We all like to think that our ideas are original, but the fact of the matter is most of them aren’t. When entrepreneurs come up with a solution to a problem, they often wonder why nobody else has tried it before them. Still, more often than not, the results were simply unsuccessful. One of the easiest places to see this in action is in the technology sector. Apple certainly wasn’t the first company to come up with the idea for a touch screen phone, and electric vehicles had been around long before Tesla came onto the scene. However, both have become known ubiquitously for their respective smartphones and cars. What set them apart was not the idea itself, but the leaders who had the vision to execute it properly.
This is true no matter what industry you look to. Businesses can achieve the extraordinary not because of a novel idea, but because of the people who lead them. When one thinks of Texas barbecue, the massive pits and slow roasting times necessary to achieve the tender, smoky brisket it is known for hardly seems conducive to the quick-paced demands of a fast-casual franchise chain. And yet, the Dickey family has managed to turn their grandfather’s small barbecue restaurant in Dallas, Texas into Dickey’s BBQ franchise, the largest barbecue restaurant company in the world with more than 550 locations in 43 states and seven countries. Family-owned and run for 80 years, each of the three generations has made its mark on the Dickey’s franchise and helped build it to the success it has seen today.
Barbecue is an American tradition as rich and complex as its heritage. Across the country, many styles have become popular, deriving their techniques from the cultures that were unique to their regions. As a result, the term barbecue can mean drastically different things depending on what state you are in. Even within Texas itself, what you get when you order a barbecue plate can vary from region to region. Still, each is steeped with history and tradition that are inseparable from the food.
Dickey’s BBQ franchise takes its modern translation of barbecue from the German and Czech immigrants who settled in Central Texas in the mid-1800s. Opening grocery stores and meat markets in their new homes, the settlers’ ingenuity saw them develop a technique of preserving leftover meat to prevent it from being wasted. The slow-smoking process not only stopped the meat from spoiling quickly but also meant that even the lower quality cuts of meat could become tender and flavorful. The low price of these cuts meant that they soon became a popular choice for cowboys and cotton pickers, who would make their own meals by purchasing other goods commonly stocked on grocery store shelves such as crackers, pickles and onion. Even though today barbecue has moved on to be sold in restaurants, these are still the traditional accompaniments that come with the meat, which is wrapped and eaten off butcher paper just as it would have been years ago.
This was how World War I veteran Travis Dickey smoked and served his meat when he opened up Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in 1941. Travis’s friends and family say that the only thing he loved more than slow-smoked barbecue was a good conversation, and his restaurant gave him the chance to do both. While he would work the pit and prepare all of the meats, his wife Ollie Dickey would assemble sandwiches and serve the meat behind the counter. Although Travis never aspired to build anything more than a small restaurant to pass down to his two sons Roland Sr.. and T.D.., his natural business sense and commitment to quality enabled him to run their restaurant for over two decades and turn it into a Dallas institution.
When Travis Dickey passed away in 1967, the whole city mourned the loss of their great pit master. Roland Sr. had been attending university to become a lawyer. Still, he left to join his mom and brother in running the restaurant. He soon found that he felt no desire to return to college, having developed a newfound passion for not only continuing his father’s legacy but also helping it grow. Just two years later, they had become a small family-owned chain of nine restaurants across the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, and Roland Sr. began to develop his own recipes to compliment his father’s. By 1994, they began franchising, and soon the restaurant’s trademarked “Legit. Texas. Barbecue.” was available outside the Lone Star State for the first time.
Both brothers had Travis’ keen eye for business. Roland in particular had also inherited his gift of gab. He used his “Mr. Dickey” persona to promote the brand in the store, on television interviews, and even through a cookbook.
In 1999, Roland Dickey Jr. joined the company, having earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and spending time gaining experience at other companies so that he could gain a wider understanding of the industry. Working his way up, by 2006 he became president of the Dickey’s BBQ franchise and in 2011 gained the position of chief executive officer. He wanted to launch the brand into the stratosphere. He expanded the brand from 90 restaurants to the over 550 locations it has today. In 2016, he started Dickey’s Capital Group where he serves as Chief Executive Officer today. Since then, Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants has been led by his wife, Chief Executive Officer Laura Rea Dickey, who worked her way up from Chief Information Officer after having a successful career in marketing.
The secret sauce to the success of the Dickey’s franchise has been the combined efforts of Laura Rea and Roland. During his time as Chief Executive Officer, Roland Jr. built the company’s infrastructure significantly to ensure it was able to scale effectively, investing in construction, real estate management, logistics, accounting and field operations. As Chief Information Officer, Laura helped modernize the brand and prepare it for the information age, bringing big data, technology development, delivery and online ordering. They have continued building out Dickey’s Barbecue Pit into the global brand it is today with no signs of slowing down – not even the coronavirus pandemic could get in its way.
Perhaps most importantly, the success of Dickey’s BBQ franchise has come from its ability to remain authentic. Laura & Roland have sought to preserve the legacy that Travis and Roland Sr. put in place, still preparing the meats and sides according to their recipes. They work with suppliers to ensure each franchise location has the best cuts of meat available, and every restaurant has a real hickory wood-burning barbecue pit. Although every restaurant is adapted to its location, you never feel far from its Texas roots.