On Wisconsin: A bold name in a small downtown draws big crowds

Great article by Barry Adams of the Wisconsin State Journal about Bob's. Read it here or follow the link to see the original post. (Photos by M.P. King – State Journal)

Even on a Tuesday Bob’s Bitchin’ BBQ in Dodgeville is full for lunch. The restaurant serves up 1,500 pounds each of brisket and pulled pork every week.

DODGEVILLE – The idea for Bob and Judy Page was to open a small restaurant within a short drive of Madison as a way to promote a few homemade barbecue sauces that Bob had been making for over 30 years.

The plan worked but with a pretty major hitch — one that most entrepreneurs strive for but few attain.

The sales of the eight flavors of sauces, including one made with Spotted Cow beer and another with Sprecher’s root beer, have taken off. The Pages’ restaurant, Bob’s Bitchin’ BBQ, is even a bigger success.

The sauces have turned into a side business and in late March the Pages moved a block south on Iowa Street in this city’s downtown and into a larger space that has nearly doubled the seating in their restaurant to 95.

The new digs, in a 1905 building that most recently was home to Ederer’s hardware store, has helped reduce wait times at lunch but it hasn’t put much of a dent into reducing the wait for a table at dinner. The brisket, pulled pork and ribs are made by a guy who, prior to opening the restaurant, had only smoked meats a handful of times.

“I know, it’s almost comical because this wasn’t my life, this wasn’t my passion,” said Bob Page, 57, as we stared at the six electric commercial smokers in his kitchen that can each smoke 39 full racks of ribs at a time. “I know we’re incredibly lucky and the area supports us wildly. I can’t explain it but we’re definitely riding the wave.”

The numbers are stunning for a small town eatery with a big city feel and draw that would make most Madison restaurateurs envious.

Since it opened in November 2012, more than 150,000 people have come to Bob’s from all 50 states and 15 countries. In 2014, the restaurant served 85,000 people, or roughly Dodgeville’s population more than 18 times over.

A day with fewer than 500 customers is considered slow. Regulars come from Spring Green, Avoca and Mineral Point but also Madison, Milwaukee, northern Illinois and eastern Iowa.

On a recent Saturday, 727 people were served and on that Sunday morning, a Mickies Dairy Bar-type line formed at the door before the place opened at 11 a.m. By 11:15 a.m., Judy was taking names at the front counter. Bob’s doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t need or plan to.

“People really respect (Bob) because he’s here all the time,” Judy said. “If he’s not in the dining room he’s in the kitchen. And that says a lot about being on location and supporting what we do.”

In a typical week, the restaurant serves 1,500 pounds each of beef brisket and pulled pork and 210 full racks of ribs sourced from UW Provisions in Middleton. Cheese curds from Arena Cheese are also a big seller. Most are deep fried but those too small to batter go into a grilled cheese tomato soup.

Bob’s adds to the downtown that includes Quality Bakery, The Red Room Bar & Restaurant, The Cook’s Room Café & Expresso Bar, Dino’s Bar & Grill and one of the state’s oldest county courthouses. This is also the same place where the CEO of the community’s largest company, Land’s End, commutes from New York City.

Bill Wall owns Kozelka & Wall, a clothing store founded in 1927 in Prairie du Chien before it moved to Dodgeville in 1978. Like Bob’s, it has a big-city feel. The racks are filled with Milwaukee Brewers baseball wear, Jerry Garcia ties and Tommy Bahama shirts.

“I’m sure glad they’re here,” Wall said of Bob’s. “Anytime you get people walking by your store it’s a good thing. They could have gone anywhere but they stayed here.”

Kandace Smith, owner of the Iowa Street Barber Shop, a Dodgeville institution since 1934, may be one of the few people in Dodgeville not to have tried Bob’s offerings.

“They come to town for a quality lunch and see my barber pole. I like that,” Smith, 53, said. “Bob is definitely a down-to-earth guy, which works well in a farming community.”

Wide-ranging draw

Not counting supper clubs, there are a number of small towns in our state with restaurants that draw more than just the locals. Baumgartner’s in Monroe comes to mind, as does Grandma’s Kitchen in Highland and the Norske Nook in Osseo.

About the closest thing that resembles Bob’s in both location and popularity may be the Delta Diner in far northern Wisconsin. Nestled south of Highway 2 in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest between Ashland and Superior, the diner is known for its breakfasts and its perch, bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Long waits are not uncommon, along with ATVs in the parking lot.

“A lot of what we do is pretty old school,” Bob said. “This is the old supper club way of doing things. I enjoy talking to people. If we ever screw something up we’re generally going to find out about it.”

When Bob is not in the kitchen, he cruises the dining room wearing down the treads of his orange-striped Nike tennis shoes. This is where he shakes hands, talks about his food and gets to know his growing allegiance of customers.

Judy, 57, was the driving force in the design and décor of the new restaurant and now works the front of the house after retiring from UW Hospital where she was a billing specialist for 30 years.

Their son, Ryan, is a cook, and their daughter, Sarah, a Madison-based artist, designed the menu and graphics and runs the restaurant’s website. Their third child, Matt, is an accountant in Denver.

Bob, a Sauk City native, and Judy, who grew up in Lake Mills, met in the 1970s when they both worked at a Red Lobster. Back then it was located in what is now Babe’s on Schroeder Road in Madison. Bob attended culinary school at Madison Area Technical College and the couple opened a deli and catering business on Williamson Street in the 1980s.

But most of Bob’s restaurant experience has been operating private dining facilities. There were stints at American Family Insurance and at a private dorm near the UW-Madison campus. For the seven years leading up to his barbecue restaurant, Bob worked for Sodexo, which had the contract at Land’s End.

In 2010, he and Judy began bottling their sauces and that led to stands at farmer’s markets in Mineral Point on Saturdays and Monona on Sunday. Their sauces are now available at more than 20 area meat markets, cheese shops and grocery stores.

When they decided to open the restaurant, they looked at Portage, Mount Horeb, Stoughton and several other communities. They chose Dodgeville because rent was cheaper and Bob had a built-in fan base at Land’s End.

“It was such a kaboom. It was totally overwhelming,” Bob said. “What I thought we would do in a day, I think we were only that low once.”

Bob and Judy bought their building in October for $147,000 and put hundreds of thousands of dollars more into it, all while maintaining its historic character. The space was a hardware store for about 25 years, a Ben Franklin for 60 years and, before that, a billiards hall.

The Pages employ 42 people after adding 17 positions when they opened the new location, which now includes a bar and 16 taps all dedicated to Wisconsin craft beer.

“We needed so much more staff than we anticipated,” Judy said. “We pictured maybe one or two cooks, really small town and small scale, but it never was that.”

Read more: http://host.madison.com/news/local/columnists/on-wisconsin-a-bold-name-in-a-small-downtown-draws/article_1129e6a4-49a4-5ee2-b9cf-a12fb38effe2.html#ixzz3Z6Fwg27U