"I guess you could call me an accidental businessman," says Mike Mills, the 58-year-old owner of 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro, Illinois, known within barbecue circles as "The Legend." The transition from dental technician to a world-famous pitmaster with seven restaurant locations is not immediately obvious.
He learned the craft at his father's knee, cooking ribs low and slow into tender submission over open pits in the ground. "That was back before we had real smokers or grills," Mike recalls. "I've barbecued all my life. My motto was, 'Give me the meat, and I'll cook it.'" But he never intended it to become his profession.
Even when Mike bought his first restaurant in 1985, he "did it because the beer and booze business was good." Using a sauce recipe that's been in his family for more than 75 years, he "used to cook barbecue out in the back lot and give it away free just to get people to drink more." It wasn't until 1988, when his barbecue team started entering -- and winning -- the professional barbecue circuit that he realized that his barbecue might be something more than a simple thirst-inducer.
He retired the team in 1994 in order to focus on the restaurant, now named 17th Street Bar & Grill, with an intent to "serve more food than booze, which I liked a whole lot better -- mainly because I was getting older and couldn't drink like that any more."
Since then, the restaurant has grown into three more locations, though the expansion was anything but planned. "Someone said, 'I've got this place that maybe you could do something with,' and I said, 'I'm having fun with this one, why not try another?'"
A notorious workaholic, Mike jokes that at his age, he's "taken to only working half days," by which he means 12 hours. He divides his workday equally between overseeing his various kitchens; cooking ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket; and doing the necessary administrative work that comes with owning a restaurant chain.
"I'm a real hands-on type guy," Mike says in his characteristically down-to-earth manner. "What I've found is that whether it's with barbecue or running a restaurant, anytime anybody's tried to show me a shortcut -- an easy way out -- it's never worked for me. I've tried all the shortcuts there are, but there's no substitute for hard work"
All this is not to say that there haven't been snags along the way -- most notably a misstep in branding when Mike opened his first Las Vegas outpost, giving it the clumsy handle of Memphis Championship Barbecue despite the fact that it was serving the same food as his original 17th Street Bar & Grill in Chicago. "I was naïve in a lot of ways. I thought if you were gonna call a restaurant '17th Street,' then it's gotta be on 17th Street." The mistake has cost him, both in terms of the difficulty of marketing two separate brands both serving the same product, as well as in customer volume. "People go to Vegas knowing that I have restaurants there, but they look around and can't find a 17th Street Bar & Grill." They don't realize that Memphis Championship Barbecue is the same product under a different name, "so they don't come in."
In part because of this early mistake, Mike and his daughter Amy Mills Tunnicliffe -- now the marketing guru behind their mini-empire -- takes extra care in ensuring that all barbecue that gets served under his name is consistent, regardless of which of the four 17th Streets or three Memphis Championship Barbecue locations a customer dines at.
"Everything we do is tested," Mike says. The spices that go into his Magic Dust recipe are carefully inspected for potency and rejected if they don't make the cut. "I get my spices from a company in Arkansas that has a specific supply chain, so they secure their spices from the same growers all the time." Back when Mike first started, his spices were ground at the restaurant to ensure the right texture. "Most commercial spices are ground too coarse," he says. "They're gritty, and I don't like that. I grind them down to where they completely melt." These days, his volume is high enough that his suppliers in Arkansas do the milling for him.
Even with directly traceable sourcing, there are variances in raw ingredients that need addressing, particularly with meat. "Not all hogs are created equal." You can't simply put a pork shoulder in the smoker, "set a time, and expect it to come out the same every time." Instead, Mike relies on meat thermometers to tell him when his shoulders are done cooking. "I take temperatures of everything. I know that if my pork shoulder's not up to 193 degrees, it's not done, no matter how long it's been in the smoker."
With seven outposts of his two restaurants and a whole slew of barbecue-consulting gigs, maintaining consistency and quality from location to location is no small feat. In the end, it's not about Magic Dust or sauce or even how the ribs are cooked, Mike says. Keeping his multitude of locations in shape is "all about the people you hire. They have to have a desire to do better in life as strong as your own. They have to have that same basic need. I don't set 9-to-5 hours," he says. "All a schedule does is force someone to be somewhere they don't necessarily want to be. I tell my employees what I expect from them, and tell them to do whatever it takes to get the job done."
The management style seems to work, weeding out the ones who aren't in it for the long haul early. The ones who stick around "are the people that'll really make you successful, and I have the utmost respect for them. Everyone who works for me has the same basic needs as me: They want to get ahead, I want to get ahead, and they will help me live my dream while I help them reach theirs."
"I've got two great pitmasters at the original 17th Street who I trained myself," Mike says. "They weren't barbecue experts when they started, but they've got a desire for it, and that's more important than knowledge." According to Mike, you can teach people how to cook—what you can't teach is character. The first thing he tells new hires is that "by the time you're trained, you'll be better at this than I am, 'cause I'm gonna teach you everything I know, and you got brains of your own, so add 'em together, and you should be smarter than me."