Bill Kraus is thankful for his country and for the people who've pledged to protect it. He's also thankful that about 10 years ago he agreed to play a round of golf with an acquaintance-turned-friend, Steve Newton.
The friendship between Kraus, a former Under Armour marketing executive, and Newton, a restaurant industry veteran, blossomed into a partnership that launched Mission BBQ, a fast-growing chain of fast-casual restaurants.
Now five years old with 41 locations in 11 states, the Baltimore-based chain is looking to double in size in two years, and Kraus and Newton say they plan to turn their concept of barbecue with a hefty helping of patriotism into a national brand.
"There's nothing more American than barbecue and nobody more American than someone that will serve, protect and save it," said Kraus, 53.
However, the partners believed, nobody had been able to successfully pull off a barbecue chain on a national level. And if they were going to try, they wanted to do it in a way that recognized the nation's everyday heroes in the military and public safety.
Each location pays tribute to service members, veterans and first responders, with an American flag flying above the parking lot and photos of uniform-clad men and women sharing wall space with hundreds of patches representing armed forces units, police departments and fire-rescue companies. Every day at noon, diners stand up from dark wooden booths and workers pause from smoking pork and beef in the open kitchen while the national anthem plays. A refurbished military truck is always parked out front.
At a time when deep political divisions have roiled the nation, Kraus and Newton see their concept as not only above the fray but perhaps a unifying force.
"I think first and foremost, we're all Americans, and I think we're all united in that," said Newton, 53.
Serving your community or country "is timeless in nature," Kraus added. "This is not about politics. This is about patriotism. It's about bringing people together that feel good about our country and are hopeful for what the future holds."
Consumers have responded, the founders said. Sales last year outpaced sales in the first four years combined, according to the private company, which does not disclose financial results but several years ago announced a goal of $100 million in revenue and 40 restaurants by 2018.
The first restaurant opened in a former video store in Glen Burnie on Sept. 11, 2011, a decade after "the world changed as we knew it," Kraus said, with another opening the following year in Perry Hall. Three more opened in 2013, nine more in 2014, another nine in 2015, then 17 last year, bringing the company to its restaurant count goal two years ahead of schedule.
Growth in the first half of this year will be concentrated in existing states, including Maryland locations in Crofton and Rockville, with a big push in the Washington market. The company's catering business is growing too. Mission BBQ expects to cater 400 weddings this year.
The expansion comes at a challenging time for restaurants generally and the fast-casual category in particular, which includes such brands as Chipotle and Panera. Such chains saw visit growth dwindle last year to the slowest pace since the recession, said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group. Consumers have stayed away as operators raised prices to offset higher costs.
More than half the consumers she asked in a recent survey "said it's just cheaper to eat at home, and restaurants' prices are too high and not a good value, and that has hit fast casual," she said. "Along with that there are too many restaurants, more restaurants than bodies to fill them. ... It's just a very challenging environment."
The fast casual burger and pizza space is especially crowded, she said, and no matter the cuisine, restaurateurs need to give diners a compelling reason to visit and entrees in the $7 to $9 range.
Still, she said, "there are winners. There are concepts that are bucking the trend ... giving consumers an experience, giving back to the community. Those concepts are doing well."
While she was not familiar with Mission BBQ, Riggs said, "It sounds like a unique concept and one that would resonate in communities, especially in today's world, by giving back and recognizing those that have sacrificed so much for us."
Mission BBQ's Glen Burnie location, on Governor Ritchie Highway next to an Outback Steakhouse, has become a regular lunch spot for Joe Johnson, 20, and Courtney Kent, 19, both of Glen Burnie.
"I've always liked barbecue, so it's just kind of nice to get to a place with different sauces and have a nice home meal," said Johnson, a construction management student and employee at Outback.
"I like the atmosphere," added Kent, a retail worker. "It's very friendly here."
Kraus and Newton own the chain outright, funding the expansion through a relationship with Goldman Sachs. They believe they have perfected their model. As long as they can continue attracting employees and managers who share their work ethic and values, they see no barriers to expansion.
"With Mission BBQ, they hit the trifecta," said Mark Millman, president and CEO of Millman Search Group, a retail consulting and executive search firm. "They have the locations, they have the service and they have the value. It's a food concept that Americans love, barbecue, be it turkey, beef or pork. It's a winning formula for success, and they're duplicating it in key markets in the country."
The two met more than 10 years ago when they were both living in the same community and attending the same church. Kraus, originally from Wisconsin, worked his way through college selling athletic shoes and then worked in marketing for the Champion sports brand before being introduced to Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. Kraus was senior vice president of marketing for the Baltimore sports brand from 2001 to 2009, where, among other things he said he learned attention to detail, protecting your brand and "creating story in and around your product."
Newton, originally from Ohio, always worked for restaurants, starting out delivering pizza and working for Bennigan's before becoming an executive vice president for Outback Steakhouse and helping to expand that brand in the Mid-Atlantic.
Kraus, while still at Under Armour, and Newton, at Outback, got to know each other during the golf outing, discussing common interests and values related to family, friends and business. When they would run into each other, they would talk about business travels and where they'd eaten. Soon, they realized they wanted to build a restaurant business together.
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While researching, they found that barbecue was offered mainly by small independent or regional operators and saw an opportunity. They traveled to North Carolina, Texas, Chicago and elsewhere to find the best recipes.
The first restaurant served pulled pork, and now all outlets offer brisket, chicken, turkey, sausage and most recently, salmon, with meat smoked daily before lunch and dinner. Fast service is stressed, with registers staffed so diners wait no more than 10 minutes from door to table. Each restaurant participates in community campaigns, with proceeds from a refillable "American heroes cup" going to local police and fire charities and military nonprofits and raising more than $3 million so far.
The patriotic theme seemed a natural fit, the partners said. Kraus said his grandfather and father both served, while his oldest son is a former Marine and his youngest is a senior at the Naval Academy.
Newton, who spent one semester in Naval ROTC at Ohio State University, said he grew up in a family where "when the fire engine was coming by or the police car was coming by, you pulled over and you let them pass for the greater good of what they were doing."
Kraus said he hopes customers see the Mission BBQ brand as unique in a sea of restaurants and leave "feeling, hopefully, better than when you walked in."