How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: One Year Later

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

For over a year now I've documented my journey from absolute obscurity to opening a barbecue restaurant in New York. You've seen my triumphs and my low moments, and to anyone who's stuck around all this time: I'm grateful. Publishers fight for your eyeballs every day, and it says something powerful to me that you've been willing to come along for the ride.

After Bill Clinton retired as the 42nd President of the United States, he set to paper what is arguably the most candid executive autobiography ever written. He wrote, "A lot of presidential memoirs, they say, are dull and self-serving. I hope mine is interesting and self-serving." Today, nearly one year after my first day of business, I hope the following retrospective can do the same.

Where Do You Find Time to Write?

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[Photograph: Clay Williams]

The absolute number one question I get asked all the time is how do I remotely find time to write these essays. As I've mentioned before, I'm pretty busy. I work seven days a week and can easily clear 112 hours out of 168. My restaurant isn't a massive corporation, so my jobs include chef, bar manager, human resources, finance guy, delivery driver, laundry guy, maintenance department, and complaints hotline. How does writing ever make it into the day?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist, spent four years in a Siberian prison where he wasn't allowed to write. Every once in a while he was sent to the hospital where he would jot down all the things he saw in little vignettes. Eventually, after his release, this semi-autobiographical collection of writings was published as The House of the Dead. Writing while running a restaurant basically works the same way, just with fewer beatings.

The secret is that I have to do a lot of driving. On any given day I'm delivering food to a client, picking up inventory, hauling replacement equipment, and the like. As you can imagine, driving things back and forth to Brooklyn isn't the most exciting hobby. So what I'll do is basically "write" entire sections in my head. It's no different than anyone sitting down to put their thoughts on paper. I'll construct the allegorical sections while stuck in Midtown Manhattan traffic. The bullet points for every piece get penned and rejected mentally while making yet another run because the bartender forgot to tell me that we've run out of ginger beer. Once I find a free second, I do a neurological dump onto the computer and find another time to clean things up.

And at the end of the day, I don't have to do much beyond that. I just have to talk to myself enough and send a jumble of words to my editor to get straightened out. Frankly, other writers have a harder job in that regard.

Pilgrim's Progress

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

One advantage of telling a story as it happens is you get to see my mistakes as I make them. So to commenters on my early stories who pointed out that I had no idea what I was doing: You're right! I've been upfront about that from the start. Opening a restaurant doesn't come with a handbook, and we all need to learn our own way with the anemic amount of information available to us.

What's changed since those early days? For one, while I used to struggle to raise any kind of funds, now investors are coming to me with money, asking when "we" are going to do something. If I wrote a story today about those early fundraising efforts, it wouldn't show how I was feeling at the time: the wounded ego, the chronic pain of endless rejection, the lonely island of hopelessness. Sure, the world is filled with academic case studies about business management, but where's the MBA course to tell me what to do when even the best of business plans can't get any traction because I'm a nobody?

I'm not sure if it shows, but I've grown a lot since the beginning of this journey. A year ago I was full of angst. But nothing teaches fast footwork and getting back on your toes like being repeatedly socked in the face. Every building code violation was a lesson, every beverage industry debacle a scar to remember. The philosopher Kierkegaard believed that the greatest hell was to be bored. By that logic, I've been in heaven. Every step on this journey has included some amount of pain, but without the accumulation of those punches to the head, I couldn't do what I do now.

'I Survived, Too'

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In my last dispatch, I talked about what it takes for a largely outdoor beer garden to survive the cold winter slow season. After the article went live, a fellow restaurateur emailed me with the subject line "I survived too," saying, "No one but us knuckleheads will ever really understand the meaning behind those words."

Although this series has been about my personal journey, it isn't just my story. It's the story of your local bagel shop, the pizza guy with that perfectly fried bottom Sicilian slice, that little mom and pop Chinese restaurant feeding generations of college students with cheap greasy dumplings.

Restaurants everywhere face the same challenges, but none of us know how to quantify those struggles. How do you communicate the days of lost sleep? How do translate the toil of finding solutions to unsolvable problems when you have another one right around the corner?

I don't have the answer to those questions. But I hope some of my mistakes will speak for themselves, and at least show what every small business has to go through. And to all my old bosses: Consider this series an apology. I treated some of you as exploitative adversaries when in reality nothing would have given you greater pride than seeing me succeed. I never saw the weight on your shoulders, and I couldn't see the disappointment and pain you had to deal with alone. I'm sorry.

And Thanks for Reading

Hey Tyson!

[Photograph: Clay Williams]

We started our journey together in search of a home for my restaurant. Through moldy basements and rotted floors up and down the borough of Brooklyn, we walked until we came upon a lonely corner of Bushwick filled with warehouses and factories. We saw massive cracks along the side of the walls, potholes in the yard the size of swimming pools, a scrawl of graffiti reading "HellBent" capping off the textbook image of urban decay. You watched in shock that, despite the site being far from public transportation and completely void of foot traffic, I signed a lease in an abandoned warehouse zoned as a diner. The delusional Wizard declared that I would build my Emerald City in this industrial wasteland and pave a road to it made of yellow bricks.

You stood with me either in sympathy or judgment as I struggled to deal with contractors and the Gordian knot of the New York Building regulations. Hopefully you were inspired to see that something beautiful can be made with the most mediocre of talents. I hope you celebrated with me when people marginalized by society at large became my most trusted associates. I pray that you watched as my heart was broken by the loss of some of my most talented crew to alcohol and drugs.

Behind the curtains you've seen the throat-slitting nature of the New York real estate market and how far people will go just to force out a restaurant. Through my ears, you listened to the white noise and music of business ownership. You saw me stand alone and defeated as the summer passed and I wasn't able to open. You watched as I crumbled to my knees and failed my construction inspection.

You steadied me through the chaos of my opening day: the music, the fire eaters, the free pig tattoos, the Department of Health crashing the party. In the frozen New York City winter we drew daggers and dueled with ghost of John Maynard Keynes to keep my restaurant alive.

You and I got to add a little wrinkle into New York City history. The Arrogant Swine is the very first Carolina whole hog barbecue joint to ever open in our little town. I've tried to tell the story as honestly as I could, warts, festering sores, and all. That includes my shortcomings as much as anything else.

So thank you for the hugs from Germany, the handshakes in Dublin, and the visits in my corner of Brooklyn. You've inspired me, called me out as an obnoxious fraud, and had a chance to walk in my own shoes. No matter how you've felt about this adventure, I'm so glad you've been here the entire time.