Awesome Indie Restaurant Series – Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert AZ

This series profiles restaurants that are creating a buzz in their cities and towns. With each Awesome Indie we profile, we’ll check in with owner (“The Head Honcho”), the GM (“The Fearless Leader”), and an employee who personifies their brand (“The Evangelist”), to pick their brains and find out what they’re doing that makes their restaurant hum.

First up – Joe’s Real BBQ, a phenomenal, popular, well loved restaurant in Gilbert, AZ. They’ve been in business for 12.5 years, and their employee turnover rate for hourly employees was about 28% last year, despite losing more college-bound high school seniors than usual. Management turnover was 0%. And they are doing great business year after year out in Gilbert!

The Head Honcho
Tad Peelen, one of three owners. Tad co-owns the restaurant with partners Tim Peelen and Joe Johnston and is the operating partner you will typically find at the restaurant.

Why is Joe’s Real BBQ successful?
Because we really only care about three things. Our employees all wear hats that say “clean, delicious, friendly” for a reason. When I sit down with my staff, we only talk about 3 things. When we hire customer service staff, we really only care whether they are friendly or not. When we create a new dish, we only focus on how delicious it might be. Our menu hasn’t changed much since 1998. The environment here is welcoming, and family-friendly. Diners are greeted by the same people every time they come. Our lunch customers have been rung up by the same cashier for almost 12 years. There is a 1948 John Deere tractor in the dining room, and a 70-foot long mural celebrating our town’s agricultural heritage. It’s the kind of place where everyone feels welcomed, and everyone can be comfortable. We are not a dive (clean is important in our business), but we’re far from pretentious.

How do people find out about Joe’s?
Mostly from their friends and neighbors. We have an embarrassingly low marketing budget, and usually come in under budget. We employ social media. We have met hundreds, probably many hundreds, of our customers via social media and forged lasting relationships with them. We have never paid for search engine placements, but do fare rather well when people start looking around the web for a place to eat in the phoenix area. We encourage people to write about their visit on yelp, urban spoon, and other review sites. We have great relationships with the local media – traditional and digital. We have very very loyal fans. We get quite a bit of publicity for giving everyone a free meal on their birthday. And we have an animated neon sign sticking up about 18 feet in the air!

Why is your turnover rate so low?
While I’d like to think it’s because people really like the owners so much, the truth is people hang around because they are treated fairly and shown they are valued. Showing employees you value them takes effort, and must be consistently evident. Money can’t be an afterthought. We give raises when they are warranted. We offer full time employees health, dental, ltd, std and life insurance and pay 90% of the premiums. We offer full timers and part timers alike a 401k plan with matching. We offer full and part timers paid vacation after 6 months on the job. The employee meal is always free. We run contests where employees can be in a drawing to win a gift card. While it gets more difficult as we grow, we’ve always tried to have corporate outings – diamondbacks baseball games, bowling; that type of thing. We give anniversary gifts and bonuses. Every employee gets their birthday off with pay. We recently started honoring an employee of the week. As you may have guessed, our employee of the week must go above and beyond in getting the place clean, making delicious food, and being friendly. We post photos of the employee of the week on ScheduleFly, and on our in-house electronic menu board known as BBQTV.

What’s your favorite meal on your menu?
I like the sampler platter. Served with a homemade side dish, our sampler offers brisket, chicken on the bone, ribs and pulled pork. While it is big enough to split, I usually don’t have any left to share with the Mrs.

Let’s say you meet somebody on a plane who is coming to visit Gilbert. He doesn’t yet know you own a restaurant, and asks for a restaurant recommendation. What’s your “airplane pitch” for Joe’s?
The best BBQ in Arizona, served in a 1940’s agriculturally themed restaurant at yesterday’s prices.

What do you hope the future holds for Joe’s Real BBQ?
More of the same. We are humbled we’ve had almost 13 great years in a great town. We have no immediate expansion plans, and intend to focus instead on making our place cleaner, our food more delicious, and encouraging our employees to be even more friendly. If the lord continues to bless us, we’ll be doing what we do for quite a few more years.

The Fearless Leader
Darryl “Big D” Jansen is the kitchen manager who has worked at Joe’s for almost 13 years. He was the first employee.

Why do you like working at Joe’s?
I like the owners, Joe, Tad and Tim. The dedication and care they show for my family and I.

What’s the most important aspect of your job?
Food safety and food quality. Clean, delicious, friendly.

What is your management style?
I am a hands on chef. I get dirty with my staff and work side by side with them.

What’s your favorite meal on your menu?
I like ribs with beans and applesauce, with cornbread and honey butter.

The Evangelist
Florencia has worked at Joe’s for almost 12 years. She has worked as a counter server, at the takeout window, and cashier. Both of her parents work at Joe’s, but she has seniority on both of them!

Why do you like working at Joe’s?
I like the atmosphere, my bosses, my co-workers, and the way I get to talk to customers instead of being in an office or away from people all day

What’s the most important aspect of your job?
The way I get to interact with so many customers. I see hundreds of people every day, and have seen so many people for so many years, a lot of them are like friends and family

What’s your favorite meal on your menu?
When I am real hungry I get the stuffed baker with turkey on top.


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