Interview #015: Barry Sorkin of Smoque BBQ

by Jay Delaney

Barry SorkinAbout Today’s Subject:
Barry Sorkin

Creator of: Smoque BBQ
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Website: Smoque BBQ
Twitter: @smoquebbq

IT Consultant Turns BBQ Restaurateur

Barry Sorkin is a fascinating guy.  He has a degree in journalism, worked for years as an IT consultant, and now runs a popular bbq restaurant in Chicago that he opened about 5 years ago along with a few business partners.  He’s a shining example of someone who has turned his passion into a business – and a very successful one at that. Before starting the restaurant, barbecue had been one of his longtime passions.  After years of encouragement from friends at his backyard barbecues that he should open his own restaurant, he decided to take the plunge.  He’s a great example of what’s possible when you pursue your passion, but take caution; Barry shares that there’s a thousand things that have to come together for a restaurant to work, including a good product, luck, timing, the stars aligning, etc.  And he also shares that opening a barbecue restaurant has forever changed what was once his passion; he still loves barbecue, but the last thing he wants to do when he gets some time away is to go home and fire up the grill.

“There’s always this balance between what your heart wants to do and what your brain tells you is the smart thing to do. And you’ve got to find a way to get them to work together.  Let your heart figure out where you want to get to, but let your head figure out how to get there.” -Barry Sorkin

It’s no small feat that Smoque BBQ has racked up numerous accolades and recognition in one of the food capitals of the world – Chicago.  The food is absolutely delicious, and if you’re not already a fan of brisket, it will make you a believer.  (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a craving for their brisket.)  In 2011, Smoque BBQ was named a 2011 Bib Gourmand Restaurant by the prestigious Michelin Guide.  The restaurant has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  And they’ve been praised in Gourmet Magazine, The New York Times, and all kinds of Chicago media.

Here’s a 1-min Clip (scroll down for the full interview)

A Few Insights from My Conversation with Barry

  1. “At some point, the fear of not doing it becomes greater than the fear of failing at it.” This was my favorite quote from Barry during our conversation.  It’s a quote I can relate to in my own experience, and I’m sure it resonates with many artists, entrepreneurs, and creators.  When you reach this point, it’s time to dive in.  Use this feeling as your fuel.
  2. Passion definitely helps, but it takes a lot more than just passion to create a successful business. Barry also said that luck and timing both play a part in it.  Smoque BBQ probably wouldn’t serve up such delicious food if Barry weren’t so passionate about barbecue; however, he also talks about how it takes much more than just passion to make a business work.  You have to get your brain intimately involved in your business, and if you find a piece of information that tells you it won’t work, you need to listen to it and somehow address it.  Passion alone only gets you halfway there.
  3. When you turn your passion into your livelihood, expect to have to find a new hobby. The last thing Barry wants to do when he goes home is to barbecue.  His hobby is forever changed now that it’s integral to his business.  Keep this in mind if you’re thinking of turning your hobby into your business.

The Full 14-min. Interview


Jay Delaney: Hi, this is Jay Delaney with Create the Map, and I’m sitting here with Barry Sorkin from Smoque BBQ.  Barry, thanks so much for chatting with me today.  The first question, can you just give us the cliffs notes version of your bio and something you’re currently working on that you’re excited about?

Barry Sorkin: I have a degree in journalism from Columbia College here in Chicago.  I spent most of my career working for an IT consulting company and started there writing consultants’ resumes.  I had my journalism degree, wanted to do something with writing.  Started in their marketing dept. and that kind of led to a strange career in consulting.  Did that for about 8 years and just decided it was time to do something that I’d always really wanted to do which was open up a little bbq restaurant.  It’s a short resume, but that’s it.

Jay Delaney: At what point did you start to think that you really would open a bbq restaurant?  Did you know early on?

Barry Sorkin: No, I never thought I would.  It was something I sort of secretly always wanted to do.  I was a backyard bbq cook.  Did it as a hobby for a long time.  I would have friends over for bbq’s and they would say, “Hey, you should open a restaurant.”  Yeah, whatever.  I kind of dismissed it because everybody knows that’s a really stupid thing to do.  It was really in the back of my mind for a long time, never a serious conversation until we opened at the end of ’96, probably early 1995.  I was just kind of getting tired of my old career. I woke up every morning wondering why I was doing this with my life.  It was never what I really planned to do.  It just sort of happened.  So I decided I didn’t want to wake up one morning and have my entire life pass me by and go, “I never did that.”

