Andre Blais, the founder of smokehouse brand Bodean’s is – as so many of his fellow Canadians are – an ice hockey nut. As well as a spectator he likes to get out on the ice and is happy to be regarded as the enforcer of the team – the unofficial role of aggressor towards the opposition. “I like to remind the players who’s the boss,” he says with a glint in his eye.
This ruthless streak has fared Blais well in the creation of his restaurant group Bodean’s, which recently chose Balham, south London, for its latest opening. In the 12 years it has been operating, Bodean’s has experienced the highs and lows that come with building a brand in what was then a relatively unknown sector. It is only through a blend of tenacity, trial and error and the same brutality off the ice as on it, that Blais now oversees a brand in rude health and on a roll.
Since launching on Poland Street, Soho, in 2002, Bodean’s has grown to become London’s best known barbecue concept. With further sites in Fulham, Clapham, Tower Hill and the aforementioned Balham, gross sales across the group will hit a mighty £17m this year, with EBITDA up to £3.5m. Yet the path to this position has been rocky, with burnt fingers as well as burnt ends playing a part in the journey.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I spent in the men’s cubicle at Soho thinking ‘what the fuck have I done?’,” says Blais, describing the early days of Bodean’s. “The war in Iraq was going on and I kept thinking to myself ‘I’m Canadian, maybe I should have called it a Canadian smokehouse?’ I felt that the stigma of Americana was killing me.”
Like its ‘low and slow’ approach to cooking, Bodean’s development was a slow burn at first, with Soho taking a couple of years to bed in, Blais recalls. After that, its rise was meteoric. “Profits were coming out of Soho after three years, so I had a feeling we were on to something. People were starting to understand pulled pork and burnt ends (pieces of meat cut from the point half of a smoked brisket that are a traditional part of Kansas City barbecue), which we were serving every Wednesday.”
On the back of this hard-earned success, Blais decided not to hang around, opening four more units in the next four years. However, as expansion took place, problems began to surface with a fourth site in Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill, and a fifth in Tower Hill.
“In Westbourne Grove I chose a badsite,” he admits. “We had flash floods on the opening day and street closures six months later that we weren’t aware of, but it wasn’t the right area. I couldn’t believe I’d chosen a poor location for my expansion trail – that broke my heart.”
Tower Hill, meanwhile, had a fit-out budget of £600,000 for the 150-cover site but cost £850,000. This profligacy was compounded with Blais forced to spend a further £100,000 on redesigning the ground floor, turning it from a deli, as is the approach at Soho, into a bar.
“Westbourne Grove was dragging down the cash flow and Tower Hill was barely breaking even. Fulham was making a few bucks and Soho and Clapham were performing relatively well but cash flow was tight at the time. It was a dent to my confidence. I knew I had to slow down and look at my strategy.”
So came a period of consolidation, with Blais giving Westbourne Grove the chop in 2008. He tried to get £200,000 for the premium but settled on just £75,000 in the end – and put future expansion plans on ice. It was only with the opening of Balham in February this year that the big thaw has begun.
Consistency is king
This six-year break from expansion has not been without merit. During this time, Blais addressed some of the problems that had arisen from becoming a multi-site operation, the main one being consistency, or lack of, in the cooking.
“Despite all that had happened I sat back and thought this concept still has some life in it,” he says. “What made Bodean’s work was its value for money, the great environment and our really good service. But our product wasn’t consistent. Barbecue is a bit of an art form, it’s a touchy-feely cooking process.
I used to get a lot of guest feedback which said they preferred the barbecue at Soho to anywhere else, so we had to do something about that.”
That something was the rather drastic, but ultimately sensible, step of centralising the cooking process. Until then each site had its own smoke pit, but Blais ripped them all out and instead brought in a central kitchen where meat is cooked and smoked before being shipped out to the sites. The 1,200sq ft unit currently cooks 12 tonnes of pork a week, but as expansion picks up again Blais says the company has outgrown the kitchen and is looking for new premises.
“This brought the vital element of consistency to the product because it is controlled by one person. We gained more service space in each restaurant kitchen and formed a better relationship with our neighbours – not that we were smoking them out, but the fumes were there. We also gained cost control.”
What his restaurants did lose, however, was the intoxicating smokey atmosphere beloved of barbecue aficionados, something which Blais did lament. “Yes, I lost the sense of coming into a place and knowing it smelt like your brand, but the flashing [of the meat] on the grills and the [reheating] steam drawers deliver a consistent and authentic product.
Cooking a 6kg Boston butt takes 12 hours, burnt ends takes 18 hours, so we were always cooking food to be eaten on a different day. The products we smoke in the kitchen get to the restaurant the following day.”
Hard-core barbecue enthusiasts might baulk at this approach to the butt, yet Blais is adamant that for Bodean’s positioning, the move was key. Moreover, with consistency in the bag and running ncosts cut, he can source better quality ingredients. “We’ve switched from frozen to fresh. The product is evolving along with volume and the expectations of my guests. Meat costs are rising but I can’t go get any old shit and put it on the menu. I’ve got to get the best product, and the central kitchen gives me buying power. Our brisket sucked before; now we use amazing prime USDA black Angus.”
Doing it the Canadian way
How is a Canadian, rather than an American, responsible for a huge part of how today’s UK barbecue scene looks?
Blais originally worked in banking, but was enticed across the pond from Montreal by his brother to help launch Belgian brand Belgo. He was charged with building Belgo’s 100-strong Belgian beer list and was initially taken on as bar manager before rising to operations manager between 1992 and 1998. When Belgo was acquired by Luke Johnson in 1998, Blais stayed on as development director and continued to work for the company following its flotation, which was used as a vehicle to buy a number of London restaurants including Le Caprice and J Sheekey, creating the Signature Restaurants ndivision. “All of a sudden my office was nabove The Ivy,” he recalls.
