When John Snedden first opened Rocklands BBQ in December 1990, he says it was a labor of love. He would usually start his day at 7 a.m. and leave the restaurant around midnight. So it's fitting that just a week ago Snedden was up early — at 7 a.m. — to talk barbecue.
Snedden was barbecue obsessed from an early age. He started roasting whole pigs in high school and college. Then, in the late 1980's, he started competing at local barbecue competitions like the National Capital Barbecue Battle, which then got him into private catering and the restaurant industry.
Today Rocklands has been in business for almost 26 years, which means there's an entire generation of Washingtonians who grew up chowing down on spare ribs and pulled pork. Snedden's style doesn't hail from the Carolinas, and it's not from St. Louis or Texas either. "People always ask me what kind of barbecue style I'm going for, and I just tell them that it's my own," he says. "This is D.C., not Texas."
At the time Rocklands opened, D.C. was a barbecue wasteland. Snedden's obsession with wood-fired grilling pushed him to take a risk and open his first restaurant in Glover Park. The original Rocklands is still open, and it's the kind of place that diners can smell before walking in the door.
To understand Snedden's barbecue and business sense, Eater sat down to ask questions about the opening days of Rocklands, how the restaurant has changed over the years, and where barbecue is heading in D.C.
Q: How did you first get into barbecue?
This was a hobby, and because it was my hobby, I first started by participating in barbecue competitions. Actually, my first "money making" venture was on Adams Morgan Day in 1985, and from that I participated in several local competitions. But, really through the hobby and love of doing it, I started catering private parties. So I started charging people to do barbecue, and that really was the evolution of it.
Q: So when did the restaurant open?
We opened officially December 1, 1990. I originally had the idea to open a barbecue place much earlier than that. In fact, about a year before Rocklands opened, Red, Hot & Blue first opened their doors, and that just crushed me. Because at that point I was trying to secure a loan to open a barbecue restaurant. I talked to my banker in Georgetown — he was my guy, and he said that I was too young, and that my pockets weren’t deep enough. So through catering I began to build the business, and then finally when it came time, we signed a lease in May, then construction happened in September, and we opened in December.
Q: What was it like back then for D.C. to have a new barbecue joint?
For a Southern town, it really had a dearth of barbecue options. I think that’s why Red, Hot & Blue became so popular so fast. There were a few other places, like the Georgia Pig. And, then there was really more soul food in places like Northeast and Southeast, but really barbecue options were truly lacking.
Q: Describe opening day. What was the reaction from the neighborhood?
Initially the response was tepid. Of course I had clients from catering, but it took people awhile to figure out what we were doing. The big problem was that we opened in early winter. My original business plan forecasted for a busy winter season, but now I know that the winter months are typically the slowest for our barbecue sales. It escalates in the spring. Our initial opening was compounded by that trend, so it was scary. I was all chips in on this restaurant.
We were making it, but it wasn’t until the beginning of March that we turned the corner. It was actually a review from Phyllis Richman, who at the time was the food critic for The Washington Post that made people more aware. And actually, we were totally unaware of the review because I was literally working from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m everyday. I knew something was up because our phone just started ringing. Even to this day, I remember calling in friends to help us take orders. We were basically triaging.
Q: So it’s been 26 years now? What has kept you in business?
From the beginning we focused on cooking our meats, fish, and poultry over a wood-fired grill. It’s what leads to a delicious and authentic barbecue product. From the business side, we place a big emphasis on value, and I think that’s more and more on people’s minds. The bottom line is that value does matter. Even if you pay a lot at the price point, diners are still expecting to gain value from their meal. And since we’ve opened the food industry has dramatically changed. The axiom is that good food is not cheap, and cheap food is not good. Certainly that’s true, but we’ve really remained focused on keeping prices low, but maximizing on food quality. Our meats aren't tenderized or enhanced, and we don’t buy frozen.
Q: Price point is an interesting thing to bring up. The price on barbecue has really gone up recently. What do you make of barbecue food going upscale?
As far as the landscape goes, a lot has changed. I think a $37 rack of ribs speaks to the disposable income of a lot of people. I think what you have to consider is what’s the value there. But, I think a lot of premium value is coming from the premium use of meats. Typically, barbecue has been known for using the less desirable parts of the animal, things like pork butt, pork shoulder, or pork belly. Typically, these were not really the premium cuts. Now it’s a chef-driven industry that’s focused on sourcing. There’s a bit of a shake out here too. Clearly, there are some restaurants that are up charging.
Q: What has changed the most at Rocklands?
Other than our footprint — we have expanded to four stores —I think second, would be our menu. If you walk into our Glover Park store and look up to the right, you’ll see a menu that’s bigger. When we opened, we had four meats and three sides: potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans. Now, our catering menu has 300 working items. It’s all to keep up with competition. Barbecue is growing fast here, and the restaurant landscape has changed. D.C. is definitely a more competitive landscape for barbecue options today.