Leland Avellino spent almost a decade working for the beloved Dinosaur Barbecue restaurant group, even as a part owner and executive chef at the Stamford location. He and the Dinosaur team made the hard decision to close the eight year old restaurant at the beginning of the pandemic, and since then he’s started cooking under the name Avellino Family Barbecue. We talked about how his cooking has changed since he left Dinosaur, what he plans for his new business and what we can expect from him at Brisket King. If you’re in the Stamford area you can order items from their weekly menu for Saturday pickup or, for a guaranteed taste of Leland’s brisket you can buy tickets to Brisket King®. As told to Sarah Strong, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Food Karma: You closed the Stamford location of Dinosaur Barbecue during the pandemic, how did you decide to strike out on your own?
Leland Avellino: John [Stage] and I made the decision to close the doors right around the end of March. We were closed up and out of there by April. We took the month of April and relaxed. My wife was not working, she was doing a little bit of consulting, and I was at that point not working, so we hunkered down. For about a month, we didn’t do anything.
I was ripping my hair out of my head. I had to do something, so I was looking at pits, I just needed to do something. I jumped on eBay and there was a pit that was built in Austin that made its way to Greenwich, CT, which is the next town over. I made a full price bid, I said, “this is mine, I’m buying this pit.” I went to the guy’s house in Greenwich and paid him, and he followed me home. It parked in my driveway for about a month, and I just played around with it.
I said to my wife, “alright, I’ve got to feed some people, I’ve got to do something,” so we put out a menu to 25 or 30 people, some friends from mom’s groups, a little bit of family and mostly neighbors. Every person we gave a menu to ordered, so we were busy right out of the gate. It started off as 25 orders and the next week it was 30 and 40 and 50 and now we have over 1,000 active customers, and by active I mean they order every other week or so. Our mailing list is giant and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
I’m at capacity with that 500 gallon pit that I bought, so I bought two more: one in Ohio and one in Kansas City. I’m on the road starting next week going to pick them up. We’re going full speed ahead this summer. We have a couple offers from realtors and landowners here in Stamford that want us to come in on a percentage rent. We’re really trying to pick our location and not go too fast, just kind of keep our legs underneath us and have some fun. Every week it’s busier than the week before. We’re just so blessed and we’re having so much fun, it’s great.
FK: Leaving behind the Dinosaur brand and going under your own name, do you have a different philosophy or direction?
LA: I was really blessed at Dinosaur working with John Stage because he puts quality over everything. It was tough to leave because I spent eight plus years with the guy, was his partner, was his friend, so that was hard to walk away from.
It’s so different now because I don’t answer to anybody. This week, we’re doing a passover theme. I want to do the brisket that I had at seder, my neighbors were Jewish and I was married to a Jewish girl for ten years so I’ve had a lot of seders in my life. I want to do the one that I know, and that would never, ever fly with John. He would love it, he would eat it, but he just wouldn’t sell it. So I can sell whatever I want and nobody says anything.
I took a step up with the quality. We were doing all prime at Dino, and I’m prime plus so if I have access I’m taking it. Anything I can do for pork if it’s heritage or better, I want it. We cook the best possible stuff we can get, and that’s kind of the root of what we do.
FK: Connecticut is not really known for its barbecue, how do you feel about being in a state without a big barbecue scene?
LA: I’m really in a fortuitous spot here in Stamford because there’s nothing for barbecue here. We brought the Dinosaur brand here and we wet their beaks a little bit. There’s definitely some good barbecue here, though the state might not be known for it. Being in such proximity to New York City, you can’t help but have great food.
Barbecue is getting more and more popular everywhere, so Dinosaur and Brother Jimmy’s pulling out means there’s nothing here that’s of note in Stamford. So I step in and do what I do and it just goes. I was a little bit nervous the first week because we had just spent $10,000 on boxes of brisket, and we just sold everything, it all went.
The reason it went is because I’m taking the piece of meat, I’m respecting it, trimming it, doing what’s right with it and I’m selling it all. If I don’t sell it, it’s going to get chopped up and go into beans, it’s going to get used that day one way or another even if we’re going to have sandwiches at the dinner table with it. We just run through it and treat it as best we can with the respect it deserves, and that’s it. People dig good barbecue.
FK: What’s been on your menu?
LA: Every week, the menu changes completely. I try to do either brisket or pork. I try to do a long cook and a couple short cooks. We always have a spatchcocked chicken, which is something that we’ve been doing since the first week. Every once in a while I give it a week off because it’s so redundant, but people love it and they go crazy for it. It’s a four pound Bell and Evans spatchcocked bird that we just do a nice dry rub on. We can dunk it in the Alabama white sauce or we do a KC glaze. We can do some variations to it, but it’s a staple for us, people dig it every week.
