WHEN Leeds-based Deep South inspired operator Red’s came balling into town riding a Beef Long-board astride a wave of North Carolina BBQ sauce the city rejoiced.
Then we had beer, we got drunk, we kissed, we cuddled, we cried, there was some man love and we decided we could make some beautiful meat together.
The hapless Livebait had flapped and flopped like a knackered old trout in the beautiful old shipping agent’s building at the Lloyd Street end of Albert Square. The corner looked dark, empty and dejected.
That is until Leeds-born James Douglas and South African-born Scott Munro of Red’s True BBQ came in and threw over a million pounds, entire herds of meat, barrels of sauce, forests of Hickory, whole Eiffel Towers of donuts piled high and almost £40,000 of neon lights at it. Yes, £40,000. Douglas got in a whole world of shit for that one.
The pair, alongside ‘Pit Master’ Clinton, opened Red’s on Call Lane, Leeds back in September 2012. Soon they were serving, monthly, nearly 20,000 diners in their 107 cover restaurant (over 600 a day) and cooking between twenty to thirty tonnes of meat. So much so that it is said that at the mere whisper of Red’s, entire herds of beef cattle stampede in fear.
In February 2014 the pair opened their 185-cover 6,000sq ft Manchester branch in Albert Square to instant success (reviewed here). The pair leak energy and their enthusiasm catches like measles. Throughout the interview they bounce, bicker and bite like brothers. Ones that actually like each other.
But what is most clear is that these guys love what they do and are having a great time doing it. And all because of a homemade sauce and a hefty Lithuanian smoker called Walter.
Firstly, what the f**k are you playing at with this donut burger?
James: It’s 2000 calories of total joy. Apparently it was invented by Luther Vandross, but we picked it up from this famous small BBQ place in Memphis and made it better. We use a glazed donut, a double meat patty, double bacon, double cheese, crispy onions and our own 28 ingredient dirty sauce.
J: It does sound a lot. But it’s impossible to get fat from the donut burger because you can’t get a table in here every day anyway. Also, we’re doing women a favour. They’re only supposed to eat 2000 calories a day anyway so it's all there in one meal.
Scott: Just to clarify, they all looked at the menu and thought it was rank. But I dived in. They’re all quite blinkered so that’s where I come in.
J: When we first did it we asked Krispy Kreme donuts to get involved but they palmed us off. Anyway, we sold nearly 14,000 in the first six months, stacked high that’s three Eiffel Towers. Good move by them.
S: It’s funny because they've just put an image of a donut burger on their website.
Right, now that’s out of the way, who’s who?
J: I’m head of aesthetics and simple tasks. The stuff that looks good, the stuff everyone likes.
S: I’m more operational and food. James just tweets about shit. Somebody said recently that I do all the work and James just brags about it.
Where’d it all begin?
S: I started it.
J: No you didn’t. You just think you did.
S: I was working in London for an American firm so I used to travel to the US a lot. We’d all go out and eat this amazing smokehouse BBQ food but when I came back here the only place we could get it was Bodean’s in London. So I started some research, wrote a business plan and had a big custom mobile smoker built in Lithuania. He’s called Walter. He comes out for competitions and festivals. At this point James had made a sauce…
J: So while he was working for the man I’d established my own successful business, I changed the face of Leeds property in 2005.
S: He was an Estate Agent.
J: I wasn’t a fucking Estate Agent. I set up a property business in 2005 and sold it in 2011, we managed around 700 properties. It was a big one, the third biggest in Leeds I’ll have you know. I was a baller. But I’d had enough of listening to tenants and landlords whinge about broken bloody toasters.
Where’d the sauce come in?
J: My three kids are big into condiments. We were having this BBQ and we’d ran out of sauce. So I looked a few up online and found that the staple parts of each sauce were very similar. So I added loads of my own stuff and ended up with this sauce that everyone loved, friends, family, everyone. So I had this sauce and much like Scott I was getting into authentic American low and slow BBQ cooking. I’d sold the business and was at a loose end.
So James, you had the sauce. Scott, you had Walter. Then what?
S: I also had a business plan that I’d tortuously put together over a few years. I’m an academic you see.
