The Dollars and Sense of Styrofoam

When we first opened, we used styrofoam plates and containers.  To be honest, we didn’t really give it much thought.  It was the path of least resistance.  And the cheapest.  It didn’t take long to realize that (1) our customers didn’t like it, (2) styrofoam is a big pain to deal with, and (3) a dumpster full of styrofoam plates is a depressing site, and one that made us feel pretty guilty.  So we quickly adopted more environmentally responsible practices, both for guests eating in our dining area and for those ordering carry-out.  There was a bit of extra cost, but nothing too extraordinary.


Last month, we started serving lunch on Wednesdays and dinner on Thursdays at the University of Michigan Hospital Cafeteria.  It is wild and fun.  On a typical lunch, we serve over 600 people in three hours (?!?!).  Serving 600 people in that period of time is no easy task.  We have worked long and hard to figure out how to make the process as efficient as possible, while still ensuring that we are serving world-class BBQ.  One of the things we have learned is that when serving lots of people in a short period of time, pennies quickly add up to dollars.


Which brings us back to those styrofoam containers.  When you serve 600 people every week, you feel the true power of multiplication.  Let me be specific.  A Styrofoam container costs  $0.17 less than a more responsible alternative.    So at $0.17 each, and 600 customers per lunch, and 52 weeks per year….Holy Toledo!  That is over $5,000 per year.  With that money, we could finally get that big fancy flat screen TV for our dining area!


This is  why so many folks in the restaurant business have asked us, “Why don’t you guys use styrofoam?  Everyone else does.  And your customers won’t even notice.”  Perhaps.  And to be truthful, we have thought about it.  In our happy little smoked meat empire, $5,000 is a lot of money.  So it is tempting.


One of the reasons our customers have supported us over the years is because we have tried to do the right thing each and every day.  We have tried to provide great service, great food and to follow great business practices.  We don’t cheat the IRS.  We don’t deal under the table.  And we pay a fair wage.  Oh yeah, and we try not to ruin the environment.  If we allow ourselves to start compromising, simply because the financial stakes have gotten higher, then our customers will rightfully wonder what has become of us.  And eventually, we will wonder too.


We are sympathetic with our colleagues in the food service business who use styrafoam.  It’s a tough, tough business, and one in which doing the responsible and right thing is not always rewarded.  We get it.  But we worry that the road to hell is paved with incremental compromises, ones which seem inconsequential but which ultimately determine the character of the business.  Besides, we didn’t really need that TV anyway.


R.I.P. Dan

We received sad news today.  One of our regular customers, Dan Paulus, died suddenly and unexpectedly while visiting friends in North Carolina last week.  He had recently celebrated his 50th birthday.


Dan grew up in Port Huron, the youngest of ten children.  In 1985 he suffered a head injury in a car accident that left him permanently disabled.  We got to know him because he and his friend, Mary, would come in for lunch every week, including last week, only a few days before Dan’s death.  Dan was full of life and energy.  And humor and sarcasm.  He loved to give us a hard time, especially John and Alfredo.  In talking with Mary, I learned that despite his disability, Dan insisted on living independently.  He had an apartment over by Busch’s on Ann Arbor-Saline Road.


Mary was nice enough to drop by the restaurant and tell us of this sad news.  She said how much Dan looked forward to eating at Satchel’s and visiting with everyone here.  It was nice to hear.  The restaurant felt sad and lonely for the rest of the day.


Because we treat customers like guests who come into our home for a meal, we do more than simply feed them.  We get to know them a bit, especially the regulars.  We have these encounters, these conversations, with folks every day.  We talk and joke, in part because it is good business, in part because it makes the time pass easier, and in part because it’s fun.  What we may not always realize is that we become tethered to our regular customers, somehow connected in a strange, unusual way.  Despite knowing very little about each other, there is genuine warmth and friendship in the encounter.  It is a testament to the power of food, eating and community.  It brings us together.   And it is a wonderful privilege to work in such an environment each and every day.  Dan’s passing reminds us that this privilege brings with it the possibility of loss and sorrow.  So be it.  Dan was worth it.

Freedom From The Freezer

Fresh Okra

We are proud to announce that we recently sold our freezer!  This may seem a rather odd thing to celebrate, yet we have broken out the party hats and piñatas.


Freedom from the freezer means many things.  First, more work space.  In place of the large, clunky freezer, we have an elegant work table for chopping, butchering, etc.  Second, it’s one less thing that can break down (and require repair).  Third, and most importantly, it means we are using more fresh….everything!  Fresh corn and fresh okra from our friends at Frog Holler, higher quality shrimp from our neighbors at Whole Foods.  Who knows?  We might even open up a salad bar (just kidding).   As a result of all this freshness, Big Bad John has now started cooking up fried corn with bacon.  It’s yummy in the tummy!  Come give it a try.