One week we’ll do St. Louis sticky ribs, one week we’ll do Memphis dry ribs. We try to keep it as close to the barbecue thing on half the menu that we can, and then the other half we’ll do something that will let my chef stretch his legs and me as well. Next week we’re doing a braised monkfish. We’ll throw it in the pit for five or ten minutes to get some smoke on it, and then we’ll braise it out for a long period of time with white wine, then take the sauce and reduce it and make a nice finishing sauce.
We also do things like bake at home enchiladas. We buy our tortillas from Torterilla Nixtamal in Queens. They deliver them fresh every morning, so we’ll make 100 pans of smoked chicken enchiladas. We’ll smoke our chicken, pull it, make a nice green tomatillo sauce and send it home. They can eat it Tuesday or Wednesday night. I’m trying to feed them twice or three times during the week, not just once. I’m giving them the nice, hot sliced brisket when they leave on Saturday, and they can take home eight enchiladas that are literally oven ready.
FK: How many days a week are you serving?
LA: Our cadence is drop the menu Monday or Tuesday, prep on Thursday, cook Friday and serve Saturday. We’re basically a once a week pop up here in Stamford, but we also have a couple different restaurants that want us to come in on a Thursday and do ribs so I’ll do that or somebody will be doing a wedding and they need barbecue and they want to put our name on it, so I have a couple weddings this summer with high end caterers in Greenwich and Stamford. We’re going to do our beef ribs or one thing from our menu for them.
I want to be working at least three days a week, but not much more. I watch my kids Monday through Wednesday and I don’t really want to stop that, so Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday I’m going to do my thing with barbecue. It’s pretty much the perfect life right now, it couldn’t really get any better.
That’s a big part of it, the family atmosphere. Working for Dino, I was in to the top of my head and I was away from my home 80 or 90 hours a week. To work for John and to work for that company, there’s no faking it. For me to be able to be home and involve my family in what I’m doing is so rewarding because I can feed people, they can eat, they can enjoy and then I look next to me there’s my little daughter with her head on my hip asking, “Daddy, give me another burnt end.” It’s absolutely a dream.
That’s why calling it family barbecue was so easy: it’s a family thing. First and foremost, I’m gonna take care of my family, but they’re all part of it. My wife is in charge of everything from marketing to ordering and I do all the culinary stuff and purchasing, but it’s really a family endeavor.
FK: Do you have other team members?
LA: Besides us, we have an executive chef that works all of our culinary stuff, we have two or three hourly people that work every week, so we’re about ten strong right now. It’s funny to see how it started in the driveway with just me and my wife and now we’re taking care of families. I keep going back to the people that I laid off at Dino and telling them we have a spot for them to come back on. I’ve brought back five of them three days a week, which is really cool.
FK: What would you say your barbecue philosophy is – sauce or no sauce?
LA: For me, it’s definitely no sauce. Our sauces usually tend to wings or if we’re doing pulled pork or something like that. We don’t put sauce on our brisket. The sauce is there on the table if you want it, but I’m treating mine with salt and pepper and a little bit of love besides that and letting the smoke do the work. My philosophy when it comes to barbecue is just really letting the meat speak and respecting the meat and not trying to cover it with anything, that’s why we go very minimal with our spices, really just letting it shine and then going from there.
FK: Is the goal to end up with a brick and mortar restaurant again?
LA: The goal is by the end of the summer to have some kind of brick and mortar. We may end up doing a market style space where you walk in and go to a meat station, go to a side station, get your beers at the bar. We are also looking more towards the quick serve and the drive through barbecue, which I think is really a hole in the market. There’s restaurants here in Connecticut that do nine to twelve million dollars a year that are eighty five percent drive through. I have a feeling that investors that are in the fast food game that want to put their heads together and do something with a quick serve feel, so I’ll probably get involved with that in the beginning of 2022.
One of the things we talked about at Dino was our work was not transactional, so what we do is an experience. There’s billions of dollars worth of transactional money out there. There are fast food restaurants in the area that do north of 12 million dollars a year, and all of it’s drive through. That’s absolute insanity. There’s four million dollars of profit there. If you look at any freestanding restaurant that’s not in New York City or nearby that makes four million dollars a year in profits, nobody does. This is a scalable concept, so I absolutely want to be part of it and put my knowledge towards it and, more importantly, my name and my barbecue towards it.
FK: What should we expect from you at Brisket King®?
LA: Brisket! I think we’re going to do a little bit of cheeks. I’m cooking out of Hometown. I’m going to bring my pit down there a few days ahead, and we’re going to have some fun. It will definitely be brisket plus.
I’m excited to be able to hit Brisket King on our own and represent our name there. Just doing stuff with Jimmy gets me excited. I really want to get involved with all the stuff he’s doing. I love doing events. The thing I miss most during covid is people and just seeing everybody and getting out there and doing it.