Michael Strauss, Co-owner of Taproom on 19th, Eyes A Barbecue Dream On The Horizon

You’ve entered all the food contests you’ve had at Taproom. And you’ve also been at The Garage a lot with your friend, Craig Parahus [the sous chef at The Racquet Club] under the name Gitjo Cookery.
The stuff I do with Craig inspired me even more to want to do something on a smaller scale where your focus is on two or three things and making them perfect. Working with him is totally inspirational and if I could snag him away to do a project, I would, but he’s got a good gig. I ask him all the time [laughs] but he has a good gig. He’s one of the most creative chefs that I’ve been able to work with. When we do The Garage, we both come up with our own ideas, but no matter how crazy my ideas are, he starts thinking about it and he’s like, yeah, we can do that.

Can we do a sloppy Joe on a stick?
Yeah, we can do that.
Whatever I say, he figures it out.

Craig Parahus & Michael Strauss in the cart at The Garage on Halloween.

Craig Parahus & Michael Strauss in the cart at The Garage on Halloween.      by Brion Shreffler.

I tried the chicken and dumplings on a stick and that worked. How did you do sloppy Joe on a stick?
We made sloppy Joe and stuffed it into a sausage casing. Then we put that sausage on a stick. We did a ramen terrine. Even though it failed—it didn’t stay together the way we wanted to—we still tried and the flavors were still good. We didn’t say no. We thought, wouldn’t that be cool. We tried to make it vegan so we didn’t use a regular type of gelatin. We used agar agar. I think if we had used a regular gelatin, it would have stayed together.

Chicken & dumplings on a stick. by Brion Shreffler

Chicken & dumplings on a stick. by Brion Shreffler.

Getting back to your GoFundMe…part of the funds are for a Lang stick smoker. What’s a stick smoker?
It’s a long smoker where the firebox is on one side.
It has a chimney on the other end and the smoke and heat gets pulled through, right?
Yeah. [With the Lang] There’s a reverse flow. Not only are you cooking with smoke, you’re cooking with fire. I think that changes the dynamic of the food that comes out in my opinion. I’m such a perfectionist. Here, as an owner, I don’t have control over everything that comes out of the kitchen. I trust my chef for that. With a BBQ place, where I’m the one cooking the meat[unlike at Taproom, he plans on being the sole owner], I’ll have total control over whether it comes out good, comes out bad. As far as here[at Taproom], I’m more hands on than at any other point, but I’m not like, you have to put this on the menu. I really don’t care what’s on the menu, but if it’s on the menu, it just has to be executed perfectly every time.

What has the evolution been like in regard to the type of equipment you’ve barbecued with?
I’ve always used a stick smoker. I have a charboiled stick smoker at home that I’ve had forever. It’s probably the worst kind of smoker, I’ve discovered [laughs] after the fact. Here [at Taproom on 19th] we use a Weber 22” Smokey Mountain. It’s a vertical bullet kind of smoker. [Compared to that,]The charboiler has so many holes and it’s kinda crappy. The smoke just goes out of every orifice. What that requires is me sitting next to it and every ten minutes adjusting it. Constantly adjusting the vents, trying to keep it a constant temperature. The Weber bullet, once it hits 225 or 250, it will run there for like four or five hours. It will just go. That makes a huge difference. Originally, I was looking at commercial type smokers like from Southern Pride that works off a rotating mechanical rack on the inside. Basically, just feed it every once awhile on the side. It looks like an oven. It only takes a little bit. They’re very efficient. I bet it’s what most places in Philly have. I guess they’re good if you’re relying on a lot of employees to do all the cooking for you. They’re going to keep their temperature for a long time. But they’re also very expensive—like over twenty thousand dollars. So trying to keep it old school, I’m going back to a stick smoker—like the kind an Aaron Franklin uses. Your standard stick smoker is a tube with an offset smoker box, which is also a tube. The way it works is that the heat goes from the firebox on one end through to the other end before exiting out the top. The one I’m looking at is a stick smoker like that but it works under a reverse flow—the smoke goes under and comes back, so it almost works like a convection oven for even heat.

The goal for your GoFundMe is 15,000. What does that cover?
Getting the grill and a storefront. The grill is about eight thousand dollars. As for the storefront, I’m still putting up some of my own money obviously, but you have to pay your first month, last month’s rent. A place that I’m looking for would be about $1,500 a month. Then you have to fit out, buy furniture, put floors in—things of that nature. I’ve been looking at spaces but am still looking around.

You’re still putting up a significant amount of money?
Of course.

I’m sure you remember the criticism [see the other side here] that followed Tommy Up’s kickstarter [that had a goal of $36,700], especially, since—like you—he was asking the public to help fund his second restaurant.
I think that a lot of people have a misconception of owners. Tommy from PYT, he’s always out there. You always see him on social media. I think people have this perception that oh, he must be driving around in a Ferrari, has a really expensive house, and is making all this money. That’s not true with restaurant owners. We don’t make that much money. Restaurants have some of the smallest margins of any type of business. Whenever you see a restaurant opening up, 99% of the time there are investors involved—whether it’s Kevin Sbraga or Bing! Bing! or Garces. I don’t have investors lining up to help me. I’m not that well known. So, I look to my friends and family to at least get things started for me and then, I can do the rest on my own. Especially in Philadelphia, it costs a lot of money. When we opened this place, we had to sell my 401K plan. My wife sold her 401k plan. [Co-owner] Pete [Fry] sold his. You can’t go to the bank to get money for a restaurant because they close in six months. They close in a year. You look around, Vetri closed a place, Sbraga closed a place. And these are some of the best restaurateurs in the city.

Once you get started though, you’re paying taxes and employing people.
Of course. And anyone who lives around here [by Taproom on 19th] knows that we’re very good with giving back to the neighborhood. We participate in any type of fundraiser that goes on. Anytime they need money for a movie in the park, or whatever. We try to give back as much as we can to the community.

You mentioned your preference for South Carolina style barbeque—sweeter, spicier. Can you say a little bit more on why that particular style?
My first introduction to barbecue was to South Carolina style barbecue, so when I think of barbecue, that’s what I think of. When I go to places that have more of a Texas style—even though it’s really good—my palate doesn’t get as excited about it.

But Philly’s not South Carolina and you’re not from there. As you indicated in the GoFundMe posting, you’re starting with that style as your foundation but are free to experiment from there.  
Exactly.

One response to “Michael Strauss, Co-owner of Taproom on 19th, Eyes A Barbecue Dream On The Horizon

  1. Pingback: Owner of Taproom on 19th aims to open a BBQ spot in South Philly | Passyunk Post·

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