Rich Holmes of Juicy Lucy BBQ in Staten Island is a two time Brisket King® champion and started our call talking about how happy he was that he beat the team that won Best Ribs at Memphis in May. Despite it being his first time in the competition, Rich is ready to win Rib King at 5 Boro PicNYC in his own backyard, Staten Island. We talked with Rich about the open secret to his success, how he ended up naming a barbecue joint in New York after a Minnesota-born hamburger and how he got into barbecue in the first place. Juicy Lucy is currently open for indoor dining as well as takeout and delivery, but you can also buy tickets to taste Rich’s ribs at Rib King on May 29th. As told to Sarah Strong, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Food Karma: Have you always been so competitive?
Rich Holmes: I’m a disgrace! I just have to win, it is what it is. I’ve never competed in Rib King, but I’m going to win that too.
FK: Did you grow up in Staten Island?
RH: Brooklyn, that’s the only way to grow up. That’s how you gain a competitive edge: you don’t grow up in Staten Island, you grow up in Brooklyn.
FK: Why did you move?
RH: My parents made me do it! We moved when I was thirteen. I didn’t have a job yet, so I kind of had to go where they took me, but up until the first year of high school I was in brooklyn.
FK: How did you get into cooking?
RH: I’m just a fat guy, I love cooking. I’ve been smoking barbecue since 1996, but I didn’t open up the restaurant until three years ago. I was a real estate investor for the first 25 years of my career, but thank God I did well in real estate. I said, “You know what, I’m getting to an age now, I’m still young enough to go make a move here,” and I pulled the trigger a couple years ago. It’s been amazing.
FK: Did you start cooking barbecue for fun?
RH: No. Believe it or not, I went down to Georgia with the company I was working for, down to Atlanta. While we were down there with all the different executives, they took us out to eat. I figured we were going to some fancy steakhouse, but we went to a place called Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, this rib joint on the side of the highway that is world renowned. I’d never had food like that in my life, it was amazing.
The owner happened to be there when we were there. We’re all there in suits and ties, and I’m making a mess, I’ve got barbecue sauce all over me. I told him the food was incredible, and he said, “Come on, let me show you the pits.” He basically showed me everything.
I decided that when I got back to Staten Island I would go to Home Depot, there was not really much of an information highway or much internet back then, and order an offset smoker. The stores in New York didn’t have them so I had to have it shipped up from Texas, but I bought an offset smoker and I just started smoking meat that summer. After that, I was hooked.
FK: Were you sharing what you cooked?
RH: It was pretty much for the family and friends. We’d have cookouts on the weekend and stuff like that. After a couple years of making brisket, people would ask me to make some for things like their kids’ birthday parties and I said, “Nah, I don’t do that.” They told me my food was incredible and that I should open a restaurant and I said, “Nah, real estate is my thing, I take care of my family and I do well.” Finally, later on in life barbecue became big up here, and then I really got bit and thought I really should just do it. So 2017 is when I opened Juicy Lucy, but even right around in the beginning of the 2000’s I knew I had to do it eventually, so I just talked myself into it and that was it.
FK: How did you decide to name the restaurant Juicy Lucy?
RH: There’s another story to that. I played in a heavy metal band my whole life, we traveled all over the country. A buddy of mine wound up moving out to California when we were in our 30s. He was in a bad car accident, and his wife called me and said he wanted to see me and that I should get out there in the next day or two. I have a terrible fear of flying, but I said I’ll get out there today. So I called all the airlines, and they had no direct flights, which I hated. There was one with a layover in Minneapolis-St. Paul so I took it but it had a five hour layover, but I needed to take the flight.
While I was on the flight, the stewardess could see I was nervous and kept asking me if I was okay. I told her I was fine once we were up in the air, but I had to do the whole thing again in five hours. She asked what I was doing during my layover and said if I was hungry I should get a Juicy Lucy. I told her I was always hungry but didn’t know what a Juicy Lucy was. I thought maybe a strip club. She said, “No, no, no, it’s a hamburger.” I said, “Listen, I live in New York City, I’ve been everywhere there is to go and I’ve never heard of a Juicy Lucy.” She explained that it was a stuffed burger with cheese inside and it was invented there. She told me to take a cab and go to Matt’s. The 501 Club and Matt’s are known for their Juicy Lucys, they kind of invented it there. I said, “Alright, I’ll give it a shot.”
I went there, and it was the best. I’m a meat guy, it was the best burger I’ve ever had to this day. It hooked me so much that I decided if I ever opened a restaurant I would name the place Juicy Lucy. There’s a million different names, Blue Smoke, Red Smoke, Orange Smoke, all different things like Hog Heaven. Nobody in the world has Juicy Lucy or would even think about that being the name for a barbecue joint.
FK: How would you describe your style of barbecue?
RH: Central Texas. We are salt and pepper only, our beef is anyways. When we do beef ribs on the weekend, it’s salt and pepper. Our brisket, obviously it’s won Brisket King® a few times now, it’s salt and pepper, it’s low and slow, it’s 225˚. I tell everybody who asks me how I do it. I’m not one of those guys that says it’s a secret, I tell anybody that asks me: it’s all oak wood, it’s all offset, there is no propane assist or gas assist in any of my smokers, they’re all stick burners, I cook everything at 225˚ for between thirteen and sixteen hours depending on the size of the protein I’m cooking and it’s all salt and pepper. There’s nothing else.