There is however a down-side….any hopes for ice cream in the future have been dashed.  Sorry about that!

A Remembrance of Ribs Past

When we were getting ready for our grand opening at Satchel’s back in 2011, my manager at the time developed a rib recipe which we still use today: slow cooked over hickory with our own Satchel’s rub.  No sauce.  This “dry-rub” style of ribs was perfected in Memphis, where it is still practiced at places like Corky’s, and is considered by many BBQ aficionados to be the only authentic way to smoke ribs.  If you really want to taste smoked meat, then smoke the meat over wood (slooooowly), then eat it.  Don’t drench it in sauce.  Don’t wrap it in foil.  Smoke it.  Then eat it.

Babyback Ribs

At the time, I didn’t want to admit that I had grown up eating ribs that were drenched in thick, sweet sauce, tender and falling off the bone.  They were a mess to eat, and afterwards, you felt like showering to get yourself clean.   I liked those ribs.  And I still like them today.  But I kept my opinions to myself, and continued to extoll the virtues of Memphis-style, dry rub ribs.  When asked why Satchel’s didn’t offer a wet rib similar to the ones I ate as a kid, I would say that it didn’t fit with what we were trying to do at Satchel’s, that it wasn’t our style of rib.  But all the while, paraphrasing Galileo at the Inquisition, I kept muttering under my breath, “And yet they’re good.”


So imagine my surprise when our pit master, DJ,  started experiment with a wet babyback rib, dripping in sweet, savory sauce, as an alternative to our traditional dry rib.  He thought there might be some interest in a wet rib, a sticky, sweet rib that required a handful or paper towels and more than a few wipes.  These ribs would easily slip off the bone and effortlessly slide down your throat.  I finally had to come clean and admit that in fact, deep down, I yearned for just such a rib.


But I worried.  The hard-core BBQ fans, the ones that really drink the hickory-flavored Kool-Aid, see these types of ribs as counterfeits.  It’s not real BBQ.  Heck, with all the sweet sauce slathered over the meat, you can’t even tell if it has been smoked.  The whole thing could have been done in an oven.  Or maybe a crock-pot.  Worse still, a microwave!


After trying DJ’s final product, a babyback rib cooked over hickory and dripping in a wonderful sweet sauce, I have concluded that he has bridged the divide.  The meat tastes of hickory smoke and vinegar and all the things that we love at Satchel’s.  But unlike anything else on our menu, it is caramelized in a sauce that will leave you licking your fingers, wanting more.  It is the best of both worlds.

Fanfare for the Common Meal

When I first started cooking, I was fond of the Moosewood cookbooks.  They were filled with fun vegetarian recipes that seemed exotic and cosmopolitan to my southern sensibilities.  It was where I was first introduced to the “magic” of cooking, to the idea that if done right, the whole could be so much more than the sum of the parts.  Who would have thought that broccoli and tofu, when sautéed with a good peanut sauce, could be so delicious?


From that beginning, I ventured into other cooking destinations.  Alice and I vacationed in the American Southwest, so I got into Mexican-inspired foods.  I discovered that for some reason, the small apartment we lived in on South Main near the Stadium was the perfect environment for making fresh bread.  I tried my hand at cassoulet (not bad), then pad thai (not good).  I discovered that cooking is a really fun and useful hobby.  There is always some new food to try, some new spice to discover (fenugreek!)  You feel like Magellan when you walk into the kitchen.


Then I stumbled across Cook’s Illustrated, a quirky (no photos, only drawings….no idea why) bi-monthly magazine.  The editor looked a bit like Pee-wee Herman and always wore a bow tie in his photo…I mean drawing.  Little did I know that I would be seeing this guy for the rest of my life.  He’s like Waldo…on NPR, on PBS, in bookstores, on the internet.

Christopher Kimball

Anyhow, I remember reading their magazine and finding articles like “The Best Meatloaf” and “Perfect Fried Chicken.”  These were all foods that seemed out of fashion and pedestrian, the types of foods that no one ate any more, the types of foods that I hadn’t seen on a dinner table since I was a kid.  And then, at the urging of my wife, I tried some of these recipes.  And a funny thing happened.  They were good.  Really good.


We are all drawn to the “new”, especially when it comes to food and restaurants.   I love finding a piece of candied ginger in my cocktail, or eating a gazpacho that has avocado and fresh corn instead of green pepper and celery.   But there is something to be said for the common foods that have graced our family dinner tables for generations.  And if these foods can be cooked properly and served gratefully, all the better.  This is what we strive to do at Satchel’s.


