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Still Smokin’

By Josh Kopelman, Photos by Bhadri Kubendran

Barbecue is easily one of the great American staples. Fall off the bone ribs, slow cooked brisket, and juicy pulled pork saddled with all the fixins’—it is enough to get our taste buds watering. Generally relegated to the South and the Carolinas, San Diego holds its own in the barbecue world, housing its own slice of quality cue’ right here in the city. Of course, we are talking about Phil’s BBQ.

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A notable San Diego institution, Phil’s BBQ has satisfied our barbecue hankering with mesquite baby back ribs, chicken, and stacked sandwiches filled to the brim with sausages and chargrilled meats. With a menu nearly unchanged from its 1998 opening, Phil’s BBQ has always drawn a hungry crowd to its front door. And for good reason. With a commitment to consistency and sourcing the highest quality product put in place by owner Phil Pace, Phil’s BBQ has grown from two cash registers on Goldfinch Street to eight locations with more expansions in the works. 20 years later, Phil’s BBQ is still smokin’.

DiningOut: Phil, congratulations on 20 years in San Diego! You have had an incredible run. How would you describe those early years back on Goldfinch Street?
Phil Pace: Our first challenge was getting people used to waiting for something good, but we did it! Our next biggest challenge became keeping up with the growth by keeping our food and great service consistent. We used to close for three weeks in January just for this reason. Not only did our tireless employees earn that paid vacation, but we also closed to reinvest in our growth. I always want to do better tomorrow than I did today. One of the core values in my company is having a passion for perfection.

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What makes the Phil’s BBQ experience so popular?
It is a different style of barbecue that most people have not experienced. I developed a barbecue that you can eat seven days a week and it doesn’t come back to bark at you. Don’t get me wrong, I love smoked barbecue but I can’t eat it as often as I would like. I am in a business to fill seats, why not create a product that people can eat every day? The other thing that makes my restaurant experience so popular is our people. I’m blessed to have such a dedicated team on the front lines. We call them the BBQrew. I never dreamt that we’d get to where we are today, and certainly wouldn’t be here without the team. Now with just shy of 400 BBQrew members, I’m excited to see where we will go next!

What makes the food at Phil’s BBQ so special?
I start with quality. I only buy the highest quality beef, pork, and chicken, and have been buying from the same farms for 20 years now. There are always opportunities to save pennies in this industry, but cutting quality is out of the question for me. Next, I’ve got to say that my signature “Gooba Dust” dry rub combined with my barbecue sauce—a secret recipe that I developed when I was fifteen years old—brings this unique flavor. The blend of spices really creates this party in your mouth. That’s why we put that sauce on everything!

Another facet of Phil’s BBQ is giving back to the community. What is your philosophy regarding charity?
It is about the children for me. I was a child who never went without. My dad taught me how to swing a bat, my mother taught me how to cook. Everything I’ve learned in the restaurant business I learned from my parents who owned an Italian restaurant in Cleveland for nearly 50 years. I started working there when I was eight-years-old bussing tables, making bread, and rolling meatballs. My dad would always remind me to “only do what you do best.” His advice has been a lifelong philosophy I’ve lived by.

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What local charities have you participated in?
I sit on the Board for Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County, and I am also active with many other charity organizations in San Diego. This year, I teamed up with San Diego Youth Services to be the presenting sponsor of their 12th annual Creations in Chocolate event, the proceeds of which benefit homeless and at-risk youth here in San Diego. I’m also very active with the San Diego Humane society. I really love this community, and I try to give back as much as I possibly can year after year.

Speaking of animals, tell us a little more about ResQue Ranch.
A couple of years ago, I founded a horse rescue called ResQue Ranch based in Escondido that rescues and rehabilitates abused, abandoned, and neglected horses. I’ve always been passionate about horses and I love nothing more than spending time out on my ranch with them. We had horses growing up, and I’m blessed to have the assistance of my sister Michelle in running the day-to-day operations of the ranch. It is incredibly rewarding for us both to be able to help make a difference. Readers interested in helping can visit resqueranch.org.

What advice would you give to up and coming restaurateurs?
Stay focused, stay driven, and be prepared to go through a new pair of shoes every month! Keep it simple and stay true to your concept. Remember that you can’t always make everyone happy. Most importantly, focus on the customer experience. Invest and reinvest in your business—you’ll get the credit for it by way of return business. Trust me, your customers will appreciate it and recognize you for it!

What is next for you and for Phil’s BBQ?
My team and I are diligently focused on exploring opportunities outside of California, particularly in the Las Vegas and Phoenix markets. Who knows though? Another California location certainly isn’t out of the question!