November 9, 2016
Creative Conversations, Volume 3: Mike Johnson, Master Chef & Co-owner of Sugarfire Smoke House
By UPBrand Collaborative
Creative Conversations: An UPBlog Interview Series
Mike Johnson proves that to be creative, you must be allowed to fail. He’s the co-founder of Sugarfire Smoke House, a thriving barbeque chain originating in St. Louis. Judging by the crowds it draws, no one would guess that Mike’s previous venture almost took him out of the restaurant business. The nature of ideas is that most of them fail. You don’t need to be a genius to come up with a million-dollar idea, but you do need to be persistent—and a little lucky. Take it from Mike.
1. Tell me about your career path. Was it always your plan to open your own restaurant?
My mom was a terrible cook, so I cooked a lot growing up. I didn’t get very good grades in high school, so when all my friends went to college I stayed back and worked in restaurants. I went to culinary school after high school in Vermont. This was in 1990, so it wasn’t like how it’s kind of cool now. When I went, my parents were horrified. I got lucky—right when I left school, I met Emeril Lagasse, who was just starting out at the time. I worked with him for a few years, and he became really famous while I was working there. After that, I started working all over the world. When I came back to St. Louis in ‘97, I started opening restaurants all over town.
2. Where did the idea for Sugarfire Smoke House come from?
I had a bunch of fine dining restaurants before I opened Sugarfire. I was really burned out, and none of them were really working out. I had a couple that did well, but I had a lot of terrible ideas too. I had a big smoker at one of my restaurants, so I started barbequing a lot. I got really into it and started doing competitions, and then my partners and I decided to open Sugarfire. We have six Sugarfire Smoke House locations right now, a Sugarfire Pie, and we still own Cyrano’s in Webster. We have Sugarfire franchises too, and we’re right on the cusp of a lot of them—in Chicago, Louisville and Nashville.
3. Why do you think this restaurant in particular has been so successful?
I think we’ve been successful because we have a quality product, it’s fast, it’s affordable, and it’s accessible because everybody loves barbeque. If you have a Spanish restaurant, people will say, “Am I in the mood for Spanish tonight?” Everybody is in the mood every day for barbeque. And it’s so fast. You go in, you get in line, and you get your food. It’s also not like Subway where it’s kind of the same thing everyday. I have huge talented chefs, so the specials are always awesome.
4. What is the employee culture like at Sugarfire?
Everyone there has fun and barbeque is always a good time. I have someone who walks around and talks to the customers and everyone in line. It’s an experience, so we want everyone to be in a good mood. My employees stay at Sugarfire forever. They get paid well, and a lot of them have come up and they’re partners in the restaurant now.
5. You used to be a vegan. How did you go from being a vegan to the co-owner of a barbeque restaurant?
I was vegan for three years before I opened Sugarfire. I was a vegetarian for about a year. When I decided I wanted meat again, I had a piece of chicken that had a bloody vein in it which made me sick and go vegan again. I missed the meat, so I started making a lot of soy protein stuff that tasted like meat. I even made vegetarian ribs using lemongrass as the bones and fake chicken wings using parsnip as the bone. It sounds stupid, but you get sick of eating the same stuff all the time when you’re a vegan. I still eat vegetarian a lot. Last night I had roasted carrots with some yogurt and some dill on it and some beats. I usually eat vegetarian breakfast. I like morning star bacon, and they have a seiton sausage at Whole Foods that I eat with eggs. Eating meat all the time can be too much.
6. All of the Sugarfire locations have unique and eclectic decorations. What are you trying to bring to the restaurant environment?
I have a bunch of friends who are artists. They’ll give me a general idea of what they’re going to do and they’ll have a budget, and then I’ll turn them loose. I don’t tell them what to do. I think it’s cooler to have different places look totally different. It’s fun.
7. How involved are you in the preparation of the food at the Sugarfire locations? Do your business responsibilities require most of your time nowadays?
I cook everyday. I usually get to work at 6 or 7. I help pull the meat and taste it, and I’m on top of all the specials and sides. Our chefs at each location have free reign to do whatever they want, but we handle so much volume that it’s hard to make everything taste consistent. I’ll walk down the line with 10 or 12 spoons and taste everything, and give the guys direction on where to go. I usually do that until about 11, and then I start doing our social media work. After that, I’m usually fielding phone calls. I work all day 7 days a week, and I’m on my phone and email all the time. But I love it. It’s so fun. Any rock star that comes to town, they call us. Recently I was able to hang out with Cheap Trick, Joan Jett, and Ann and Nancy Wilson all in one weekend.
8. You’ve been in a lot of food competitions, but it must have been exciting to go up against Bobby Flay. Can you tell me about that experience?
Food competitions are huge for business. First I did this show called BBQ Pitmasters, which is a huge show that never stops playing. We’ll have people who see the show and drive 3 hours to eat at our restaurant. That’s how we started getting really popular. Then I did one for this guy called Michael Simon. He filmed something in November, and it’s airing all the time on the Food Network. My girlfriend was on a whole show on the Food Network called Food Network Star last season, and she got me the Bobby Flay thing.
9. You recently started selling your homemade BBQ sauces at retail locations, and UPBrand had a lot of fun designing those labels. How are those sales doing?
We sell a ton of sauce. We’re in Schnucks and Dierbergs all over St. Louis, but we don’t get much money out of it. I think we get a check for a couple hundred dollars a month. The sauce is made, bottled, and somebody brokers it. It's a great way to get our name out there and for people to try more Sugarfire.
Check out the award winning Sugarfire Smoke House at one of their six locations. For more delcious information, check out their website at sugarfiresmokehouse.com.