When I think about the patchwork quilt of reasons and circumstances that led me to start a BBQ restaurant at age 45, I have to acknowledge that guy in the bow tie.  He gave me a new appreciation of the simple meals I had eaten as a kid and had since forgotten.  He led me home, and for that, I am grateful.

Keeping Your Food Warm for the Holidays

Chafing DishTis the season of Holiday parties.  And where there is a party, there is often a chafing dish.  For those who are unfamiliar with chafing dishes, they are used to keep food warm (typically in a buffet line).  At Satchel’s we use them all the time for catering events.  If used properly, they are a reliable, portable (no electricity needed) way to keep food warm when you are serving a meal to a crowd.  But beware.  These seemingly innocent looking tools can wreak havoc on your party if not used carefully.


Over time, chafing dishes can kill food.  I know that sounds dramatic and disturbing, but it’s true.  If left in a chafing dish for a prolonged period of time, food will dry out and look very unappetizing.  For that reason, always put food into your chafing dish at the last possible moment, and try to organize your event so that it doesn’t sit there for too long.  How long is too long?  It depends on the food.  Baked beans can last for well over an hour.  Meats and mac-and-cheese will dry out quickly, usually in about an hour.  They will still taste good, but it’s not the same as eating it fresh at arrival.   You can always try to freshen it up by stirring in a bit of water from time to time (or in the case of mac-and-cheese, milk), but this trick will only buy you so much time.


Also, never use chafing dishes where the fuel (the flame below the pan of food) is directly heating the food.  This will burn your meal in a fairly short period of time (less than one hour).   The fuel should always be heating a pan of water which in turn will then heat the pan of food (like a double-boiler on your stove).  You can easily make your own system by simply purchasing an empty foil pan and using this pan to hold the water.  Then, when the food arrives, carefully place the pan of food into the pan of water.  Will you inevitably put in too much water and make a mess?  Yes.  Relax.  Get a rag.  It’s only water.


So keep your food warm for the Holidays.  Just make sure you don’t burn in the New Year!

Some Of My Best Friends Are Vegetarians

When you sell food in Ann Arbor, even BBQ, one of the things you get asked is “What are your vegetarian options?”  In the past our response has always been: cole slaw, potato salad and cornbread.  All good stuff, but not exactly a hearty meal.  This has especially been problematic for those who want to use our catering services since invariably there are a few non-meat-eaters on the guest list.


I am pleased to announce that we now have a bit more depth to our vegetarian options.  In the past, we used a bit of chicken stock in two of our heartier side dishes, the mac-and-cheese and the red-beans-and-rice.  Now, after a bit of tinkering, we found a way to maintain the delicious flavor of these menu items (no one on our staff can even taste the difference) without using any meat by-product.  So for those of you who seek to steer clear of meat products and yet somehow find themselves in Satchel’s, simply order a Shelley Plate for $4.  This will get you three servings of any side dish plus a piece of cornbread.   It’s great food at a great price.


The issue of vegetarian options touches upon the broader challenge we face at Satchel’s of balancing our mission (we sell good old-fashioned southern BBQ) with the desire to be responsive to our customers.  For example, it has occurred to us that perhaps our customers would like french fries.  Or chili.  Or hamburgers.   The list goes on.  But at the end of the day, this dilutes the whole purpose of our enterprise:  BBQ.  If we try to be all things to all people, we end up being not much to anyone.  So we always ask ourselves, is this consistent with what we do?  Would you find this on the menu on one of those mythical southern eateries that we adore?


Which raises some problems with vegetarian cuisine.  The inspiration for Satchel’s derives from BBQ joints down south.  And while these places often offer a “vegetable plate” (creamed corn, baked beans, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, etc.) this is not vegetarian fare.  Bacon, ham hocks, gizzards and necks adorn these plates.   So part of me thinks, “Hey, you don’t go into a Chinese place and ask for tacos. You can’t expect to come into a BBQ place and get vegetarian.”


But this is when a mission can potentially become something of a cage.  While we have no interest in trying to compete with some of the great vegetarian restaurants here in town, why not accommodate the occasional vegetarian who agreed to tag along with meat-eating friends to Satchel’s?  Why not throw that poor boy or girl a bone (so to speak) and offer some good old-fashioned southern vittles….which happen to be vegetarian.  Is this such a compromise to the mission?  We don’t think so.  Just seems courteous to us.


We live under no illusions that vegetarians will now flock to our doors in droves.  Again, we are a BBQ place and always will be.  But for the occasional vegetarian who meanders into our dining room, we say “Welcome!”  Just please, don’t ask us to smoke any tofu.

