A single mistake can change the course of your life. For John Rivers, whose growing barbecue business 4 Rivers Smokehouse began "very unintentionally," that couldn't be truer.
Rivers launched a charitable fundraising cookout to help a local couple pay the looming medical bills in their daughter's battle with cancer. He called it his "barbecue ministry," a philanthropic effort founded in 2004 that would later grow to support local organizations, schools, churches, and families in need.
The story he's never told, however, is that it was all thanks to a misplaced phone call.
"To this day, it's still hard to believe all this started from a mistaken call from an anonymous woman," Rivers says. "It's been 12 years now, and we still don't know who that person was, but if it hadn't happened, 4 Rivers wouldn't be here."
Rivers can still hear the woman's quivering voice lamenting the sorrow of a sick child: 'John, I'm so sorry to hear about your daughter's cancer.'?"
As he hung up, Rivers' only thought was for his youngest child, Cameron. When his worst fears were put to rest, the father of two couldn't shake the fear he'd experienced for those brief moments before realizing the call had been a wrong number.
"The irony was that even though I had managed a $1.4 billion pharmaceutical operation specializing in cancer treatments, I'd never felt the pain of a parent dealing with a sick child," says the Jacksonville native who spent 20 years in the health-care industry. "Although that little girl passed, her family's courage, strength, and faith remain the core values of 4 Rivers Smokehouse."
The original Winter Park 4 Rivers Smokehouse — named for his family, including wife Monica and children Cameron and Jared — had humble beginnings in an old tire-repair shop located near I-4 on Fairbanks Avenue. It was 1,164 square feet, with 12 employees and no room for indoor dining.
"It wasn't supposed to be a restaurant but a place to run our catering business," Rivers says. "The plan was to put the leftover food out for sale. We opened with no operating money, no money for advertising. All we could do was pray and open the door. But that first day is when the magic of 4 Rivers came to life."
Rivers recalls October 26, 2009, well. The hotel desk bell they placed on the order counter didn't ring once; his staff was too busy serving the hundreds of customers who seemed to appear out of thin air. They made $3,500 in sales that first day, a figure that remains Rivers lowest profit margin to date.
Within a month, they were smoking 1,000 pounds of meat a day and had to set up a parking agreement with the church across the street to manage the overflow from the eatery's 11 parking spots, as well as get the police's help with traffic congestion.
Locations in Winter Garden and Longwood followed in 2011, and that cramped Winter Park eatery eventually moved east to a larger space in 2012. Today, 4 Rivers has 1,400 employees spread across 15 locations. The first South Florida outpost opened in September in Coral Springs, and the first out-of-state restaurant is on track to open in Atlanta, Georgia, next year.
In 2013, Rivers even published his first cookbook, The Southern Cowboy Cookbook, which includes recipes that were menu inspirations for the Coop, his new restaurant concept in Winter Park that focuses on Southern comfort foods.
Tally it all together and it's hard to believe Rivers once cooked out of his garage for fellow churchgoers, relatives, and friends. The recipes — all his own — are developed from old-fashioned experimentation with rubs, wood chips, and temperature and whether to marinate or inject and how long to smoke.
"My first memory of barbecue was with my grandfather. He loved barbecue," Rivers says. "It was our tradition to go to Bono's Bar-B-Que [in Jacksonville] every Wednesday. We'd sit at the bar that overlooks the open-pit smoker. Back then, I never thought I'd open my own restaurant in the same city one day."
Rivers calls his food "intentionally nonregional," a blend of Southern specialities, traditional barbecue, and low-country cuisine. Ribs are inspired by trips to the Carolinas; brisket is Rivers' own riff from time spent with family in Texas and travels to Kansas City; tri-tip is a version of his favorite California recipe; chicken is cooked the way you'll find it in Georgia; and pulled pork is based on the one made by Chris Lilly, executive chef at Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Alabama.
Today the restaurants sell as much as 12,000 pounds of brisket, pulled pork, and ribs each week. The industrial-size wood-burning smokers run every day except Sunday, when the restaurants are closed.
If there is a star on Rivers' menu, it's the brisket, which he perfected after spending time with his wife's family in Texas. Though chicken and ribs come out of the smoker four times a day, the beef still composes a significant portion of the restaurant's bottom line. It might be thanks to the simplicity of Rivers' rubs and sauces, married with high-quality aged beef, all key elements to his long-term, consistent success.
At his newest restaurant in Coral Springs, the only menu item that outshines the brisket is the smoked prime rib. It's a best seller, his own creation dreamed up after an experimental holiday feast when his wife requested something different. Smoked overnight for 16 to 18 hours, "it's best to get it early, right when the doors open," he says. "There's nothing better."
Although Rivers doesn't cook at every 4 Rivers kitchen, his passion for good 'cue is still present. Instead, he's busy in the company's test kitchen creating specials, many of which make their way onto the menu permanently.
That includes his favorite: the smokehouse Cuban, a memory built on trips to the Keys with his grandfather. They'd make the annual pit stop in Miami's Little Havana on their way south, and this sandwich is an ode to the best of them. Everything is made in-house but the bread, Rivers says, and it's become one of the restaurant's most popular items over the years.
"Looking back, we've come a long way," he says. "I credit the success to faith and purpose. If we ever lose our passion for good food and our vision about why we're doing it, we'll fail as restaurateurs."
4 Rivers Smokehouse
2660 N. University Dr., Coral Springs; 844-474-8377; 4rsmokehouse.com. Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Brisket dinner $14.99
Prime rib dinner $18.49
Smokehouse Cuban sandwich $8.49
Smoked portobello $7.99
Vegetarian quesadilla $6.49