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Episode 63: The Secret Sauce: City Barbeque Opens R&D Center in Dublin, Ohio

Just in time for Thanksgiving, we bring you a particularly tasty episode. City Barbeque is an award-winning barbeque empire that began in a garage in the Columbus Region of Ohio in 1999 and has since expanded rapidly across seven states, with its 50th restaurant opening next year. In June 2019, the company announced plans to expand operations in Dublin, Ohio, creating 35 new jobs and investing nearly $1 million. To get the full story, we spoke with Rick Malir, CEO and co-founder of City Barbeque, and Rachel Ray, economic development administrator for the City of Dublin.


Andy Levine (DCI): We’ll get started with the next episode of The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions in just a moment, but I wanted to quickly introduce you to Rick Weddle. He is the president of the Site Selectors Guild, and Rick and the Guild launched a new podcast called Site Selection Matters earlier this year.

Rick Weddle (Site Selectors Guild): Thanks, Andy. I’m Rick Weddle and I host the Site Selection Matters podcast. Every week, I speak with smart individuals about the art and science of site selection decision-making, including consultants from the Guild, economic developers, corporate executives, and others.

Each podcast is about 20 minutes long, perfect for your morning commute or even a short workout at the gym. If you’re thinking about what’s next in the world of site selection and economic development, then I’d really encourage you to subscribe to Site Selection Matters.

Andy: So, there you have it, Site Selection Matters and The Project, the only two podcasts you’ll ever need. Right, Rick?

Rick: That’s right, Andy.

Andy Levine (DCI): All right, great. Now, let’s hear the latest episode of The Project.

This week, we have a particularly tasty episode for you. Well, maybe not if you’re a vegetarian.

Patience Fairbrother (DCI): Our episode today focuses on City Barbeque, an award-winning barbeque empire that began in a garage in Ohio in 1999 and has since expanded rapidly. By next year, the company will have 50 restaurants in 7 states on its roster.

Andy: Their secret to success is slow cooking, slow-smoked barbeque, and slowly built relationships that make all the difference when a company is considering an expansion.

So, welcome to Episode #63 of The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions. I’m Andy Levine of Development Counsellors International.

Patience: And I’m Patience Fairbrother, also at DCI and Andy’s cohost of The Project.

Andy: Today, we bring you the story of City Barbeque, an award-winning barbeque restaurant chain that was founded in the Columbus region of Ohio. In June 2019, they announced plans to expand operations in Dublin, Ohio, creating 35 new jobs and investing nearly $1 million.

Patience: The type of operation? It’s an R&D facility, as well as a new training center and test kitchen. The company will also expand its catering service center and plans to hire for multiple positions, including marketing, operations, accounting, IT, sales, and customer support.

Andy: We’re going to begin today with Rick Malir, who started City Barbeque in 1999 out of his garage. To take our listeners back to the beginning, Rick landed in the Columbus region more than 20 years ago and it was a corporate relocation by his employer at the time, John Deere.

Rick Malir (City Barbeque): We really learned to enjoy Columbus and Dublin, and wanted to start my own business and maybe try something on my own, so I got a crazy idea to start a barbeque joint here in town. And we started out with doing catering out of my garage as we got the first one built, and I was partnered up with some other original founders, and we started the first restaurant in Upper Arlington.

Patience: What started as a crazy idea in a garage in 1999 has grown into a 50-restaurant empire, but it wasn’t without its growing pains. There were three major milestones, from Rick’s perspective.

Rick: Well, we started the first one in Arlington, on Henderson Road, and then we went to two locations. So, I would say that was a major milestone, going from one to two, and candidly, I probably almost lost the company at that point just because we were not prepared for it. And then, another milestone, after we survived that, was our first foray out of town. We opened one in Dayton after we had been in business for about four years. And so, that was a major milestone and a stressor, but it worked out well.

And then, if I had to look at another milestone, is when we jumped to North Carolina and we opened in Raleigh, North Carolina. And then, probably another milestone would be when we had about 25 and I made the conscious decision with our partners to sell about half the company to a private equity firm, so it would position us for more growth and more expansion.

Andy: Next year, City Barbeque will open its 50th restaurant location. The popular barbeque joint spans seven states: Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, and Kentucky.

Patience. So, that brings us to the decision to expand operations in Dublin. Our first natural question for Rick was, “Why barbeque R&D?”

Rick: Well, we’re very steeped in tradition, but we always know we have to innovate. So, we wanted to really have a spot where we could look at different woods, look at different smokers, rubs, seasonings, cooking techniques, different proteins. And then, also, we needed a spot where we could train our pit masters when they come in and really help them train versus just doing it in a restaurant. And also, we needed a training center.

We needed a terrific training center for all our teams because we’re scratch-made as much as we can, and that just takes more training than a normal multi-unit, a restaurant company. And then, the office needs to be very good for team support and how do we support the restaurants out in the field. So, that’s really all the reasons we did it.

