OTTUMWA — The first year is critical for new businesses. It’s a whirlwind for owners and employees. It’s stressful. It’s exhausting. It’s hard work for everyone.
It can also be tremendously rewarding.
Dusty Ware opened Warehouse Barbecue in December 2018 with the goal of being “a pure barbecue joint.” Less than four months later, Ware’s joint won the Iowa Pork Producers Association’s pulled pork bracket. It was a big step for a very young business.
As January 2020 closed, Ware looked back and liked what he saw from the first year.
“It’s been overwhelming but exciting,” he said, “not only to do it but to see people respond to it.”
The loyalty goes beyond customers. Most of the people who began the journey with Ware are still with him. He said 19 of the restaurant’s employees, considerably more than half, were there when Warehouse opened.
“We’ve got a good team. I think we hired the right people,” Ware said.
Barbecue has challenges that are a bit different from many kinds of cooking. If you’re baking a cake, you know that there’s a set time it will need in the oven. It’s going to be ready within a minute or two of that time, at least if you followed the recipe correctly.
Barbecue varies more. Two racks of ribs that are about the same size and weight can have the perfect bend-but-don’t-break arc several minutes apart depending on exactly how much heat they had and the condition of the meat when cooking started. Make an assumption, and one rack could be a bit underdone while the other is overcooked.
Pit masters know the meat will talk to them if they know how to listen. It will say when it’s ready to come off the heat. No two briskets or racks are ever exactly alike, and no two fires are, either. Getting it right every time means paying close attention to every individual piece.
That’s part of the reason Ware uses an approach that remains unusual for Iowa.
“One of the challenges we faced the first year is our concept. We make a set amount of fresh meat every day. When we’re out, we’re out,” he said. “I would rather run out than pump it out, mass produced, and sacrifice quality.”
The approach is a common one in the South, where diners know that if they have their hearts set on a specific dish they had best get in line (and there’s always a line) early. It’s much less common in the Midwest. And, on occasion, it has meant some harsh social media responses when Warehouse was out of an item people wanted.
That’s a price Ware is willing to pay, provided he gets the results out of his staff that he wants. He was effusive in his praise for them. His other business, Floor to Ceiling, is on the other side of Highway 149, a short walk away.
“We’re right across the street, so I can pop over at any time,” he said.
And he does. Ware said few things made him more proud of his staff than dropping in and seeing them open the pit to check temperatures on the meat, to be paying close attention to what it told them, even when they didn’t know he was watching.
There remain some long-term dreams Ware hopes to see fulfilled in the coming years. He’d like to go to some of the old barbecue shrines, places where the cooking has been done the same way decade after decade by pit masters who live and breathe barbecue. Those folks have probably forgotten more about barbecue than most people will ever learn, and Ware would relish the opportunity to hear the lessons they have to offer.
Time is the challenge. Running two businesses doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for the barbecue crawl of Ware’s dreams. Someday, though.
Once the whirlwind dies down just a bit.