Less than a year after opening, Hindsight Barbecue from Waterbury, CT wowed the crowds at Rib King with their maple bacon baby back ribs, taking home second place overall at the competition. We talked with owner and pitmaster Jeff Schmidt about opening during the pandemic, his non-traditional approach to barbecue and what you can expect from Hindsight in the future. If you’re in the neighborhood, Hindsight is open for dine in and takeout. You can also support them by purchasing merchandise here. As told to Sarah Strong, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Food Karma: When did Hindsight open?
Jeff Schmidt: Our grand opening was October 15, 2020 at the height of Covid. We had opened a couple soft weekends before that, unannounced, just to get everything going. We had our big opening, and then we were open Thursday through Sunday for a while. Everything was pretty much takeout only at that moment. Then it slowly started relieving a little bit. We did a lot of catering and a lot of holiday orders.
As soon as the new year came around and vaccines and everything started opening up, we extended our hours a bit. We’re still only Wednesday through Sunday, so we’re still not open on Mondays and Tuesdays, but that’s more of a staffing issue. We get here every day in the wee hours of the night or morning, whichever one you want to call it, we cook as much as we can, we open and stay until sold out. We have to go to bed so we can get up and do it again the next day.
FK: What were you doing before this?
JS: I do come from a long lineage of restaurant people. My mother owns two restaurants in Connecticut. One is in Litchfield, and I managed that for her. I never was a chef before barbecue, but I did curate some menus and I’ve always sort of been a foodie. I tell everyone that covid was a blessing and a curse because obviously it shuttered my family’s other restaurants just like everybody else, but they survived. They did the same thing everyone did with takeout. But it also gave us a lot more free time, or myself mainly.
I’ve always been sort of a backyard smoker and worked my way up over the years from my first brisket to trying things and tinkering with it and trying different styles of cookers. Before covid I was already starting to do a lot of catering. I had bought a somewhat larger smoker and I was doing it at my mom’s restaurant a little, like one day a week during football season.
My family is originally from Waterbury. There’s this place that was called Model’s Hangout, this dirty old bar that used to be a diner. It came for sale, and I think it was one of those things, nobody knew how long the pandemic was going to last. Who’s going to buy a restaurant right now in the middle of a pandemic? I came into this with pretty much no capital, just whatever I had in my bank at the time because obviously no bank is going to loan you any money during that time to open a restaurant.
It was a big risk, but we all agreed it could be a high reward. If the pandemic goes away and we’re already here and established, once the gates open up we can go nuts. I feel like this place wouldn’t have been available or I wouldn’t have been able to afford it or some sort of combination if covid didn’t exist. I feel like my free time away from the restaurants, a little bit focusing more on barbecue kind of just opened my eyes to realize that if I’m going to be smoking 14 hour briskets on the regular, I can’t really do another job. I had to go all in, so I made that big leap and decided to give it a shot.
This whole Hindsight Barbecue project really began as a pop up. A lot of my friends in Connecticut are brewers. I’m a big craft beer guy myself, I always have been from back at the other places. I curated a big craft beer list. It’s another passion of mine, craft beer, and the whole concept and art and everything behind that. I feel like craft beer and craft food, especially craft barbecue, go so well together. We would say, we think our food is pretty good, good enough to serve at your brewery, what do you think?
It’s grown over the years, now we’re really established and have a restaurant and a bunch of big cookers, but we still do pop ups, especially during the summer, almost every week. It’s a lot of fun, and I feel like that’s really the core of what Hindsight Barbecue is about: having that cooker out in the parking lot with the tent over it. A lot of people get confused and ask why we don’t have a food truck. We don’t need a food truck, the food truck is our trailer. We’re out in the open, we’re interacting with people, and I think people get to see how hard we work. They get to smell the good smells of barbecue as they walk by or walk into the brewery and see us playing some music and having some fun and think, “We’ve got to go see what these guys are doing.”
FK: Where have you been holding pop ups?
JS: We do mostly breweries in Connecticut. We have some other projects in the work that are actually not brewery related. We have a connection with a local farm that’s a big wedding venue up in Litchfield County about 15 miles away from here. It’s that more rural, less urban and obviously we can tow our big smokers anywhere. We’re thinking about doing a big Friday night barbecue there in the fall.
We love entertaining all different types of projects, whether it’s brewing a collaboration beer or pulling up at a brewery. Here at the restaurant we serve a ton of local craft beers. We have what we call the wall of beers. It’s counter service here. Our whole team works together, whether you’re somebody helping in the pit, somebody on the cutting block, making sandwiches or french fries or you’re serving somebody beer, everybody works together, everyone makes above minimum wage and every single person pools tips. There’s no real bartender, there’s no real server, the people in the back sometimes bring the food to your table.
I say we’re hybrid because you order at the counter but then we want to bring the food to you. You come and place your order and we give you the spiel and you can check out our specials or check out our wall of beer across the entire bar, which used to be a bar and is now just a counter. There’s a million different craft cans or cocktails or whatever you want. Then you go find a picnic table or sit at one of the hightops outside or inside, and when your food’s ready, we find you.
