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.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the May 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

Shake It Up

"I was probably like most kids when I was young," says Anderson, "not knowing what I wanted to do in life-kind of feeling lost." But at 19, he witnessed a live performance by Ziglar, who would years later become as equally impressed with Anderson. Acting under a zealous fire stoked by Ziglar's uplifting speech, Anderson decided to invest in the direct marketing company his new idol touted. Anderson's father, who also attended, helped supply the capital. "They were selling oil conditioner, but I never sold a one," says Anderson. "But out of that, I got a set of four cassette tapes from Zig Ziglar, and I'd fall asleep listening to them."

Anderson says that's what launched his entrepreneurial career. But it also sent his ego into orbit. It was hard to avoid when, in his final teenage year, he (with some financial help from his dad and a loan from a very trusting bank) started a successful wholesale floral business. At 21, he secured accounts with all the Sears and J.C. Penney stores in Chicago and nearly every major Chicago retail florist. But in 1979, the same year he and his wife, whom he had married three years prior, had their first child, a devastating snowstorm crippled Chicago streets (and business orders) for months, made Anderson bankrupt and sent him to the unemployment line. "I didn't seek help. I was pretty cocky and thought I had all the answers," he admits. "I blamed the world, the snowstorm, not having enough finances." Now he knows that until you accept 100 percent responsibility for your own actions, you can't improve doomed situations.

But even before this knowledge came to him after "surrendering to God" years later in the mid-'90s, pride prevented him from becoming a victim. He stood in the unemployment line-all the way up to the window, in fact-but once he reached the clerk, he walked away, refusing to accept a government check. "My wife probably would've preferred it so I didn't have to pawn her jewelry," says Anderson. But that's what he did to pay the rent and put food on the table, along with digging through seat cushions for spare change and waiting for the appropriate time to ask fast-food employees for leftovers.

New Frontier

Tumultuous times taught Anderson that even his hobbies, like making Indian jewelry, could help dig him out of his financial ditch. Meanwhile, he sought self-improvement. He bought a $5 mirror to practice smiling, wiggling his eyebrows and shaking hands (when family was not at home, of course). He also resurrected his motivational tapes and practiced public speaking by reading books aloud in his basement.

By 1982, Anderson's real-world business experience persuaded his tribe, the La Courte Oreilles Ojibway, to appoint him CEO and have him oversee their troubled business operations in several industries. Three years later, he more than doubled the tribe's gross sales.

The realization that he'd actually started turning his life around didn't hit Anderson until he co-founded Grand Casinos in 1987. The company flourished, but he ceased involvement in 1994. "It didn't fit well with the way I was raised," he says. "I didn't want my kids to think that's where Dad hung his hat." Following his feelings that tribes "shouldn't put all their eggs in one basket, but diversify," Anderson became one of the first investors in The Rainforest Cafe chain-an investment that made it clear that being a restaurateur was Anderson's strong suit.

He closed out 1994 by making a lifelong dream a reality when he opened the first Famous Dave's rib house in Wisconsin's 1,800-person town of Hayward. "We realized we had something when we started serving between 4,000 and 6,000 people a week," Anderson says. "They were driving hundreds of miles just to eat there."

Brand New Day

The day Famous Dave's (now based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota) opened its doors didn't just launch what is now a slew of restaurants across Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin and create more than 3,000 new jobs-it defined the moment Dave Anderson stopped being "an accumulator" and started being "a giver." To date, he's donated about $7.4 million to charities; for example, he helped create an endowment foundation for disadvantaged American Indian youth in April of last year with $1.4 million. At the moment, he's erecting the Lifeskills Bootcamp for Native American Youth in Hayward. Why? "Because if other people [like my family and bankers] hadn't given me second chances in life, I wouldn't be here today," he says.

Don't think that Anderson, "on a rampage of learning," listening to books on tape in his car ("My university on wheels," he says), reading four newspapers per day, a couple books per week and nearly 30 magazines per month, is free of problems just because he found God and knows himself a lot better. It was only three years ago that Famous Dave's opened too many restaurants at once and started losing money. Again, cockiness was to blame. Anderson says he had to close a few restaurants and lay off at least half his corporate staff. But after some "very painful" restructuring, Famous Dave's is in tip-top shape.

"We all have this really Pollyanna idea, that when we get out of school we'll get a job, work hard, get married, have kids and life will be happy," says Anderson. "Nobody ever said that every day of your life you're going to get whacked-maybe jackhammered-with problems." When he speaks at least twice a week to high schools, colleges, tribes, and Rotary and Lions clubs, he stresses not to run from problems, but to face them and solve them. Five years sober after his own alcohol problem, Anderson also offers this: "Don't worry about all the external stuff. Conquer yourself from within before you conquer the world out there." Amen.


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