Veterans, Wounded Warriors, First Responders find a friend in Mission BBQ

Americans were shocked and angered last week by images of aging WWII veterans who were barred from entering the open air monument which was erected in their honor on the Washington Mall. Not surprisingly, the men who stormed Iwo Jima and Normandy, refused to let the White House and Congress stand in their way.

Snubbing veterans and their families during a budget crisis only serves to sour an already contentious stew. Perhaps Washington could learn some lessons in business acumen, constituent service and gratitude from two up-and-coming restauranteurs.

Meet Bill Kraus and Steve Newton, the owners of Mission BBQ.

Owners Bill Kraus and Steve Newton with one of their favorite customers (Erik Hoffman)

Bill and Steve (they insisted we use their first names) opened their first restaurant on September 11, 2010. This week marks the grand opening of the fourth location of Mission BBQ. It is also the Maryland-based corporation’s very first restaurant in Baltimore City.

A location in York, Pennsylvania is set to open during the coming holiday season, and plans are afoot to expand to 40 restaurants nationwide by 2018.

The gleaming new Baltimore location at 3701 Boston Street in the Canton Crossing shopping center was bustling with people at a preview the Baltimore Post-Examiner attended last Friday night. It’s a tribute to the hard work the men and their families have put into the burgeoning business. But then, as the name Mission BBQ implies, Bill and Steve are on a mission.

When you ask the men about their charge, they say without hesitation, “Our mission is to serve.” But what does that mean?

Special seating is reserved at each location for wounded warriors.  (Erik Hoffman)

First, they wanted to create a delicious and casual dining experience; one that focused on the heartland tastes and traditions seldom seen in a seafarer’s town. Equally important, the duo was looking for a way – a “mission” – to serve the men and women who put their lives on the line everyday: the military and the first responders.

Neither man has a military or police background. Bill worked with Kevin Plank at Under Armour here in Baltimore; Steve was an executive for Bennigan’s in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Still, each has a tangible connection to the military. Bill’s oldest son did two tours overseas with the U.S. Marines; his youngest son just started at the Naval Academy. And Steve became friends with countless soldiers who were stationed near Fayetteville at Fort Bragg.

“I’d get to know those soldiers pretty well,” Steve said, “and then they’d go off to war.”

Many of the soldiers and Marines Bill and Steve got to know would return to the states gravely wounded. Touched by their experiences with these men and women, the restaurant owners reached out from day one, not only offering free meals to returning vets but also donating proceeds to the Wounded Warriors Project. They likewise embraced first responders – the people who wear the uniforms of paramedics, police officers and firefighters – by hosting numerous charity events. First responders can also eat free at Mission BBQ every 9-11. Vets are afforded that courtesy on Veterans Day.

Men and women who served – and are serving – are quick to sing the praises of Mission BBQ. Of course, warmed over MRE’s in a foxhole can’t compare to Carolina cooking. But platitudes will only get you so far in the business world. This is especially true in the food service industry where one bad experience can turn a customer off for life.

Choosing to open a barbeque eatery seems like an odd choice for the enterprising pair. Bill was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Steve hails from Columbus, Ohio. Like Baltimore, Milwaukee and Columbus are basically working-class towns and none of the three is known for its barbeque. The men recognized a niche in the market, so they set out to bring the best of the country to the Baltimore area. Together, they started to criss-cross America in search of barbeque recipes, then returned to refine their selections in the comfort of their own home kitchens. Once family and friends were satisfied with their efforts, Mission BBQ was born.

Pulled pork sandwich (Erik Hoffman)

The menu is a meat-eater’s delight: Carolina pulled pork BBQ, Texas beef brisket, tender roasted turkey; there’s even a Jalapeno cheese sausage. The sausage was Bill’s idea. “When you’re from Milwaukee, you know that everything tastes better with cheese.”

Sides include many down-home standards like coleslaw, corn bread, baked beans & brisket, creamed corn and green beans & bacon. And then there is Maggie’s Mac-n-Cheese.

