You can’t miss the Farella brothers of Brothers Barbecue and Brothers Smokehouse because each brother in the trio stands well over six feet tall. Their contagious smiles will draw you in, and their barbecue will get you hooked. We spoke with the pitmaster of the operation, Chris Farella, about how the family got into the barbecue business, what it was like opening during the pandemic and what the future may hold for the brothers. You can dine or get takeout from either restaurant in New Windsor, NY or Ramsey, NJ. You can also buy Brothers merch online here. As told to Sarah Strong. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Food Karma: Your first restaurant was in New York and now you are also in New Jersey, correct?
Chris Farella: Yes, originally we opened up our first takeout spot in New Windsor, New York in March of 2008. We were looking to expand. We had started to outgrow the facility that we had: it was only a 1500 square foot space with no real indoor dining. It was mostly takeout, and on the weekends we were hitting our capacity: we were selling out basically every Friday and Saturday.
We actually had a fire, and that kind of forced our hand to open up another location. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We reopened with a full service bar and 130 seat dining room. Takeout was a part of our business, so we had a takeout counter there as well
A few years ago, we started looking to expand. As a family, we were always going to Jersey to go shopping and get better food because the market is a little bit more upscale here. It was always a dream of ours to emerge into the Jersey market, and we saw that there was no barbecue. We ended up signing a lease here in 2019 and we were slated to open right when the pandemic hit. The opening ended up getting pushed back and we opened on August 8, 2020.
FK: How did your family end up opening a barbecue restaurant in the first place?
GF: We grew up always cooking as a family. My mother was a theater administrator and, to make a little extra money, she used to open up the front part of her apartment and make it like a little cafe. People from around the town would come there and just knew that Cheryl was cooking something. She didn’t have a menu, she would just cook. So she had this background of serving people and cooking for them.
When she had us, that translated into her throwing parties like our annual christmas party or a big July 4th party. We would never really cater or order out. We would always cook for everybody. The whole town would come to our house because they knew the Farella’s would whip something
My mom started little programs at our school where she would cook for the whole school twice a week. Instead of the kids getting the school lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they would get a home cooked meal, and certain students would help us cook. We were in elementary school, so we were introduced to food that we made that way. We weren’t eating boxed mac and cheese, we made it from scratch.
My two older brothers were working for a catering company and they observed how much business this guy was doing. Not to down talk anybody else, but the guy was just serving people premade stuff that he was buying and reheating. People loved it. They would eat the food up. Seeing that, we thought that if we gave people a good product they would like it too.
A big portion of my family is from North Carolina, so every summer my whole family would go down there for about a month. When we came home, we couldn’t get sweet tea, we couldn’t get barbecue. The whole year you would look forward to this one month, going down South where we could eat the food that we love. Then you come home and it’s not there. We recognized the need for that.
This was in 2008 back before there were barbecue pitmasters on the Travel Channel, before the Food Network had all these barbecue shows. There was a little something, but it wasn’t big like it is now. When we opened up our little takeout spot, we had to explain to people that we weren’t cooking burgers or steaks. Barbecue was so foreign to them. We had to educate the public on it.
Us being from the Carolinas, our specialty is chopped barbecue. It’s pork that’s chopped up and served with an eastern Carolina vinegar sauce that’s not sweet, it’s tangy. If people don’t know barbecue and they hear that, they’re like, “What the hell is chopped barbecue?”
When we opened up we didn’t do pulled pork. All we did was chopped barbecue because we wanted to be authentic to our family and the product that we wanted to serve. After a while, we realized the people want pulled pork: give them freakin pulled pork! Our pulled pork is great, too. It’s awesome, it’s just different.
Authenticity to us is a big thing. Some people have gotten into barbecue or in the culinary industry in general with what they think is a great concept, but they don’t really have a story to tell. With our food, we’re trying to tell the story of our family.
FK: Your menu is a lot bigger now than when you started, were you trying to add what you thought people wanted or adding more types of barbecue to your repertoire?
CF: Our brand has been evolving over the years. When we first opened, we had a very limited menu. It was just a few barbecue staples: our brisket, chopped barbecue and St. Louis ribs. Then we added baby back ribs and then we started doing wings. When we first used to do wings, we didn’t even serve them with blue cheese. We said, “We smoke them, we fry them and that’s how it is.”
As we did this a little longer, we learned what people wanted. We always did things our way. Now we have Brothers Smokehouse and Brothers Barbecue. Our menu is more like a full service restaurant type of menu. You can get a salad, you can get sandwiches, you can get burgers or you can get barbecue. We have soul food specials.
We’re a barbecue restaurant that has soul food, but we try to have a little something on the menu for everybody, especially in this market in Jersey. We do a fish of the day, we always have salmon on the menu. We’re trying to highlight Southern cuisine, but keep in mind that barbecue is the star.
Over the years, our techniques have definitely changed and evolved. My brothers and I probably about once a year or once every other year take a trip down South. Whether we’re going to Texas or Memphis or the Carolinas, we’re there just to brush up and see what these guys are doing now because their cuisine is always evolving too. We definitely had a big evolution of our food from 2008 until now.
FK: What was it like opening during the pandemic?
CF: I guess it was fun. It was eventful and surprising. Honestly, as bad as it was, comparatively I think we had a great time. We were able to fulfill our dream of opening this restaurant, and it’s been successful so far. Obviously it would have been a lot better without Corona, but we made do.
We’re super blessed and thankful for that. The thing with barbecue is that it’s a wonderful takeout food. It translates so well to somebody calling in an order and picking it up without the quality of the food diminishing. We’ve always been known for takeout, so when the pandemic first started we were hit by the masses. We were doing so much takeout that we couldn’t even really handle the volume.
FK: When you opened in New Jersey, was it just takeout at first or were restaurants allowed to be open then?
CF: When we opened, restaurants were allowed to operate, but we didn’t seat anybody inside. We had a tent outside, so it was just outdoor dining.
FK: Were you busy from the start?
CF: Right when we opened, we just got hit. We were doing major restaurant numbers out of an outdoor dining tent, and, splitting it with takeout, we weren’t so far off of our numbers that we predicted we were going to do without coronavirus. It was definitely a shock to the system when we opened up.
FK: Are there plans for expansion and world domination?
CF: Definitely. I like that, world domination. There’s three of us, and we’re a family. We make decisions together. We’re very hungry. We know the impact that we want to have. Barbecue is here now, and everybody loves it. We’re definitely looking to expand, but we don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin.
There’s big plans, and we’re going to have something else coming soon, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We love the idea of expanding on our barbecue brand but also hitting some other things. We think soul food southern food is underrepresented in the Jersey market, and definitely barbecue is underrepresented.
There’s a lot of opportunities during the pandemic. A lot of restaurants sadly have gone out. When that happens, it also brings new, exciting possibilities. The other thing is it’s so hard to find help right now. Every restaurateur that I speak to has the same issues trying to find chefs, trying to find GMs, trying to find managers. It’s just treacherous. It’s a little nerve-racking thinking about opening a new place when you see the job market like this.
Right now we’re doing very well. We’re blessed to be getting the amount of business we’re getting. I think we’re just kind of regrouping and seeing where the next opportunity is going to be.
FK: How do you and your brothers share responsibilities?
CF: We’re all owner operators, but we all have different jobs. My brother Gavin is more in the front of the house, in the restaurant dealing with our managers and service. My brother Jamie is more of our executive chef when it comes to all our sauces and sides and the general direction of our menu. I’m in the kitchen. I’m on the operations side. I’m the pitmaster, so anything that’s dealing with the barbecue, I’m right there handling that. We all have our sections.