Andy: When Rick decided it was time to expand, he says he didn’t feel the need to look far away from the company’s roots in the Columbus region.

Rick: I mean, we flirted a little bit outside, but really, we looked at several different suburbs in the Columbus area, as well as downtown Columbus a little bit, but we settled on Dublin because Dublin was just very…the city was very easy to work with. They’re business-friendly. They’re very responsive.

Patience: Ultimately, Rick was hoping it would work out to continue to expand in the region that he and his family know and love.

Rick: Candidly, Bonnie and I have lived in this area for 20-some years and we like it here. So, when we were able to get a package put together with the City of Dublin, I was very pleased with that.

Andy: Next, we spoke to Rachel Ray. No, not the celebrity chef and television personality, the Economic Development Administrator, (even better, Patience), for the City of Dublin, Ohio.

Patience: So, much like what we heard from Rick, Rachel says the success of this project was all about the relationships and the company’s sense of home in the Columbus region.

Rachel: So, as economic developers can appreciate, it really starts with strong relationships built through our business retention and expansion opportunities. So, I’d met with the company periodically over the years, known that things were going really well for them. I also had known that they currently owned the building that they were in and had expanded within fairly recent years, before this particular project came about, into an adjacent facility that they were leasing. So, I knew that there was some fast growth on the horizon.

Patience: Sure enough, when City Barbeque began to kick off the project into high gear last summer, they gave Rachel a call.

Rachel: They picked up the phone and called us and let us know that this expansion opportunity was on the horizon and wanted to talk with us about what opportunities were available for them in Dublin as they were also considering other communities elsewhere.

Andy: While this was a good sign for the City of Dublin, Rachel says she was aware that, with their presence in seven states, they really could go anywhere.

Patience: In addition to the R&D and training centers, City Barbeque had plans to expand their catering management operation, which meant pretty unique talent and real estate needs.

Rachel: So, once we got that initial phone call, we started to dig in pretty deeply with their construction manager, as well as the others on their leadership team, to look at what their headcount growth was going to look like, what positions they knew that they needed to hire for, which they indicated were both back-of-house operational corporate types of positions, in addition to the customer service oriented types of roles.

Andy: After these discussions, the City of Dublin felt confident they could support City Barbeque’s unique hiring needs, but the facility was a hurdle.

Rachel: Thinking about what type of facility and area would be appropriate to have a test kitchen for some R&D and some prep, a call center, headquarters, and some other functions all in a line, and it’s kind of a unique ask. So, looking at what we currently had available was certainly limited.

Andy: Ultimately, the City of Dublin found a facility that fits the bill, a new 16,000-square-foot facility that can accommodate a call center, as well as a barbeque smoker.

Patience: City Barbeque’s existing operations employ 47 full-time employees. While maintaining this existing office, the company will expand into the new facility, hiring for 35 new positions.

Andy: So, Patience, we’re up to the takeaways portion of this episode. You got to speak with both Rick and Rachel. But before we dive into that, I just want to share, what I love about this episode is, it’s really, it’s a good illustration of kind of the meat and potatoes of economic development, a small but growing company, you know, how the economic development professional, in this case Rachel, sort of helps them expand, helps them grow. That’s what’s important here, and I love this story.

Patience: Exactly, and Rachel definitely echoed that sentiment, that she felt that having that relationship over time meant that she was going to get that call when they were expanding, and she did get that call.

I think another takeaway I would put into the mix here is sort of the very unique real estate and talent needs. This is sort of a specific business here. It’s food service, so it means they need to be able to produce food. …is a very unique piece of equipment that they need to be running out of their facility, but they also need to have call center operations, IT, a bunch of other support services. So, they were really looking for a very unique facility and a unique swath of talent.

Andy: A growing corporate headquarters is what we have here.

Patience: Exactly.

Andy: Now, the other side of this is, you know, when you first came to me with this and said, “Barbeque R&D center,” it was like, “What? What are you talking about?” You know, I think of barbeque, I think of like this old guy in overalls, you know, and sort of this old smoker that he’s had for 400 years, or something like that. So, tell me about this R&D concept.

Patience: Yeah. So, Rick is really trying to innovate in the barbeque space, and they want to play with what different rubs can we use, what different processes of smoking. There are all different kinds of things that you can play with as part of the barbeque process to get a different flavor, and Rick is really interested in trying to push those limits.

Andy: Okay, barbeque R&D sounds good to me.

So, that is a wrap on Episode #63 of The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.

Patience: A special thanks to Rick Malir and Rachel Ray for taking the time to speak with us. We can’t wait to try some of that barbeque.

Andy: The Project is sponsored by DCI. We’re the leader in marketing places and have served over 500 cities, states, regions, and countries. You can learn more about us at

Patience: We hope you will keep listening. There are many more projects to come.


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