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“The muscle I used to use the most was the one between my ears,” says John Rivers of his time heading up a billion-dollar pharmaceutical distribution company with 225 employees. Now he’s on his feet all day long overseeing three wood-burning smokers and assembling Texas Destroyers (brisket, onion rings, provolone, jalapenos), Burnt-End Sandwiches (half Bessie the cow, half Wilbur the pig) and Smokehouse Sliders (brisket, pulled-pork, chicken) at 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park, Florida. “The hours are the same but you’re physically drained. It’s a huge, huge difference.”
Nearly a year after opening, Rivers sells upwards of 15,000 pounds of Angus beef brisket, pork, chicken and prime rib every week. The radical departure from the pharmaceutical industry has its genesis in charity, home-catering and a passion for barbecue sparked by a Thanksgiving dinner in the Lone Star state twenty years ago.
Rivers’ then girlfriend, now wife, Monica, invited him home to meet the family. Along with turkey, Monica’s family served homemade Texas barbecue - a smoked brisket. “I had never seen anything like it. I didn’t know what it was,” says Rivers.
Then he tasted it and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.” Monica’s family’s good-natured teasing of the DC-born, Florida-raised Rivers ignited his competitive fire. He resolved then and there to learn how to make Texas barbecue and “make it better than anyone out there.”
How hard could it be, he thought: “You take meat, you smoke it. Big deal.” He got home, threw a brisket on the Weber and invited friends over. A few hours later a two-foot long piece of meat resembled a hockey puck in size and density. “It was so horrible. I threw it against side of house. Still couldn’t break it,” he says.
He spent years eating at the temples of Texas barbecue, including Kreuz, Smitty’s, City Market and Rudy’s, learning the art of brisket smoking. It’s such a huge, thick, amazingly tough muscle that typical barbecue techniques like trimming, injecting marinades and using rubs don’t work, he says. “Brisket requires a unique combination of temperature, time, seasonings and smoke.” It’s not a starting meat for the weekend warrior.
As Rivers worked his way up the corporate ladder he maintained his barbecue crusade. He made spreadsheets for every single batch noting date, temperature, wood-type, rubs, recipes and marinades and logged the outcomes. Eighteen years and one gigantic Excel file later he finally produced buttery, silky, smoky brisket. Backyard barbecues at the Rivers were no longer events to avoid. Then they became a way to give back.
In 2004 Rivers heard of a little girl, Megan, whose family was struggling with the cost of her cancer treatments. The family turned down his offer of a check but took him up on his offer to host a barbecue through their church to raise money. Used to barbecuing for 30 or 40 people, Rivers and his three closest friends were overwhelmed with 450. “We didn’t have the resources or the manpower but we did it and we raised money for the family.” He mounted a 2000-lb. smoker on a fourteen-foot trailer and he and his portable smoker barbecued for charities devoted to children, churches, the homeless and schools. “The only thing that stopped me from doing more was my real job.”
A few years later he sold the pharmaceutical company, opening a consulting company, which gave him more time to perfect his brisket…and bottle his sauce, his other passion. He told his wife he wanted to do it, but didn’t tell her that the bottling plant’s smallest run, ninety-two cases, would fill their garage. “Monica turned to me and said, ‘Alright, Mr. Strategist, what are you going to do now?’” He emptied the garage in five months strictly by word-of-mouth. 4Rivers BBQ Sauce is now available on-line.
The charity barbecues expanded so quickly - “we never said ‘no’” - that he found an old tire shop to convert into a smokehouse/catering kitchen. Just before signing the lease, Rivers was offered a CEO position. “I was on the verge of doing something I had only dreamed about and here came that offer. We talked and prayed about it.” He turned it down, dissolved his consulting business and devoted himself to barbecuing brisket full-time.
Florida is pulled-pork country and the barbecue finder app shows that Rivers’ area is awash in barbecue joints. So he employed a “Blue Ocean” strategy, i.e., create a new demand rather than compete head-to-head with existing suppliers for known customers. This means he was better off introducing brisket into a pork-centric market rather than trying to do pork better than the guy down the road. It makes the competition irrelevant, if your product’s good enough. Rivers ages his beef twenty-one days and smokes it for eighteen hours. “I’ve never found anything as good as good brisket,” he says, “and there are only a few places to get it. We’re one of them.”
Rivers renovated the tire shop, installed smokers, put a little retail area up front and a few picnic tables out back, “in case folks wanted to buy.” His first day people lined the block hours before he opened. “We had customers from ten in the morning to nine-thirty at night. We were blessed.” He created the 4 Rivers Foundation in Megan’s memory and donates more than 20% of proceeds directly to charity.
Rivers says he chose barbecue because he didn’t want his kids to see him walk away from his dream. “We prayed on it and we realized that what we wanted to teach them is that it’s better to try and possibly fail than to not pursue your dreams. Better to fail rather than to never try. And that we have to trust in God and trust in ourselves.” Fifteen thousands pounds per week says he made the right decision.