It’s cool that people bring their dogs or bring their kids and they go outside and play corn hole. We’re trying to have that backyard barbecue feel every day, five days a week that we’re here. Whether it’s a Thursday afternoon or a Saturday night, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same feel. We’re not fast food by any means, we’re low and slow cooking, but we really pride ourselves in trying to get the food out. We really don’t want you to wait. We want you to come in, go through the line, place your order and then go sit down and before you know it, and sometimes before you even get your beer, we’re bringing the platter out for you.
FK: When you got into barbecue, did you do a lot of research? Your menu seems to have a lot of influences on it.
JS: We’re very non-traditional. I like to get every single person involved. We have someone who is originally from Jamaica. He’s all about bringing his family recipes. He makes Jamaican jerk half chickens and wings and he just loves the fact that we have a giant smoker. We’ve had other people from all around the globe, whether it’s Puerto
Rico or Ecuador or Guatemala. Everybody who comes in here and wants to try their hand on the smoker, we’ll teach them what they want to do.
As far as styles of barbecue, before covid I went down to Texas. Leroy and Lewis, which is a pretty well known barbecue place, had a new school barbecue university. It was a whole five day course. I got to meet lots of people from all over the country. You had to apply and get accepted to be able to go there. I know they tried to have another one, but covid shut it down and then they started doing a Patreon instead. It was a lot of fun, and I certainly learned a lot.
Before that, I had gone to Georgia and taken a class with my dad. My dad is not a grill master by any means, but I’ve always had barbecue chickens and ribs made on a charcoal grill growing up at his house. I feel like that’s where everyone really gets it from. Whether you’re culinary focused or not, I feel like there’s always this family oriented feel of barbecue. If you think about what real, American cuisine is, I’m not sure anything is more American than barbecue. Everyone barbecues all over the world. Barbecue just means cooked with fire, so it could be anything.
We have Texas style offset smokers, so we do most of our cooking on that, but we also have a cinder block pit with a burn barrel behind it so we do North Carolina style whole hog on occasion or if somebody requests it or we just want to do it. I like the concept Leroy and Lewis introduced, sort of that “new school barbecue.” What they’re trying to say is that the art of barbecue can be as simple as you want it or as complicated as you want it. I think that’s really the American palate now, just blending elements from different cuisines.
We’re doing our smoker thing but we’re going to put a twist on it or mix it in with some comfort food or some other dish that people might know. I think that whole smoked effect, whether it’s chicken, beef, ribs or veggies, is the best. I love our smoked cauliflower. We always try to do something funky and different. The menu is always evolving here. We have daily specials, and they really are special, it’s not just trying to get rid of stuff because we sell out pretty much every night
We’re running maple bacon baby back ribs, which is actually what we did at Rib King. I thought the reaction was cool because that’s obviously non-traditional to smoke a baby back rib. We take pride in our house barbecue sauce, which is what’s on it first, but then we also toss a little maple aioli with some crumbled bacon bits on there. We cook the bacon fresh, I put it on the flattop down at Rib King, so it’s not dried up bacon bits that you can get at a grocery store, they’ve got crackling to them, they’re the real deal. When you take that bite, you get the sweetness from the maple aioli and then the nice juicy part from the rib mixed with the crack from the bacon. It’s that culinary aspect that we try to get, where we think about what the end product is going to be and kind of blend whatever elements we want and have fun with it.
At the end of the day, if it’s not fun, we don’t really want to do it. Food should be fun. Life’s short is kind of our whole thing. We have an outdoor bar here and on nice days people get to sit out on the patio. We have a slushy machine. We call it the “Moonshine Shack” now because we partnered with Ole Smoky Moonshine. Moonshine and barbecue go hand in hand. There’s really nothing like that in Connecticut or New England in general.
FK: How do you feel about being in a place not usually associated with barbecue?
JS: Honestly, I think in today’s day and age with social media people have easy access if they all the sudden somehow get turned on to barbecue. You could dive into it as deeply as you want almost as quickly as you want. It depends on how passionate you are about it. I don’t think it necessarily matters if you’re from Texas or the Carolinas, obviously it’s more appreciated or more ingrained down there, but I almost think it’s more of an opportunity. There definitely seems to be a growing popularity, whether it be in backyard cooking or in general with barbecue and the experience that it brings.
It definitely comes with its challenges being from Connecticut or New England when it comes to the traditional style stuff we sometimes do. Sometimes people are a little confused and order brisket medium well. We have to explain to them that it’s not a steak. It’s just stuff that you kind of laugh off and try to educate them and they can make up their own opinion on whether they like it or not.
We know that the hours and time and everything we put into it. We know that we are putting out the best possible product we can. We don’t ever buy choice meats, we only use prime. What we put in our smokers and on your plate is something that we know is what it should be. For every one time somebody is confused about our situation, there’s probably 50 times that people have sought us out or are barbecue geeks.
I feel like every day there is a huge group of people who have been here for the first time, which is what is really exciting because I feel like there’s so much potential for more people to get exposed to it. It’s not like we’re only feeding the local Waterbury crowd. We’ve actually had a lot of people come up from the city since Rib King. People aren’t afraid to travel. One group has come up several times, and they own a Brazilian barbecue place in Manhattan.
If you’re really into barbecue and you devote your life to it in the sense that you make it your career, I feel like once you’re all in you could reach out and call any single person in the country and they totally get it. They’re always about collaborations, they’re always about supporting each other or giving each other different ideas. It’s pretty cool community once you really dive into it.