Steve Newton can’t remember which came first: The mission or the barbecue.
But he says both are important.
On Sept. 11, 2011, after years of eating their way through the country’s brisket and ribs, Newton and Bill Kraus opened Mission BBQ in Glen Burnie.
The idea, they say, was to serve good ol’ American barbecue while giving back to the community. A portion of the company’s profits go to the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps injured veterans and their families.
“I know we’re selling pulled pork, but we want it to be more than that,” said Kraus, who comes from a long line of veterans. “For a guy like myself who never served, here was my chance to humbly thank folks for their service.”
In the three years since its opening, Mission BBQ has grown to five locations, including restaurants in Baltimore; York, Pa.; and California, Md., near Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
The company plans to triple in size this year with the opening of 10 restaurants in Annapolis, Columbia and Richmond, as well as North Carolina and Delaware.
“Very simplistically, we don’t think there’s anything more American than barbecue,” Kraus said. “And there’s a scarcity of barbecue up here. Not a lot of it is great.”
Kraus, one of the first employees at Under Armour, and Newton, a former Outback Steakhouse executive, have long been friends. For years, they ran into each other at the airport, where they traded notes on where they’d been and what they’d eaten.
“The more I traveled down South, the more spoiled I got,” said Kraus, who grew up in Milwaukee.
In 2009, Kraus quit his job to concentrate on barbecue full-time. Newton followed suit a couple of years later, and the pair — both 50, both Ellicott City residents — got busy perfecting their recipes.
“We’d get together at 9 a.m. on a Saturday and have nine pots of beans,” Newton said. “The next Saturday it’d be nine pots of slaw or mac and cheese.”
The duo financed their first restaurant — located, incidentally, next to an Outback Steakhouse — using their personal savings and a loan from M&T Bank.
Each location costs between $1 million and $1.2 million to get off the ground, Newton said. He would not disclose revenue figures, but said year-over-year growth had been in the “solid double digits” every year since the company was founded.
“The barbecue business reminds me a lot of how the steak business used to be,” said Newton, who spent two decades at Outback Steakhouse. “There are a lot of mom-and-pops, a lot of classic regional restaurants.”
At Mission BBQ, the menu offers a mix of “Texas-inspired” brisket, St. Louis-style spare ribs and North Carolina pulled pork. Customers can choose from eight homemade sauces, including Texas Twang and Carolina Vinegar.
Every day at noon, the national anthem is played through the loudspeaker at each of the company’s restaurants.
“Whether the line is to the door or not, we shut down our kitchen,” Kraus said. “Everything comes to a halt.”
By the end of 2018, Mission BBQ hopes to have grown eight-fold to 40 restaurants.
The company also has a growing catering business. (Under Armour, Kraus said, is one of the company’s largest clients.)
“We are very bullish,” Kraus said. “That confidence comes not only from our experience but from the success we’ve already had.”