ready to Rumble

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At 5 p.m., the gates opened. We started with a slow stream of well wishers. Members of the barbecue and beer community, with whom I've worked for a while, swung in to give their congrats. Stone Brewing Company, makers of Arrogant Bastard ale, brought in a three-quart bottle of their Double Bastard beer as a gift. (11% alcohol beer beats flowers any day.) A New York State senator and his entourage shook my hand and wished me the best of luck. I'd recall his name, but by this point I had about three neurons firing.

By 6, every seat at our 44-foot-long bar was filled, every banquette space was taken, and our 3,000 square foot outdoor beer garden was packed to capacity. The line for food started to get long. I manned the meat carving station, showing my new crew exactly how I wanted meats cut, seasoned, and served. Despite the crowd, we flowed through at a great pace.

But by 7, the place was nuts. We were no longer filled—we were mobbed! The bar crowd stood four people deep. The line for food snaked up half the block. My outdoor beer garden looked like an underground mosh pit, there was so little room to stand.

This level of insanity went on for a good two hours. The musician was jamming. A male burlesque dancer wearing clown makeup and dressed only in women's underwear commanded the crowd's attention. From the corner of my eye, I saw flashes of orange as our sword swallower changed her act to blowing large balls of fire. The crowd cheered and giggled as a topless dancer with nipple pasties dragged one blushing male guest after another to be part of her show.

In a two-hour stint, we ran through six kegs of beer and five cases of Mexicali cans, not to mention the bottles upon bottles of whiskey. I peeked outside and saw that the line for the free pig tattoos numbered in the double digits. All week long, people asked me how many people I expected to get pig tattoos on the spot. Well, there they were.

Hey! Who Invited You?

Hey Tyson!

By 9, the line for food stretched to 45 minutes. Some folks actually walked in, looked at the line, and told me they'd come back another day. For a restaurant's opening day, a line this long is a good thing.

Then the Department of Health arrived.

In New York City, the DOH is about as beloved as a raging yeast infection. It's an organization whose sole purpose is to extort money from restaurant owners.*

* Okay, not really, but it's been a rough couple of weeks, okay?

It's hard for me to take the DOH seriously when it pulls stunts like giving Per Se a C rating. (For those unfamiliar with Per Se, it is the apex of fine dining. They spend more money on sanitation, cleaning supplies, and services than most restaurants spend on their entire staffs. You are more likely to catch a staph infection at a hospital than if you got open heart surgery on Per Se's bathroom floor.) But restaurants, which despite thin profit margins always have some cash on hand, are a tempting target for city revenue through fines.

So I was no big DOH fan to begin with, and having two agents barge in on my very first day, harassing my staff and basically shutting down my line for a good hour, didn't endear me to them any further. My chef sat down with them and eventually we were able to start serving food again. Now I have a court date for October 30th to contest the charges they levied—and probably to pay the fine.

Here I Raise My Ebenezer

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The DOH agents left and we got back to work. We cranked out some more food for a while until the barbecue officially closed at 11 and the bar snack menu took over. At 11, the crowd has more or less died down, and the only remaining folks were the ones drinking at the bar. My bar manager cracked open the giant bottle of Arrogant Bastard we were gifted to pour for the staff. I was supposed to make a speech, but I was largely incoherent by that point, so I croaked out something I can't remember. The bar stayed open until 2 a.m. and staff cheered the end of our very first day.

But after my speech, while everyone was celebrating, I hopped back into my truck to sleep. In three hours I would be starting the fires again for the next day's meat. Honestly, I wasn't in the mood to party.

There was still so much to do. My staff was so raw. My practices were still untested. A week later, as I write this, I still haven't celebrated my own opening. I've been buried by work.

I've always imagined some magical demarcation point between building and opening. But right now I don't see it. And anyway, I believe in celebrating the anniversary, not the wedding. The feeling of "done" isn't here. Everything still feels ephemeral, a dream, and I have no more arrived at my destination than a year ago when I was searching for this space.

The bible tells us about Shmuel, the ancient prophet and military leader, who waged a bloody campaign to unite the various Semitic tribes into what we now call the old kingdom of Israel. In that pivotal time of uncertainty, when it was unclear whether his loose alliances would ever coalesce into a true state, Shmuel commissioned a rock monument named Ebenezer. While he managed to secure peace in the region, the new nation stood on shaky ground. The rock was a symbol: while he and the Israelites haven't arrived at their destination, they're further along than than when they started.

If I had to pin down my point-of-demarcation Ebenezer moment, it'd be a week before I opened, when members of the press were popping in to do photo shoots of our space. Late into the evening, we hanged an enormous eight-foot North Carolina flag on the wall, the last item of decor for the photos.

There it stood, a towering symbol of my work staring back at me. I was unprepared but ready to open. The construction wasn't fully complete, but it was enough for me to start. The golden N C letters stood there, representing the traditions and beliefs of my teachers, my supporters, my crew, and a 300-year-old practice that I had the honor to continue in New York. I snapped a photo of my giant flag and posted it online with lyrics of an old hymn:

Here I raise my Ebenezer; Hither by thy help I've come.