About PITMASTER Glenn Gross
Being born and raised in Texas, I developed a very discerning taste for good BBQ. It really is a combination of science, art, innovation, passion, products and without a doubt…attitude. Both Wesley (The Loon) and I have lived in the Northeast United States for almost a quarter of a century, and I have rarely found a BBQ joint that I could comfortably say “Now that’s as good as I have back home.” That is…until now. PITMASTER Glenn Gross, hailing from New Jersey, has done it. After years of mastering the art and science of perfect BBQ, he has landed on top. His restaurant Fat Jacks in Philadelphia has become the standard for best-in-class BBQ and he is one of the most awarded PITMASTERS on the BBQ circuit.
His exceptional knowledge of BBQ, the BBQ industry, smoking foods, cooking, and the restaurant/franchising business are unprecedented. He is an inspiration and makes some of the best BBQ we have ever eaten in our lives…and we’ve eaten some of the BEST!
Now, read our fascinating HTML interview with him, and when in Philly (and beyond!)..skip the cheese steak, and go for his unforgettable BBQ! He is truly one of the best out there!
H2FAL: How did a guy from Jersey become one of the best and most successful PITMASTERS in the United States?
GG: LOTS and LOTS of hard work and practice. My lifelong passion for great food, GREAT BBQ and grilling began a long time ago, as a young boy, in Philadelphia, of all places. I was always fascinated by cooking and what goes on in the kitchen. Since I was 11 years old, I insisted on manning the grills at every family BBQ, picnic and get-together that we had. As I got older, and better at this grilling and BBQ thing, it was inevitable that I wound up in the restaurant business, even passing up an opportunity to become a Dentist. I had no clue that I would become one of the top Pitmasters in the world back then.
Throughout all my years in the restaurant business, I traveled all over the USA, for both business and pleasure, but traveling and eating my way through the “BBQ belt” (Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, The Carolinas), was always my favorite travel itinerary. I noticed that most of the BBQ restaurants out there were “Mom & Pop” operations, owned by very colorful local characters, who really did know what they were doing when it came to making BBQ. These operations ranged from roadside shacks and grills to 8000 square foot restaurants. It was then that I came to the realization that there was a need for an outstanding BBQ restaurant chain.
I started asking questions and picking the brains of some of the best Pitmasters and BBQ aficionados from all over the country. In some cases, I didn’t get too far, because all of their recipes and smoking techniques were closely guarded “secrets.” I was grateful to take what I could get from whomever would talk to me about BBQ. I paid special attention to how customers reacted to some of the greatest BBQ they had ever tasted. They couldn’t get enough!! Even though I sampled some of the best BBQ in the country, deep inside of me, I knew I could do it better, MUCH better in fact, and more efficiently.
After several years of R & D, and much trial and error, long hours and countless sleepless nights, I finally came up with the right combination of meats, rubs, spices and sauces, which turned into the recipes that Fat Jack’s still uses to this day. As of today, Fat Jack’s BBQ has won more than 300 local and national awards, grand championships and state championships for ribs, shoulder, brisket, chili, wings, sauces and more.
H2FAL: You have been called the King of BBQ Competitions. How many have you competed in and placed?
GG: I’ve competed in well over 300 contests and competitions since 1993. I’ve probably placed in well over 80% of them (some placing was GREAT some….not so great). In the beginning, when I first started competing, I wasn’t winning anything, and I certainly wasn’t placing in the top 80% of the crowd. How did I start winning, you might ask?? I signed up for a KCBS (Kansas City BBQ Society) judges class. KCBS is the sanctioning body for most of the BBQ competitions around the country. I thought that if I could figure out what the judges were really looking for in competition BBQ, I might be able to win a few competitions here and there. In the process, I became a certified KCBS judge, and guess what? After I took that judges class, I started placing and winning championships and grand championships around the country, and I never looked back.
H2FAL: Did you have mentors or key influencers as you honed your BBQ skills? If so, who (or what) and why?
GG: No real mentors to speak of. Actually, the way I honed my BBQ skills was through trial, error and travel. I traveled all over the country years ago to look for great “Q”. I sampled hundreds of different BBQ foods, from ribs to armadillo and even stranger foods. Some I loved and some I’ve hated (probably hated more). I have a very unique ability to see something and taste something, then re-create it, and I can usually make it better that what I originally tasted. Armed with a combination of foods I’ve tried, cuts of meat, rubs and spices, I developed my own cooking style and recipes. I threw ingredients together, if they worked, I’d write them down, then tweak the amounts until I got what I wanted, if they didn’t work, then it’s back to the drawing board. Essentially, I cook the way I like to eat. I love big bold flavors and I want that to come through at Fat Jack’s BBQ
H2FAL: Tell us how you got into the restaurant business:
GG: I started delivering cheesesteaks and hoagies in Philly when I was 10 years old. My mom got very sick and I had to eventually get a real job at the tender age of 13, as I was the only real means of support back then. I lied about my age to get a job at Jr. Hot Shoppes in Philly as a fast food cook. I told them I was 16. For some strange reason, I LOVED the work. I eventually became a supervisor and got to wear the orange supervisor paper hat. That was a big deal for me back then. I became a District Manager at 22, overseeing 18 units. I failed miserably, because I just wasn’t ready for that, as I was just in the right place at the right time when that job came up. I learned from my mistakes and I never looked back. I progressed over the years with other restaurant companies, and I have done every job in the restaurant biz, from dishwasher to CEO, to owning my own chain of restaurants.
