City Barbeque is ready to take on a pair of major US markets

By DAN EATON of Columbus Business First

The Dublin-based restaurant chain expects to open its first barbecue joints in Atlanta and Chicago by the end of the year and between leases and letters-of-intent, it could have a pair in Atlanta and as many as five in and around Chicago by the end of 2018.

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Just don’t go looking downtown.

“We’re not looking at Atlanta as Atlanta,” founder and CEO Rick Malir told me. “We look at it as Decatur, as Alpharetta. We want cities with good suburbs and communities.”

The only two locations he would specifically confirm were the Chicago suburbs of Downers Grove and Orland Park.

Though the growth is being fueled by a private equity investment from Los Angeles-based Freeman Spogli & Co., Malir said the new units thus far all have been in markets previously picked out by City Barbeque. The company has 36 restaurants today in four states, up from 28 when the investment was announced last summer.

Atlanta and Chicago will be the first new markets for the business since it went into North Carolina in 2013. That state, noted for its love of barbecue, is now home to eight City Barbeques with more on the way.

I asked Malir if success there gave him the confidence that the brand would translate elsewhere since barbecue can be a territorial taste.

“I’d love to tell you that I’m a genius,” he said. “The reality is Fresh Market (grocery store) sold our sauce and I was down in Greensboro and they told me I should open down there, that there wasn’t anything like us. So we went off some research, a little bit of gut. This wasn’t some grand test. I just thought it would work.”

With three dozen joints now though, Malir said they’re confident in where to look – suburbs with good demographics and traffic.

“We want our GMs to be metaphorical mayors of their towns,” he said. “We want to be a place that people can count on to help with the softball team or the local fire department.”

The chain was named to Restaurant Business’ Future 50 list this year with annual sales of almost $40 million, double digit sales growth and an average unit volume of $1.4 million, according to data from industry researcher Technomic Inc. It has come a long way from Malir’s days of smoking meats in his garage to converting an old donut shop at 2111 W. Henderson Road into his first restaurant back in 1999.

“This started with the intent of opening a great barbecue joint in Columbus,” he said. “That’s it.”

Now he’s in charge of a company with more than 1,200 employees.

Malir declined to share any other new markets at this time, but did say it would continue to grow in existing markets.

“We didn’t do this to stop it now,” he said.

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