Todd Schafer admits that he essentially served as guinea pig when he purchased the very first two Old Carolina BBQ franchises, in Lyndhurst and later Mentor, from the Akron/Canton-based chain of eateries. But after only a few years in operation, he understood that the relationship needed to be terminated.
“I always wanted to go local, but Carolina BBQ’s identity is Carolina,” he explains. “It was a no-brainer what I was going to do. What needed to happen was for me to separate the relationship, stop right there and move on.”
Schafer, a firefighter who spent four years as part of a pediatric Life Flight crew, mistakenly thought that starting and running two restaurants would be a less stressful career choice. Nonetheless, he decided to go through a complete restaurant overhaul to strip both businesses of their Old Carolina DNA and replace it with Ohio-themed BBQ or “OHIQ.”
His two restaurants, which will reopen as Crooked River BBQ next Monday (Lyndhurst) and Wednesday (Mentor), will use “Ohio Proud” chicken, pork and beef. The meats are smoked over local hickory and cherry, the sauces are made and bottled in Independence, the dressings are from Hartville, the hot sauces from Westerville, and the beer, naturally, hails from around here.
“Barbecuing is easy, it really is,” says Schafer. “You find a good rub, you rub it on a giant piece of meat, you put it in a smoker and let the smoker do all the work for you. The hard part is the recipes and how each recipe complements the brand.”
Schafer said that these past three years in business have provided him with invaluable feedback on how to move forward. His all-new menu has more items, more options and more room for customization. Now guests can order everything from a pulled pork slider on up to a pound of smoked beef brisket. Chicken, ribs, hot smoked sausage, creative hot dogs, scratch-made sides and even salads round out a menu with a much broader appeal, he says.
“A lot of people don’t want barbecue all the time – that’s the problem with barbecue,” he says. “So we wanted to provide more variety of menu items and value.”
Schafer closed both stores last month to reconstruct, retool and rebrand. Both feature a fresh new look that screams Ohio rather than the Deep South.
He hopes to expand his Crooked River BBQ to other parts of the city.