Some Friendly Advice to Those Seeking Jobs



The last few months at Satchel’s have been busy.  Mark’s Carts.  Top of the Park.  Catering.  And of course, the restaurant.  As a result, we have done a lot of hiring.  Or at least, we have tried to do a lot of hiring.   You see, it’s hard to hire people.  This is partly because we like to be selective.  We want folks who know how to work in a commercial kitchen, who have excellent customer service skills and who are fun to work with.  So it takes time.  But part of the problem has nothing to do with our selectivity and everything to do with the applicants.  To paraphrase a great break-up line, it’s not me…it’s you.  For that reason, I would like to offer some very simple friendly advice to the young people of the world who are seeking employment.

Lesson # 1:  Introduce yourself to the voice mail system on your cell phone This is especially true if you choose to put your cell phone number on your resume or application.  Set up your voice mail.  Check your voice mail.  Respond to voice mail messages on a daily basis.

Lesson # 2:  Answer your phone in a friendly receptive voice.  Young men of America, I am talking to you.  Yes, I know that Eminem and Pit Bull sound very cool, and the ladies seem to dig these guys (at least on their videos).  But no one, and I mean no one, is going to hire you if you sound like a hip-hop artist on the phone.  Don’t mumble and try to sound like you are happy to be on the planet Earth.

Lesson # 3:  Check your email account Again, if you put an email on your resume or application, check that account daily and respond promptly.

Lesson # 4:  Write a cover letter or a cover email.  It doesn’t have to be long, just a quick note explaining why you want the job and providing a brief explanation of why you would be a good fit.  If you have prior experience in the same line of work, mention that.  If you have been a customer of the business and love its products or services, mention that.  Try to make yourself memorable.

Part of the problem here is a generation gap.  As my kids point out, those in their teens and twenties communicate in different ways than those in their forties and fifties.  But the reality is that most employers are old fogies like me.  They do crazy nutty things….like leave voice mails and send emails.  And they live in the innocent belief that the recipients of these communications will reply in like manner.  I am not saying it is right or wrong.  It simply is.

Finding a job when you are young and inexperienced is difficult.  Don’t make it harder on yourself.  Following these simple instructions will greatly increase the likelihood that you will soon be making an honest wage.

Alabama Getaway

Last week, my family and I drove down to Alabama on a mission trip with some members of our church—a highly organized group from First Congregational here in Ann Arbor, led by Reverend Bob Livingston and John and Holly Porter.  We had a great fun week working with a local Habitat for Humanity chapter on some homes for folks who were displaced by the 2011 tornadoes that devastated that part of the county.  I cannot say enough good things about the people on this trip: fun, hard-working and SKILLED.  These people are well-versed in the world of carpentry, plumbing, siding and other dark sciences.  I knew I was with a pretty sophisticated group when one of our gang, when faced with a dead car battery and no jumper cables in site, jerry-rigged cables out of drywall nails and extension cords.  Good news:  it worked.  Better news:  no one was electrocuted.


While down in Alabama, my two sons and I visited with family and old friends in Birmingham, where I was born and raised.  And of course, while there, we thought it a moral imperative to sample the local BBQ.  I love one place in particular…Full Moon BBQ.  There are a bunch of Full Moons in the Birmingham area.  The only one I have ever eaten at is downtown on 25th Street.   It’s small and barely noticeable to the untrained eye.  But come lunch hour, the line starts and the place stays busy until closing at 5:30PM (admittedly, a strange closing time, but what can I say…it’s Alabama).


The food was great, especially the pulled pork sandwiches served with some crazy relish they call chow chow.  But what struck me most was the wonderful diversity of people that populate a good Southern eatery.  Black, white, rich, poor, banker, carpenter, college kid, retiree….you name it, he or she was seated in an incredibly small, packed dining area.  It was like a jury pool: every walk of life imaginable was brought together by good food in a simple setting.


So the boys and I were eating like hogs (folks were waiting for the tables, so we felt some pressure to eat up) when from the table behind me, I heard a group of guys mention Ann Arbor.  I leaned back a bit to hear more and I heard them mention the name of a friend of mine from here in town.  So of course, I turned around and said, “I’m from Ann Arbor and I know that guy!”  Laughs and handshakes ensued.  It’s easy to say, small world, and I wouldn’t disagree.  But the world seems a lot smaller, and a lot friendlier, when you’re elbow-to-elbow with folks eating good food.