Jay Delaney: If you go back to when you working in IT consulting, can you remember the motivating factor, the specific moment, that really made you decide to take this leap?  I’m thinking at the time you probably had some real resistance either internally or outside of you from friends or family.

Barry Sorkin: If I had a nickel for everyone who told me I shouldn’t open up a restaurant, I wouldn’t have needed to.  Seriously, everyone on the planet will tell you what a stupid thing it is to do.  All of the reasons they give are absolutely correct. They are absolutely correct. On paper, it’s the dumbest thing you can do.  I’m glad I did it. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m lucky that it’s worked out for us so far.  But, everyone from friends, many of whom were the same friends who said years earlier, “Hey you should open up a restaurant.”  When you tell them you’re really going to do it, they say, “Oh you don’t want to do that.”  But everyone from friends to the SCORE counselor down at the Small Business Administration said, “You don’t want to open a restaurant.”  You do get a lot of that advice.

Jay Delaney: How did you deal with that?  I would think that there would be some people that would hear this chorus of people telling them don’t do it and then they would maybe give into that or let the doubt within themselves sort of stop them.  What do you think kept you going forward?

Barry Sorkin: For one, I didn’t really know what else to do. I knew I wanted to get out of my other career. At some point, the fear of not doing it becomes greater than the fear of failing at it.  That’s sort of what it was.  I understand how risky it is. I understand the failure rate. I understand everything that you’re saying, but I’m going to really regret this if I don’t do it.

Jay Delaney: Maybe at a certain point you realize even if you failed, it’s better to have known that you at least gave it a shot and tried.

Barry Sorkin: At least you could say you gave it a shot.  Go down swinging.

Jay Delaney: Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all maybe?

I think a lot of times entrepreneurs, business owners starting out have this glamorized view of what it’s like to own a business and start a business and be an entrepreneur, but I think a lot of times they find there’s a sense of security and stability they have to accept is gone when they leave the 9-to-5 lifestyle.  How is that adjustment for you leaving the security and stability? Have you reached that again?  Do you feel a sense of security and stability now?  Or do you give that up and it’s gone forever?

Barry Sorkin: What’s happening economically over the last few years has changed that equation a bit.  I’m not an economist; I don’t want to pretend to be.  It used to be the case that the safe, secure thing to do was to go work for a big company, and you worked there forever.  Well that doesn’t exist anymore.  I don’t know if I will ever in this career have the same sense of security I had five years ago in my old one, but I also know from where I sit right now that if I had stayed there, I’d have been laid off a long time ago.  So I would have lost that job by now.  So if I hadn’t done this, I’m not sure where I would be.  So in that respect, it’s a little bit of a tradeoff.  I’ve never been one that’s found tremendous comfort in safety and security.  I just don’t want to get bored. For me that’s more of a driver than safety and security.

Jay Delaney: You have this passion for bbq. You go from doing it more for fun and on the side and more of a hobby to making it your livelihood.  I know you said earlier when we were talking you spent starting out 120 hours a week and now you average out to 60 hours a week.  What’s it like taking something that was something you just did on the side and putting so much of your time into it?  Do you lose some of the love that you have for it?

Barry Sorkin: Well, I needed to find a new hobby.  Believe me, when I go home and I get a day off, the last thing I want to do is go bbq. I still love it, but it’s absolutely different than it was when I did it just for fun. As a hobby, it’s completely gone. I still like bbq.  I still eat bbq, but truth be told, when I go out to eat, pretty much the last thing I want to do is go out for bbq these days.  So yeah, there’s something to it.  When you’re running a business, it’s different than barbecuing in your back yard. I don’t even spend that much time anymore actually doing it. I’m running a business as opposed to barbecuing.  So it’s different.  It’s very different.

You asked about the sort of glamorous image that people have of running their own business versus the reality of it.  I will say, the one thing that sticks out in my mind is the biggest difference between what I sort of expected or at least the image I had in my head.  I don’t think I had any illusions that it was going to be glamorous.  But I did have this vision of myself as the guy sort of at the top with all the answers and people would be coming to me with problems.  And I would just check something off of the list and give them a very smart, astute, insightful answer and the problem is solved.  But it turns out, I’m not quite that smart.  And every day there are things, people ask me questions, or a new situation comes up, and I find myself going, “I have no idea.” I have no idea what to do in that situation.  This image of myself as an entrepreneur was a much smarter version of me.

