Michael LaPidus is the founder of Q-BBQ, a chain that aims to marry fine-dining-service with down-home barbecue. It has four suburban locations and big plans to expand. LaPidus opened his first Q-BBQ in 2009 in LaGrange — a restaurant the Michelin Guide gave its Bib Gourmand designation, recognizing culinary excellence at a reasonable price. He’s expanded to Oak Park, Naperville and Schererville, Ind., has two locations planned for the north suburbs and is looking to grow to 200 restaurants nationwide in the next 12 years. He spoke with reporter Sandra Guy. An edited transcript follows.
Question: Chicago is home to plenty of big-name barbecue restaurants. What’s your secret?
Answer: We were the first “fine-casual” segment of barbecue. We have the demeanor, attitude and service of a five-star restaurant.
I didn’t want to create a restaurant that offered only one sauce, one certain side and only doing brisket. We make our own sauces and spice rub in each store — batches of sweet, spicy and vinegar. We don’t use salt in our rubs. We smoke with hickory and apple and not just cherry, like some competitors.
I am not a trained chef. I’m a professional eater. I mix flavors. I put together recipes. I see what’s working.
Q: Your mom, the late entrepreneur Kathleen Davis, influenced you.
A: My mother invented the Bug Lite and brought it to market in the 1980s. But her patent ran out after 14 years, and she lost it.
We went from living a good life to not living a life at all. She started different business ventures, and we started moving around — to Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz., when I was 10 to 13 years old. She started importing and exporting plastic goods that dollar stores sold.
When I was born, she was running the Stage 2 Design T-shirt business in Lombard, with me in a crib and playpen in her office.
My mother taught me to really, really think big. She had a “Make no small plans” mentality — in business, in life and even on Saturday nights. My son Hudson is named after Daniel Hudson Burnham: I wanted a piece of my mother with him at all times.
She died at 54 of cancer.
Q: You’ve started a foundation aimed at fighting cancer.
A: When you feel hopeless, what can you do? You raise funds. We didn’t want to just give it to a big organization or name classrooms and buildings after ourselves. Our fundraising goes to basic scientific research.
Ten years ago, we gave a $50,000 grant to Dr. Teresa Woodruff at Northwestern Medicine, who was working to help girls with cancer have the option of later having kids. Our grant jumpstarted a National Institutes of Health grant and then turned into Woodruff’s oncofertility clinic and led to girls who can now have kids.
We’ve partnered with Northwestern Medicine and the Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center. We throw a party each year at the Navy Pier grand ballroom. Last year, we had 1,300 people and raised $700,000.
Q: What do you look for in hiring and training?
A: We look for people with personalities. We do behavioral-based interviewing. I could teach you about barbecue — but I want to know what makes you tick. I want to know: Do you like food? You can be a vegetarian and work here. You have to love people.
We have a rigorous training program that’s called “Teaching the Q way.”
Our philosophy is we do not sell barbecue; we serve reasons to come back. We want our employees to talk to the customers, get to know them, remember when it’s their birthday and understand that the mother who comes with two kids who are absolutely cranky doesn’t need to fill sauces to go.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I love spending time with my son and my wife Jaclyn Ruzycki, a Calumet City native who went to Bishop Noll High School in Hammond. I love stories. I like history. I like to read and learn and watch other entrepreneurs in my realm who are very successful. I travel to New York City a lot, eat there, meet with people. Danny Meyer is a pretty big favorite of mine. He started Shake Shack when the city asked him to put a shack in the middle of a park. He started Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café and Blue Smoke BBQ. I admire his culinary flair and his edge on detail.