At the time, a certain Andy Bassadone was Blais’ boss who, in developing a brand for the business that could be nrolled out in the same way as Belgo, came up with Strada. Blais was involvedin the first four Stradas but says he eventually “got stuck with Belgo”, which by then was starting to falter following an unsuccessful franchise model outside of London. With that he decided to leave the company and take a year’s sabbatical.
Blais’ time rubbing shoulders with Johnson, Bassadone et al, as well as with his brother, proved formative. Understanding the possibilities of introducing customers to an almost entirely new style of eating, as Belgo had done, was a driving force behind his decision to bring US barbecue over here. Keenly aware of Strada’s success, the bimportance of having a scaleable concept was also driven into him.
“Like my brother, I look at things a bit bdifferently. When Belgo came on to the scene it was fun – there was nothing fun about Belgium but it was the theatre. And there’s a lot of theatre in barbecue.”
Backed by some publican friends, Blais took a trip to Kansas City, where he says he discovered “the Holy Grail of barbecue”. Six months later, the first Bodean’s – which takes its name from the character Jethro Bodine in the US TV comedy The Beverly Hillbillies – opened.
Blazing the trail
With smokehouses popping up across the country, most notably the likes of PittCue and Porky’s in London as well as Red’s True Barbecue in Leeds and Manchester, Bodean’s finds itself in the sweet spot of a food trend. Yet while many of the newer players are grabbing the headlines, Bodean’s remains largely off the radar of commentators of the UK’s ‘new found’ love of barbecue. It’s something Blais is acutely aware of, although not too concerned about.
“When I started there was a chap in Spitalfields, I think he was called Bubba, and Fay Maschler would take a jab at me and say ‘you’re not the original barbecue smokehouse’. But Bubba was at a stall, I made Bodean’s into an institution. Bob Payton brought legendary service and different products to the UK when he launched Chicago Ribshack and Chicago Pizza Pie Factory in the 1970s and I was trying to fill whatever had happened between then and now.”
With Bodean’s Soho packed upstairs and down at lunch and dinner, turning over £80,000 net a week – average spend in the restaurant is £19, in the deli it is £12 – Blais’ dismissal of being ignored isn’t sour grapes. Bodean’s has something of a cult following in London, whether the media care to admit it or not.
“Jay Rayner eats here all the time,” he says, “but he never talks about us. Meanwhile his favourite barbecue is in Bristol. I can say I was there first, more or less, if there’s anything to take from that. I see a lot of things that turn up on other people’s tables that I did first.”
A smoke-filled future
Looking at the Bodean’s model, it’s clear nthat it has left an imprint on other brands. From the light-hearted porcine styling of its restaurants – that look as up-to-date now as they did when they first opened, with only minor design tweaks ever needing to be made – to its sauces on the table, the brand has remained on the heels, if not ahead, of the zeitgeist for more than a decade.
“Trying to sell Hoegaarden and Leffe to the average man in Belgo was like trying to sell pulled pork back then. Moule-frites may have since faded but Belgo’s beer legacy lives on. As a package, Bodean’s carries on.”
That’s not to say it hasn’t evolved to meet new trends, whether it be the introduction of a no-bookings policy or its embracing of craft beers (although Bodean’s has always been an early advocate of lesser known brews, such as Moosehead) and pickle backs (bourbon shots with a chaser of pickle brine).
With barbecue now the height of fashion, and with the recession a fading memory, Blais is now keen to make hay. The plan is to accelerate the rate of ngrowth to one or two Bodean’s a year, with a site in Old Street next on the cards. “We didn’t want to be in Islington because it’s saturated,” he says, “or Shoreditch as it’s too bohemian. We want to attract families.”
This pace of expansion can hardly be described as swift, but Blais likes the careful approach. “The thing about non-rapid expansion is that you start to bleed the concept any way you can before rolling it out. There’s no debt. If it’s my own money I’m more cautious. If there was someone else behind it then maybe I’d be thinking what the hell!”
Looking further into the future, Blais nbelieves there’s scope for up to eight more Bodean’s within the M25 before nwidening the net. With a central kitchen, expansion up north is easily achievable he believes, as is moving into foreign markets such as France and Germany.
“There’s a part of me that says it’s small and has still got that feeling of non-group. The bottom line is good – do I need any more headaches? That feeling may not last for ever, but it’s nice for now.”
The careful approach seems a sensible one, not least because Blais has the opportunity to focus on other things. This includes backing former Plateau chef Allan Pickett’s first solo restaurant Piquet, opening next Spring in Fitzrovia. The pair met when Blais, conducting some research into Josper ovens, was sent to Plateau to see the oven in action. “I fell in love with his cooking over a plate of sea bass, and that was that,” he says.
Blais is also still learning. With Balham he broke his golden rule of “stick to what you know” by serving breakfast. “Everyone always said ‘why don’t you do pancakes and corned beef hash?’ I did and it was inconsistent. People were on TripAdvisor saying their egg yolk wasn’t runny. Fuck that. That wasn’t bleeding the concept. The central kitchen was for consistency and that flew in its face.”
Instead, with Balham he is ensuring the Bodean’s brand of his dreams tallies with the reality. After spending £25,000 on sound insulation during summer and installing a stage, Balham will now host live music. “I have a dream and Stubb’s BBQ in Texas is pretty much that dream. People love to have ribs, butts and rock ’n’ roll, and now they can.”