Jay Delaney: What would you say has been the most serendipitous experience you’ve had so far related to Smoque?

Barry Sorkin: We got incredibly lucky.  We’ve had every lucky break that a startup restaurant can get. When we opened, we thought we were going to open up this little place and kind of do a soft opening.  We wouldn’t even tell people.  We would put up a sign and that’s it.  We weren’t going to promote. We weren’t going to market.  Let’s let people kind of trickle in.  We’ll figure out how to run the place.  Then once we get the kinks worked out, we can start promoting and do a grand opening and all that stuff.  But we got incredibly lucky at the outset and that soft opening never really happened.  The serendipity of it was, the vice president of marketing for Timeout Chicago lived somewhere in that direction and took the train somewhere in that direction and passed by our storefront every single day while we were under construction.  He kept poking his head in and saying, “Hey, what’s going on?” “I’m building a barbecue place.”  He said, “Oh I work for Timeout Chicago.  Let us know when you’re going to open; we’ll write about it.”  I said, “Okay.”  So they started writing about us a week and a half or two weeks before we opened.  As strange luck would have it, the then Chicago correspondent for Gourmet magazine had a brother who got his haircut across the street from us. I got a call one or two days before our friends and family night, which was supposed to be kind of our practice night where you make all the mistakes on people who have to love you even if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. So I got a call from someone who said, “I write for Gourmet magazine, and I heard you’re opening a barbecue place. My brother gets his hair cut across the street.  I was wondering if you’re doing any kind of press party.” I said, “We’re not really doing a press party. We’re doing a friends and family night in a couple of days, but the idea is to make mistakes on people that aren’t going to judge us.” And she said I’ll accept all of your disclaimers; I’ll accept anything you tell me and if I don’t like it, I just won’t write about it. That’s cool.”  I said, “Well, alright. I’m terrified, but okay, we’d love to have you.”  So she came and was really impressed.  And I think three or four months after we opened as a result, we were written up in Gourmet magazine, which was something in a billion years I couldn’t have imagined would happen.  So between that and Timeout Chicago, we got a lot of really good buzz through LTH forum, which is a food-based chat room in Chicago.  And we got a lot of just good buzz and good word of mouth. And literally within days of being open, we were doing better numbers than we ever thought we were going to do.  It was just really unbelievable.  I don’t know if that qualifies as serendipity.

Jay Delaney: What do you chalk that up to?  Do you see that as just luck?  Do you see that as the stars aligning?

Barry Sorkin: It’s a little bit of both.  It starts with, not to pat myself on the back, I think we put out a good product.  But I also think it takes a lot more than that.  It does take a lot of luck.  It takes right place, right time.  It takes the stars aligning. There’s a thousand things that have to come into place for a restaurant to be successful.  And that’s why the failure rate is so high, because rarely do they all come together.

Jay Delaney: Would you say you’re satisfied with where you’re at right now?

Barry Sorkin: Yeah. Of course you always want to do better.  You always want to do more. We’re almost 5 years now, and we’re doing better than we thought we were going to do.  You can’t be upset with that.  There’ve been a lot of new bbq places that have opened in the last 14 months and we are still going strong.  We haven’t really felt the impact of it.  You can’t ask for better than that.  Of course, we’ve got longer term visions and we’ll see where they lead us.

Jay Delaney: And lastly, what advice can you offer to people who out creating their own map, finding their own way in the world?

Barry Sorkin: My best advice, and I don’t want to sound like a 25 cent philosopher or spiritual advisor or anything like that. But I always tell people, “There’s always this balance between what your heart wants to do and what your brain tells you is the smart thing to do. And you’ve got to find a way to get them to work together.”  Let your heart figure out where you want to get to, but let your head figure out how to get there. That’s what this process has been.  I knew where I wanted to get, but I also knew that at some point, I could gain some piece of information that’s going to tell me it’s not going to work.  You’ve got to be willing to listen to that too. Finding the right balance between your emotions and your sense of reason I think is really important.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rewrite Beautiful September 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I really love what you’re doing with Create the Map Jay! I get so inspired by these interviews! Keep up the great work! I hope to get some Smoque BBQ when/if I ever get to Chicago!


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