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Taking A Ribbing

Birth of a food-chain mogul: a childhood love of barbecue, a few of life's lessons and a little divine guidance to shrink the ego.

When Dave Anderson, founder and chairman of multiple award-winning barbecue chain Famous Dave's of America Inc., describes the breathtaking view from his Edina, Minnesota, domicile, those listening must remind themselves that envy is one of the seven deadly sins. But still, it must be nice to have already accumulated wealth and then start what is now a 33-store staple in the barbecue world that's not only won just about every award a restaurant can be nominated for, but also reaped over $48 million systemwide in 1999. As it turns out, a lot of people express envy and amazement over the success of this ambitious kid from Chicago. But guess what? The Dave Anderson who's grown accustomed to accepting titles like "Restaurateur of the Year" (from a regional Minnesota magazine) and "Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year" (from Ernst & Young, NASDAQ and USA Today) hasn't always been so together.

Referring to motivational icon Zig Ziglar's chapter on him in Success For Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide Inc.), Anderson, 47, jokes, "The one book I get national recognition in is a Dummies book. It just goes to show you, if I can do it, many people can." To be fair, this man's far from being a "dummy": He's got a Master's degree from Harvard. But he's the first to admit the Anderson of old had "no reason to achieve" and got Cs and Ds in high school. "A lot of people have said, 'You know, Anderson, it seems like everything you touch turns to gold,' " he says. "But I always tell them, most people wouldn't want to live my life."

Anderson's lifelong love of all things barbecue can be credited in part to his parents-both American Indian-who met in an Indian boarding school in Kansas (after being taken from their respective families as children) and moved to Chicago to marry. "My dad used to haul my mom down south every weekend until she learned to cook Southern," he remembers. But in the meantime, the Anderson patriarch learned about the best barbecue shacks and street vendors in Chicago from the African American construction workers he worked alongside. "He started bringing ribs home when I was probably 8 years old," Anderson remembers. "I can remember the first time he came home with them in his lunch bucket. It was such a heavenly smell." Even though he was just a child, Anderson says the unforgettable aroma ignited his passion to become the very best in barbecue. He just had to outlive failure and frustration before he could accomplish his dream.

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This article was originally published in the May 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Taking A Ribbing.

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