H2FAL: What’s one of the most important techniques in producing award-winning BBQ?
GG: LOW AND SLOW…cook at low temperatures for a long time. We smoke our briskets and pork butts for about 18 hours or so over hickory at about 190°. There is another school of thought of High and Fast, cooking at higher temps for less periods of time. Myron Mixon, who’s probably the top Pitmaster in the world, uses the high and fast method, smoking pork and brisket at maybe 350° for only a few hours, and it works for him, as he’s perfected that method. He calls himself the “winningest man in BBQ”, as he usually places in the top 3, and he has won well over $1,000,000 in prize money. Experiment with both and come up with what works for you. You will be surprised at what you can come up with thru trial and error.
H2FAL: What advice would you give someone who is just getting started in the BBQ competition circuit?
GG: Don’t get discouraged if you don’t win much in the beginning, You MUST perfect your craft. Also, for rookies AND BBQ Veterans…..DO NOT CHANGE WHAT YOU DO WHEN YOU COMPETE!!! A competition is NOT the time to experiment. Do your experimenting before you compete. I know a VERY well-known, world renowned Pitmaster, who was on a BBQ TV show. He decided to experiment during the competition. He finished almost dead last in every category, and lost out on big prize money. This is a man who has won COUNTLESS championships and awards around the country over the years. Point being, do what you do and do it well.
H2FAL: You have lots of TV exposure, from BBQ Pitmasters, to World Food Championships to local Philly TV programming. How were those experiences? And any new shows coming up?
GG: Let me tell you, getting on BBQ Pitmasters was probably the highlight of everything I’ve done in the restaurant biz. Pitmasters led to The World Food Championships on FYI Network, then to Frankenfood on Spike TV, which led to winning Rewrapped on the Food Network. I’ve always done regular food segments for Good Day Philadelphia on Fox, and they asked me to do regular food segments on Fox29 Weekend, which is the new weekend news show on Fox in Philly, which I have been doing which I have been doing since September 2014. It’s very cool to have someone come up to you and say, hey, I saw you on (whatever show). I’m just a regular guy that happened to get on TV, and every day, people come up to me and ask for an autograph or to take a picture with me. That is a VERY humbling experience…..You want MY autograph, and all I can think to myself is why?? Being on TV, I’ve learned that people really do want to eat at restaurants that they see on TV, and this helps our sales dramatically. I have auditioned for a ton of food shows recently, but the biggest opportunity staring me in the face right now is my own food show, which I auditioned for a few weeks ago with my former business partner, as a new show being developed is looking for a pair of hosts for the show. Waiting to see what happens, as I’ve learned it’s hurry up and wait in the TV biz. I’ve done everything you can possibly do in the restaurant biz, I truly believe my next venture has to be TV full time.
H2FAL: What was your inspiration for opening your highly successful restaurant Fat Jack ‘s BBQ in Philly?
GG: We have been Fat Jack’s BBQ since 1993. We closed/sold all the Fat Jack’s from the early days and started doing street fairs and festivals full time under the FJ banner. Festivalgoers would always ask, “what happened to Fat Jack’s”? We found a small place in Blackwood NJ and re-opened. A few years ago, I brought in some new partners who paid us a boatload of money for a piece of the company. BIG MISTAKE!!! They kicked me out of the company a few weeks in, ruined the concept, lined their pockets, so I sued them all and took the concept back, but Fat Jack’s and its reputation were ruined. I met a landlord named Peter Abrams, who wanted to put a Fat Jack’s in one of his centers on Roosevelt Blvd. in Philly. I told him the horror story of the partnership debacle, and that I had no money to open the store. He hands me the keys and says “Open the store – I don’t want a dime from you. Sell the equipment that you don’t need in here to get started, and if you can bring Fat Jack’s back to where it was, you’ll never have to worry about financing again.” Today, Peter has built us 1 store, and is building us 3 more as we speak. I’m proud to say he is a friend, an advisor and a partner, and without him and his vision, Fat Jack’s BBQ would be long gone. There really are financial angels out there.
H2FAL: What’s your favorite type of BBQ, and why?
GG: I like it all!!! My favorite is probably ribs, then brisket. Don’t really have a reason why, I just love those products, not that there is anything wrong with every other BBQ food out there.
H2FAL: What’s on the horizon for PITMASTER Glenn Gross?
GG: Well, we are opening a bunch more Fat Jack’s BBQ restaurants in the Philly and NY area and beyond and we should be franchising in the near future. Definitely more TV coming up. We are putting together a MAJOR BBQ festival (1st annual) in Philly at Citizens Bank Park on July 30, 2016, so spread the world and keep on the lookout for details. I am also in the process of changing Fat Jack’s Menu’s and we are going to streamline the concept a bit in the near future.