Phone call leads to BBQ Minister's leap of faith
By: Melissa Kahan, GLOB Correspondent
You would never know from his food that the owner and chef of 4R Restaurant Group, John Rivers, wasn't barbequing all his life. His passion while speaking about his endeavors is reflected just as strongly in his food, which he has slow-cooked, roasted and seasoned for the better part of two decades for 4 Rivers, not including the years prior to the first restaurant opening. So who is the man behind the tender barbequed creations and the sugar confections in the Sweet Shop? Turns out a mistaken phone call of unknown origin sparked the entire 4Rivers' operation.
"It all started back in 2004, and it was a mistaken phone call that came to me from a lady who called the pharmaceutical office I worked at," Rivers said. "She was very upset and sorry to hear about my daughter Cameron who was in kindergarten at the time, and I said, 'Well what's wrong with her?' and she said it was her cancerous tumor."
As the head of the oncology division at CuraScript Specialty Distribution at the time, Rivers was very familiar with helping cancer patients worldwide. By the time he hung up the phone and reached his wife, Monica, he realized it was "the first time ever I was in the shoes of a parent with a sick child." Spoiler: Rivers' daughter wasn't sick. But he couldn't let it go.
"We're going to find out who this family was and help out any way we can," Rivers said.
Even after 9 years, he still doesn't know who the caller was that day, despite the occurrence having been written about in his cookbook and countless other times by Rivers.
Even though he never found out who the caller was, he did find out who the little girl was. The most bizarre thing when Rivers found the family: The child whom the call was concerning was not in same grade or school, live in same neighborhood or city, and did not attend the same church as the Rivers' family. There was no reason for that phone call, Rivers said. After about a week of calling as many friends as possible, there was eventually a connection made through their church. On arrival, Rivers offered the family money, but when they refused, he offered to have a church barbeque fundraiser for them instead.
"At this point I had always cooked in my backyard for 20 or 30 people max."
Why a barbeque? Was it a hobby?
"No, this was a passion. I would travel all over the country. I had spreadsheets made for every meat and every new recipe, and every time I would tweak it I would log it from cook time to rub."
And was the event a huge success: About 450 people RSVP'd. It was the first time he used his passion for barbequing to help other people, which came to be known as the "BBQ Ministry."
As president of CuraScript Specialty Distribution at the time, he sold this 1.4 billion dollar company in 2005 after 20 years to devote his time to his "passion."
"This woman not only called my office but my direct line. It is because of that call that we are sitting in this restaurant today."
The "BBQ Ministry" was the starting point for the following four or five years. If any school or charity needed money, Rivers would set up his cooker and raise the money.
"I never took a commercial profit on any of these until I opened the first (4 Rivers) store."
When Rivers retired from the healthcare business in 2007, it equated to more time for cooking. That last year cooking out of his garage, he estimates that he fed probably 70,000 people.
"In October 2009, the first restaurant that we opened wasn't supposed to be an actual restaurant but a commissary to cook out of when my wife kicked us out of the garage because we were making such a mess."
In the beginning there were so many people who had Rivers' food over the years, he feels they came because they liked the food, as well as to be supportive.
"It's all word of mouth, but the thing about that is it puts pressure on us. You have to perform every single time you're in there."
The 4 Rivers Smokehouse Company has blossomed today: five stores, 17,300 Facebook fans and thousands of mouths to feed. And he is pleased to say that "9.5 out of 10 comments are not about the food, but about the service and making the customers feel special."
But that doesn't mean the food is anything to slouch over. See the GLOB's "4 Rivers Smokehouse" feature.
How did the name 4Rivers come about?
"Well there are four of us in my family. Actually, my wife came up with the name. I had been talking about having a smokehouse in Florida ever since I met her in Texas, where she's from. What I wanted was a Texas smokehouse ever since I lived there. I wanted it to feel kind of like a ranch with an authentic feel to it. And she said, 'Let's call it 4Rivers.'"
But what is the chef and owner's key to success?
"I always say that it doesn't matter how great the recipes are, and it doesn't matter how cool the brand is. If you don't have good people and they're not showing the culture — or in our case we rely so much on our workers and the way we treat people — we fall apart. We say that we treat everyone who walks in the door like friends and family."
Rivers said he tries to go to every store every week to visit all 500 workers to be able to catch up with them and the store and "give them all a big hug."
"The philosophy is if we treat the staff with love and respect and it's sincere, they will treat customers like that, too. It flows down, and we tell them take care of our 'friends and family.' If customers want to combine two items together, just do it. Don't say no, and they love that. It gives them a sense of ownership and empowerment."
And he truly does take care of his staff. Rivers' gives a scholarship to each store every year for $1,000 to one employee who is nominated by the other employees.
"The first time I had it was when my girlfriend at the time, now wife, brought me to Thanksgiving dinner. I grew up here in Florida and never had it before, and fell in love. I always say when I went to Texas, I found the two loves of my life: Monica and brisket. And I brought both of them back to Florida with me."
Each store smokes almost 15,000 pounds of brisket a week, Monday through Saturday.
Rivers said he learned to cook by watching the Food Network, including Paula Dean, Emeril and Bobby Flay – all chefs who he has now been able to cook with, the first time on a Food Network event right where it all started with Bobby Flay.
When he's not restaurant hopping, he is at the home base restaurant in Winter Park. On Saturdays, he works open to close, trying to visit every 4 Rivers restaurant that day.
"It's also when I do my R & D. I get to put my chef jacket on Saturday afternoons. I love it."
When asked about the Sweet Shop, Rivers just giggled. When the sweets-lover was developing the recipes for the confectionary shop, it cost him 18 pounds.
That is dedication, my friends.
Anything left over at the end of the night will go to a coalition for the homeless. I am so stuck on everything being made homemade every day, Rivers said.
"I'm not doing it for money. I believe that you need to develop a model like this and show you can give back to the community. And quite honestly, I am having a ball."