“We knew we had to have mac-n-cheese on the menu, so we started experimenting with different recipes.” Steve explained. “Bill’s daughter Maggie was maybe 14 or 15 at the time. We’d take it out of the oven at Bill’s house, and Maggie would come down the stairs and start to taste the mac-n-cheese like she was Goldilocks. But instead of, ‘Too hot’ or ‘Too cold’, it was ‘Too salty’ or ‘Not enough pepper.’ This went on for several months.”

“Finally one day she popped down and, without saying a word, took a bite from right out of the pan, gave it a big ‘thumbs up’ and went back upstairs to her room. We’ve used that particular recipe ever since.”

Steve’s background in working for Bennigan’s can be seen in some of the touches that have carried over to Mission BBQ. The pub feel is present, with donated service patches from military units and fire company’s festooning the walls. Warm, solid wood benches and tables with brown paper towels bespeak a family-style dining experience. The staff is attentive and friendly while the kitchen runs like a well-oiled machine. And like Bennigan’s, Mission BBQ can be on the noisy side. Chalk that up to the popularity of the place. Steve did, however, point out one huge difference between Bennigan’s and Mission BBQ.

“We don’t have a freezer or a microwave oven. Everything we serve is truly freshly made.”

Barbeque should taste like home and in a touch of irony, Steve noted that the two slow cookers at the new location cost more than his first house.

Maggie’s side dishes (Erik Hoffman)

“Low and slow” is the time-tested way to consistently turn out mouth-watering meat. Steve said the turkey and chicken will roast for four hours, the brisket for upwards of 12. Pork is smoked anywhere from 14-16 hours; the ribs are baked until the meat is almost falling off the bone.

The slow cookers are one of the elements behind the delicious taste of Mission BBQ. Another is the way the meat is prepared and served. “We dry rub the meat; we don’t drown in it sauce,” Steve said. “People can add one or more of our home-style sauces if they like, though many prefer to just pour a little vinegar on top.”

Vinegar (and Texas Pete) were the standard pulled pork toppings this reporter recalls from summers working on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina. But outside of the Smithfield – Fayetteville corridor, tastes vary widely, and each region has developed its own signature blend. Mission BBQ captures this cornucopia with ten different home-style sauces that evoke the flavors  of Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, St. Louis and Kansas City.  Their Memphis style sauce is sweet and tangy; the Kansas City blend is decidedly bold.

There’s a Smokey Mountain version Dolly Parton could proudly serve her guests. There is even a Maryland version with a hint of Old Bay.

Home-style cooking isn’t the only thing that sets Mission BBQ apart. The business and its employees are unashamedly patriotic. Military motto’s affixed to walls remind the patrons that freedom isn’t free; it comes with a cost. That message is also conveyed with their mobile barbeque truck – a converted military vehicle. Most telling, everyday at noon, all work stops for a moment of silence and the playing of our National Anthem.

That may cause some within the Washington beltway or those with a left-coast mind-set to snicker a bit. But as the late Paul Harvey once said, “People often forget, there’s a lot of Country to this country.”

Randall Surakus is one of the regular patrons who appreciates Mission BBQ’s distinctions.

“Amazing food and amazing people,” Surakus insisted.

Surakus would know. His son-in-law Ryan Kules is a director at the Wounded Warrior Project.

Kules served in the army from 2003 – 2008; losing a limb in 2005 when he was wounded while deployed to Iraq. Kules has witnessed firsthand Bill and Steve’s generous spirit.

Mission BBQ walls decked out in a football theme.(Erik Hoffman)

“They are genuine, and when they say something, they really mean it.”

Combining vision, hard work, dedication and friendly service with an exceptional, affordable product is a recipe for success. It doesn’t hurt that they season this mixture with a healthy dose of humility or that they treat our veterans and first responders with the respect they so richly deserve.

It’s a business model bickering Washington would do well to adopt.