I went to a ZingTrain workshop a few months back where we spent lots of time talking about visioning.  They really encouraged business owners to take the time to write out in detail where they want the business to be in five years.  This is a big work-in-process for me.  I keep getting lost in the apple sauce.  But one part of the vision is clear to me:  Like the Full Moon, I want Satchel’s to be a place where all sorts of folks from all sorts of backgrounds can sit and enjoy some good BBQ and in so doing, enjoy each other.


A Primer on BBQ Sauce

Icing on the Cake?

I am not a big sauce guy.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like sauce.  In fact in addition to putting sauce on my sandwich, I will make a puddle of extra sauce on the plate and mop it up with my sandwich one bite at a time (I do the same thing with mayo when I am eating BLT’s).  So I eat more than my fair share of BBQ sauce.  But to me, it’s all about the meat.  If you get the meat right, making sure it’s tender and flavorful and full of smoke, then making a good sauce is a whole lot easier.



I know this may sound like heresy coming from a guy who makes all his sauces from scratch, but there are some good store-bought sauces out there.  I like some of Stubb’s sauces, and when I go to a higher-end grocery store, I can usually find something interesting.  I do not like Sweet Baby Ray’s.  It’s just too much like corn syrup for me.  If you end up buying a sauce in the store, read the label.  Do the ingredients look like normal ingredients that you might find in a normal kitchen?  If so, it might be worth a try.  If the label starts out with corn syrup and then lists a long list of incomprehensible additives and preservatives, to quote Lost in Space, “Danger Will Robinson!”  Steer clear.



There are lots of different sauces out there.   Most folks around here tend to like a Kansas City-style sauce: a dark sauce with a tomato base and a good amount of sweetness.  Others enjoy less sweetness and more heat, often containing ingredients like cayenne pepper, jalapenos, and habaneros.  Still others (myself included) like a good strong vinegar kick.   Whatever your tastes, you can easily make a simple little sauce once you understand its fundamental building blocks.
The Four Building Blocks of Sauce

Pick up any basic BBQ sauce recipe and its ingredients can usually be broken up into four basic categories:  (1) the base ingredient, (2) the sweeteners, (3) acidic/tangy kicker and (4) herbs and spices.  Varying the proportions of these components determines what your sauce will taste like.  For instance, the Carolina Vinegar Sauce that we serve at Satchel’s has a lot of the acidic/tangy kicker (i.e., vinegar), a bit of sweetener, some herbs and spices and that’s pretty much it .  The sweet sauce has some base ingredient, lots of sweetener, very little acidic kicker and a bit of herbs and spices.

  • The base:  The base ingredients typically include some type of tomato-based ingredient, like whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup, etc.   I am not a huge fan of using ketchup as my base because…it’s ketchup.  I realize I am in the minority, so let’s just agree to disagree.  If you use canned whole tomatoes in your base (including the juice), that’s awesome; just make sure you allow plenty of time for the sauce to simmer so that the tomatoes break down into a nice sauce (you are basically make a kind of homemade ketchup….just without all the corn syrup and preservatives).  When you make a base, you can also sauté up some onions and garlic and celery and peppers to add to the tomatoes.  This adds depth and flavor.
  • Sweeteners:  Pretty simple.  Sugar.  Brown sugar.  Honey.  Maple syrup.  Molasses.  Some recipes like using soda for sweetener (Dr. Pepper, Coke).  Whatever.  Not my cup of tea, but to each his own.
  • The acidic/tangy kicker:  This is where things get interesting.  Vinegar is the standard ingredient here, but you can try some citrus like limes and lemons (oranges are nice but they provide more sweetness and less kick). Worcestershire Sauce and tobasco also work well.  Finally, mustard is a fun ingredient, especially since there are so many different kinds out there.   What I like about this category of ingredients is that you can just look in your fridge or your pantry and find something weird and unique which might taste awesome in BBQ sauce.   Green curry paste, unsweetened cocoa powder, instant coffee, fish sauce….the possibilities are endless.  You might have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, but it’s all part of the journey.
  • Spices:  The usual suspects are paprika, black pepper, and chili powder.  I have a bias towards cumin and allspice.  For this reason, I have been branded a Tex-Mex lover.  I can live with that moniker.  Some folks like more fragrant herbs like oregano, tarragon, celery seed, basil, etc.  Brendan on my staff was talking about a sage BBQ sauce the other day.  Sounds interesting.   You get the idea.


Make Your Own!  

Using these building blocks, it should be pretty easy to build your own sauce to fit your own tastes.  Here is a quick and easy BBQ to get you kick-started:

  • ½ cup orange juice
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 1/3  cup brown sugar
  • 2 Tbs cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbs Worcestershire Sauce
  • 1 Tbs mustard
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper

Add everything to a pot and bring to boil.  Then simmer for 30 minutes.  Enjoy!