J: I’m a do’er, I do shit rather than writing 5000 words about it. Anyway, we had a mutual friend and it turned out we’d both approached him with the same idea. So we met, it was a bit cagey at first because neither of us wanted to give our ideas away. Then we had beer, we got drunk, we kissed, we cuddled, we cried, there was some man love and we decided we could make some beautiful meat together. A week later we were on a flight to the States, we hired a Winnebago and toured the US eating five or six BBQ meals a day for two weeks.
S: We go over a few times a year for research. But when we go now we can only do a week, it’s painful the amount we eat.
So you came back ready to open a restaurant?
J: We came back and put it into practice. We entered competitions and started looking for sites. Because of my background we got hold of this great site on Call Lane in Leeds. I’d left property because I hated it, then dived straight back in. We pooled our resources and knowledge, the truth is neither of us had a clue how to run a restaurant. Our business was built from passion, it wasn’t clouded by experience.
S: Which is why it worked. We didn’t have the experience to tell us what could go wrong, what we could and couldn’t do, so we just did it.
J: We’ve definitely been unorthodox; it’d give most restaurateurs nightmares.
How was the first opening?
J: Scott wouldn’t know he pissed off to Bali for the first week after opening.
S: Yeah I went on honeymoon. It was just bad timing. And I’m never going to hear the end of it.
J: We opened with twelve staff. We now have 60. We needed 60 back then. I used to sit at the back of the restaurant crying, chain smoking and nibbling on Berocca. It was fun but it was also one of the worst weeks of my life. I was thinking ‘What have I done? I know nothing about this industry.’ We hired more people. So it got easier.
S: It got easier because I came back.
J: The thing was, our food was amazing but our service was terrible. So we threw more resources at it. Got more people in, put another £70,000 into the kitchen.
So tell us, what is Red’s point of difference?
J: We’re one of the only authentic low and slow American BBQ’s in the country. Everything is smoked on site, all the meat is rubbed for 24 hours (oo'er), we import all of our wood from America, there’s a huge amount of love goes in. People think you buy a smoker and chuck in some meat. That’s not the case. It’s a real passion. Some purists have said we’re not smokey enough, but it's a refined taste, that’s fine if you’re cooking 2kg of brisket at home, try cooking twenty to thirty tonnes of meat a month. We sell more meat in Leeds, maybe even in Manchester, than any other restaurant.
S: Our point of difference is that every year we go to the US and take epic journeys across the Southern States. Between us we’ve probably been researching this for over a decade. And this type of food, it’s like a religion over there, that’s why we have those connotations in our branding. In Texas you can’t cook pork, it’s sacrilege, beef or nothing. We’re trying to hit all senses here. It’s not just the taste; it’s all about the theatre.
Do you worry you’ll lose the hype?
J: We thought the hype would die off in Leeds, but eighteen months later it’s still there.
S: We’re aware of the hype, that’s why we’ve put a strong emphasis on marketing.
J: Six to twelve months in at Leeds we were serving more people than ever. But you’re not going to break records every week, we know this, eventually it will plateau. Concentrate on the food and the service and it’ll keep rolling. We try to capitalise on the buzz surrounding each site, open a smaller site close to the original and it will trade off the back off it. In Leeds we’re opening a Headingley site soon, we’ll do the same in Manchester, perhaps Didsbury, Hale…
What appealed to you about Manchester?
J: Geographically it’s the closest big city but also because we were getting so many customers travelling over from Manchester and asking us to open here. We listen to our customers. They asked us to open here. We have. They said we needed more room in Leeds. So we’re opening another one there. If we have Leeds as an epicentre, we see where the ripple travels and settle where the noise is loudest. And look, Manchester is a fucking awesome city, why wouldn’t we want to come here?
Do you think the ‘street food’ market has become saturated in Manchester?
J: We’re not really street food. BBQ is a different animal, it’s an established type of cuisine, it’s just not established here. We looked at what operators were here and thought Manchester would take to us pretty quickly. It has. Often we get thrown in with the Almost Famous guys, and what they do is great, and yeah we also do burgers, but we’re a BBQ smoke house. Our burgers are great, but they’re a by-product of what we do best, BBQ. Would we open a burger place in Manchester? No. It’s being done well enough. But nobody is doing what we’re doing as well as us.
Why this site?
