Bogart’s Smoke House has weathered six Midwestern winters. That’s no small feat in the increasingly crowded field that is the St. Louis BBQ game.
Business drops off in the colder months, when even the heartiest of Missourians don’t want to venture out, and outdoor seating is taken out of the mix. Once the weather turns, the dining room thins out.
“You could fall asleep around here,” admits pitmaster Mike Macchi.
But Macchi, who has spent 35 years in the restaurant business, has learned a great deal about preventing winter’s icing effect on the till. He says Bogart’s combats the frosty temperatures with a warm atmosphere, and the operating team works hard at diversifying the restaurant’s revenue.
Bricks from the beginning
Unlike many smokehouses, Bogart’s didn’t start as a food truck or a catering company. They went all in with a brick and mortar presence right from the start. The space was an existing restaurant when they took over the building, so they gutted everything and started from scratch to suit their needs. All their cooking is done outside in three smokers, which combined can handle 1,000 pounds of meat at a time.
“It’s a small footprint. We don’t have much space to work with so we utilize every inch that we have,” Macchi said.
Their location, in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis, is pivotal to their success, Macchi says. Prior to their opening, the area was limited to mainly bars and bar food. But Macchi — and his partners Skip Steele, Brian Scoggins and Niki Puto — saw potential.
“The whole area had a good vibe and feeling about it. We’re close to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. We’re close to the Arch. We’re close to the hockey arena and Cardinal baseball stadium,” Macchi said.
They’re well-positioned for a diverse clientele. Right down the street is the Soulard Farmer’s Market, one of the oldest and largest farmers markets this side of the Mississippi. Macchi says they get a lot of traffic from there, at different times of the day than the bar crowd.
“We’ve got our regular customer base, which comes from the businesses in the area,” he says. “There’s Ralston Purina, Wells Fargo and Anheuser-Busch. But in the Spring, Summer and Fall, our clientele is mainly visitors, out-of-towners.”
Once summer hits, Bogart’s smokers get a work out every day, feeding people from all over the world.
They make a point to talk to and connect with everyone who walks into the front door. On a summer Saturday they will go through 1,500 pounds of meat, some 200-300 slabs of ribs. That’s a lot of bones and a lot of table touching.
When the tourists are gone, and the patio is closed for the season, Macchi says they sustain their business with a strong catering presence.
They have a catering manager and staff than can handle events for up to 300 people, including full-service weddings and office catering in the neighborhood. They even offer whole hogs for certain events.
“In this off season, it carries us through the winter months,” Macchi said.
Bogart’s only seats 34 inside. Once summer comes around they can seat an additional 80 customers outside. But through the lean season, Macchi says their catering component is very important.
“The catering really helps out. It’s a big part of our business,” he said.
All food is prepared together out of their central kitchen by the pit crew then distributed to events/catering jobs.
Staying open also means staying relevant and competitive, which hasn’t been easy for pitmasters in St. Louis of late. The field has become quite crowded in an already busy BBQ town. Macchi says in the past 4 to 5 years, nearly 20 new BBQ places have opened up.
“The competition is out there. And it’s good,” he says. “Competition is always good. It helps keep everybody on their toes and helps you to watch your quality.”
A diverse menu
Bogart’s distinguishes itself from others in the market with a diverse menu, priding themselves on their variety beyond pulled pork and brisket. Known for their pork loin back ribs, they also offer burnt ends, a smoked turkey breast (a fan favorite) plus an “off the wall” menu item: a pastrami that they make in house.
“A lot of people, when they are doing a corned beef or pastrami, they’re using that beef brisket cut of meat. Here at Bogart’s, we like to go one step further and we actually use a top sirloin,” Macchi. He calls the pastrami a “destination dish.”
“It’s just an amazing product. It really is,” he said.
The menu expands beyond the traditional St. Louis flavors with a tri-tip, popular on the West Coast.
“Here in the Midwest, a lot of people don’t have a clue what it is. So, we’re kind of introducing that cut of meat to them and it’s gone over very well,” Macchi said.
Bogart’s also offers a variety of sauces that tempt taste buds from all over the country. Sweet Maegan Ann is a typical Kansas City style (sweet and smokey). The signature sauce is Pineapple Express, a pineapple tomato base (tangy and smokey). The Voodoo Sauce is for those who need heat (with smoked habanero pepper), and the Mad Maddie Vinegar pays homage to one of the country’s other BBQ mecca’s (Carolina vinegar style).
High retention rate
Staying on top of the BBQ game is impossible without the right staff. And with so many new places opening up of late, the competition for good help in St. Louis is almost as tough as the competition for diners. Macchi is very proud of his staff, some of which have been with them since day one.
“We don’t have a big turnover in help, which is unusual in the restaurant business,” he said.
How do they retain employees? “I have a hard time finding them, but once we find them, they stay. They’re happy and they stay. You treat them well and they will treat you well,” he says.
Macchi says Bogart’s concentrates not only on the quality of the food that they’re serving, but also on the quality of the staff and service that everybody receives as they come through the door. To improve recruitment and retain their talented staff, they also pay special attention to the vibe and work environment.
“We like to keep it upbeat. It’s not a corporate feeling,” he says. “It’s more of a down-home feeling when you walk into the restaurant. You either feel like family or you feel like friends.”
To sell out, or not to sell out?
For Bogart’s, staying afloat through fierce competition and cold means reducing waste. Some in the business believe it’s a cardinal sin to turn customers away because you didn’t make enough food. Others wear the ‘Sold Out’ sign like a badge of honor. Where does Bogart’s fall?
“It’s a good thing to sell out because we start with fresh product every morning. We don’t reuse any of our products,” he says. You can tell when you’re reheating an item. It’s just not the same.”
He says Bogart’s carefully gauges how much to make day to day.
“We’ve tracked everything we have sold day to day over the last six years, so we trend and go by that,” he says.
There are very few days Bogart’s doesn’t put a “Sold Out” sign on the door. They aim to close up at “4-ish” on weekdays, and try to stay open until 8:00 during summer weekends if they can.
Macchi says 99% of the people understand if what they’re looking for is sold out. The burnt ends are usually 86’d first, because there’s a limited number they can produce based on the number of briskets cooked that day.
What does he say when people ask what time they need to get there to make sure they get some burnt ends?
“We open at 10:30, get here at 10:15.”
It’s a good problem to have.