My ribs and my pork butt, they’re a little different. They can be considered Kansas City or Carolina style. Sometimes they’re a little tangy, sometimes they’re a little sweet, which wouldn’t be much of a Central Texas style, but I think pork is a different flavor profile all together.
FK: Do you think there’s a secret to your success at Brisket King® or just high quality ingredients cooked right?
RH: That’s exactly it. When Jimmy and the judges came over to my pop up area, they all said, “Wow, he’s just serving brisket.” Everywhere else you went there was brisket with pickled herring and brisket tacos, not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s wonderful, but this is Brisket King®, so if your brisket can’t stand alone…
I’m not trying to mask it, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anyone who came up with those ideas, those ideas were all badass, but it’s time consuming, it’s love, it’s something that takes a lot to get and it’s all quality. It’s all prime meat, I never cook with choice or anything. It’s all kiln dried wood. There’s really no shortcuts. If you spend a little extra time, a little extra money on your product it shows in the flavor, I really believe that to be the case.
FK: What’s the pandemic been like for the business?
RH: It’s terrible. Anybody that owns a restaurant that tells you they did well during the pandemic is probably lying to you. People who own restaurants who had to completely adapt to either being shut down totally or couldn’t serve past 11:00 PM because Covid comes out at 11:01 PM and then went to 25% capacity and then back to zero have not had a good year.
I was one of the first to close all together because we’d never seen anything like this, so I wanted to make sure that my staff and my customers were safe. I took it on the chin and closed three weeks before basically anyone else did, but I was able to pivot. I was able to acquire the land next to my business and put a drive-in movie theater in there. That really saved the business.
We have over sixty employees – that’s a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of families to feed. The drive-in movie theater concept really helped us pivot and helped us stay afloat. That was open until November, then December through March we died all over again because the second wave came back. We’re starting to see some positivity now. Things are getting a little bit better, but the last six months were terrible and the first six months were terrible, so anybody who’s got a restaurant and tells you they did well in Covid ain’t telling the truth.
FK: Were you serving barbecue during the movies?
RH: People were able to come right into the lot and watch a movie, and we had servers go right to the cars and would serve them barbecue right in their vehicles, it was great.
FK: What did you learn about your business during this time?
RH: We bought the business in 2017. It took us two years to build it out and get licensed and get a liquor license and all this other stuff, so we didn’t open up until June of 2019. Covid hit in February of 2020, so I only had seven months of being open, and we were so busy those first seven months that we were open that we had zero takeout business. People would call up all the time to order takeout and delivery, but we told everybody in the beginning that this was only indoor dining. It was just coming down and waiting in line. It was like Texas; people were waiting two or three hours. If you look on our social media, when we first opened up there was literally a two or three hour wait to come and get our food.
We had to pivot once this happened, and now we have a complete takeout business that we never had before. Covid was terrible in so many ways, but I was able to get the lot to do the movies and I was able to develop a takeout business that I otherwise would not have had. It was really terrible, but we were able to get some positivity, especially my business, we were able to get some positivity on our end.
FK: Are you going to keep offering takeout?
RH: We definitely are going to keep it. We’re still in mid-May, nobody’s at 100% yet in New York, I think July 1 everything reopens up. Who knows, with the variants anything can happen all over again. I don’t trust this virus, I don’t think anybody really does. Who the hell knows what’s going to happen with this thing? I think that we’re all on guard, so for me to say we’re going to pivot back to just indoor dining, I don’t think people would take that very well. I’m content with what we have and how we have it right now. I’m hoping that we can just make it through this and people get inoculated and eventually this whole thing just goes away. Then we can have this conversation, but for the here and now, we’re four weeks from summer, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. We’re just going to stay with what’s working right now.
FK: What should we be expecting from you at Rib King?
RH: I’m actually working on that. We’re going to either use Durocs or Cheshire, I haven’t figured it out. I’m cooking a lot now. Whether I’m going to use the Cheshire rib or the top cut Duroc rib we’ll see, but it’s going to be a sweeter profile. It will be more of a Kansas City profile rib, and that’s pretty much all I’m going to tell you, but it’s going to be amazing. It will be a very good quality piece of meat with a sweeter flavor profile.
FK: Anything else we should be looking out for from you this summer?
RH: If you check our social media we will have a big announcement on May 20th!
FK: What does it mean for you to participate in an event on Staten Island?
RH: Jimmy is amazing, he’s got his finger on the pulse. He’s always out there trying to do something good, not just for Staten Island but he did it last summer and it was amazing, but for the city. He’s always doing something really cool and he’s adapting and he’s trying to get the masses out together. He does beer events, he does barbecue, he does all these different things which is very, very cool and it’s just good for the food service industry as a whole. Nobody does it like him. It’s morphed into this awesome thing now. I hope he diversifies and does other stuff with it.
I can’t wait for the people to see. Snug Harbor is really a beautiful place. I think now with Covid pulling back some that we’re going to get a real nice showing and people will get to see the beauty of Staten Island as well. I’m proud that it’s in my backyard. I’ve gotta represent, I’ve gotta win!