J: This square is the most iconic in the city. We looked at a few prime Deansgate sites, and no disrespect to them, but we didn’t want to sit next to a Pizza Express or a La Tasca. And this building is fantastic. We’ve done what we could, pushed the envelope a little.
Are you happy with how you’ve taken off here?
J: Manchester has taken to us in a big way. I think it’s the way we came in saying, ‘We’re Red’s from Leeds and we think we’ve got something new for you to try’. In Leeds we had a reputation for boosting trade in the area, instead of just hipsters we were bringing whole families down to Call Lane. Midweek trade for other bars increased by 20%. That’s a lot of money. We hope to do similar for the trade in Albert Square.
S: We helped to regenerate Call Lane. The bars were doing fine but there was no food there. Spinningfields has been great here, Great Northern has taken off, so being here we feel we’re completing a triangle.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
S: I just want to get to the point where I can go mix paint at B&Q.
J: That really is what he wants to do. Make enough money so he can retire and go mix fucking paints. One of the best things is when somebody asks you over just to shake your hand for cooking authentic BBQ food. It happens quite a lot.
S: I sometimes just like to sit and watch the customers eat, taking photos and saying ‘Wow’. If, when we finally finish with Red’s, that’s the last thing I see, I’ll be a happy man. Actually, the best thing recently has been one of our guys taking us aside and saying that because of us he’s now taken out a mortgage. It makes us so proud. We have 130 staff now.
S: It was probably the 120 hour weeks we were doing in the first month. But then, we wanted to be there. It’s been difficult trailblazing, because there’s no one doing this it’s been hard to source kit and find what we need, even down to skills because nobody has cooked like this before.
Had any particularly crazy moments?
J: I had this amazing idea for some custom neon lights. Scott asked ‘How much?’ I said, ‘Around £7,500 for the lot.’ Scott said, ‘Shit that’s a lot for lights,’ so I said, ‘Yeah but they’re going to be amazing.’ So the way I work is I just told the designers everything I wanted. I neglected to ask the cost. So one night I’m in bed and get the invoice through. I shit the bed. It came in at £38,500. I took Scott aside, ‘Those neons are great aren’t they?’ He said, ‘Yeah really cool.’ I said, ‘Thing is they’ve come in a little over budget… by £31,000.’ He shouted, ‘You’ve spent £31,000 on fucking neon lights?’ and I said, ‘No, that’s £31,000 over budget… I spent £38,500’.
S: I couldn’t breathe.
Ever wanted to pack it in?
S: Not once.
J: Not even when we were having two to three hours sleep a night.
What else would you be doing?
S: Mixing paints in B&Q.
J: Stuntman probably.
So what do you do with time off?
J: When we used to have time off we skydived, snowboarded, wakeboarded…
Stop it now…
S: No really, that’s what we do.
J: Also skiing, motorcross, climbing, shooting. I’ve got land so sometimes we just shoot shit. We took all our staff wakeboarding at a private lake near Knaresborough. We’re taking some snowboarding in April, then white water rafting in July. We’re going skydiving with our electrician soon.
Piss off. So do you have any favourite spots in the city?
S: We love the Oast House, Almost Famous, BrewDog, the Northern Quarter…
J: Liars Club is the coolest place ever. Anywhere I can order a Pina Colada or a Strawberry Daiquiri without feeling self-conscious is great.
What if you could own another concept in the city?
J: I’m going to take your question and answer my own. There’s no other concept, ours is awesome and suits us. But if there is one place I could get my hands on it’d be the Oast House. I said to Tim Bacon that if he ever doesn’t want that building we’ll have it straight away.
S: I’d like to open a whelk store.
J: We might as well tell you our next project now... It’s going to be a whelk and cockle bar. It’s the next big trend.
You could serve cockletails. So what next?
S: We’ve got loads of festivals and pop-ups lined up: Parklife, Kendal Calling, Grillstock, V Fest, Beacons Festival, we’re doing Friday Food Fights in Castlefield. Last time we sold out by 9pm and had to restock from the restaurant. It was unreal. We sold over 500 portions.
J: We’re also going to be headlining the main stage at Glastonbury. So we’ve got Headingley in Leeds opening in July then another major city centre one in September. We’ve been spending a lot of time in London recently, you know, research 'n' that.
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Red's True BBQ, 22 Lloyd St, Albert Square, M2 5WA. 0161 820 9140.
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