Since opening his first branch of Dinosaur in Syracuse, New York in 1988, Stage has made the honky-tonk smokehouse an established BBQ brand, with locations in Rochester, Troy, and Harlem, as well as in Newark, New Jersey and even Stamford, Connecticut. And any day now, Brooklyn will get their very own outpost of Dinosaur, set in a converted tool-and-die shop along the banks of the Gowanus Canal. “Every time we open a restaurant we get inspiration from the neighborhood,” Stage said. “And believe me, this particular neighborhood has plenty to get inspired by.”
We spoke with the East Coast pit master about building a business from scratch, why BBQ is a social and economic equalizer, and whether or not New York will ever rank as a mecca of great ‘cue.
Brooklyn Magazine: What inspired you to get into the restaurant industry?
John Stage: I was up to no good before I got into the food business. So the food business and me were right for each other.
BK Mag: What was your first job in food?
JS: I think my first job was a dishwasher. I worked at a sub shop for about a minute. But I’m pretty much self-taught.
BK Mag: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que started out as a mobile concessions cart, that you took to bike rallies, festivals, and state fairs. How did it evolve into a full-fledged business?
JS: At the biker events I’d go to, the food was so lousy, and I really saw a need there. Necessity was the mother of invention. So I started out in 1983 under the name Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, selling stuff like Sausage and Peppers and Steak Sandwiches. But once I started crossing the Mason- Dixon Line, I realized I wasn’t doing real BBQ at all. I was just grilling. It inspired me to learn more about what real BBQ was. After a while, I got burned out after all the travel, and I moved back to Syracuse and opened my first restaurant there. It’s our 25th anniversary this year.
BK Mag: So how did you learn how to make authentic BBQ, especially since you didn’t grow up in the Midwest or the South, where BBQ is essentially a religion?
JS: When you look at all of the books and TV shows and East Coast restaurants focused on BBQ now, it’s easy to forget that it just didn’t exist in the mid-80’s. It was very much a south of the Mason-Dixon line experience. So I was very fortunate that my concessions business took me there. And when the festival season petered out in the fall, I hopped on my Harley and rode down to Memphis. I just started talking to people and asking how they did what they did and why. Everyone was very gracious. After that, BBQ became an obsession.