My lunch with Famous Dave

Don't call his restaurants a chain, he says

He arrived a little late, maybe on purpose. It gave me my moment.

“One for lunch?” the hostess asked.

“Actually, two,” I said.

She nodded, and grabbed two menus.

“I’m meeting Famous Dave.”

Her eyes got wide. This was 2011, at the Famous Dave’s on Park Street. It wasn’t every day that Famous Dave came into Famous Dave’s in Madison.

A sidebar on Famous Dave’s in the terrific cover story feature on barbecue in the May Madison Magazine brought back memories of that lunch.

My chance to meet and break bread—and brisket—with Dave Anderson began six years ago with an effort by the WISC-TV Channel 3 morning show to identify the best barbecued ribs in Madison.

A producer for the show—knowing my fondness for ribs and burgers over, say, kale and carrots—asked if I would like to be involved. I said, “Sure,” and wrote a column asking my readers to chime in about their favorite local rib joints.

I mentioned that while I enjoyed Famous Dave’s on Park Street, I didn’t think we wanted to include a chain in our survey of local ribs.

At that point a certain amount of sauce hit the fan.

The day the column ran, David “Famous Dave” Anderson of Edina, Minnesota, sent me a 1,500-word email telling me how wounded he was by my referencing Famous Dave’s as a chain.

“I like to refer to us as a family of restaurants,” Anderson wrote. “I shudder when I hear people refer to Famous Dave’s as a chain.”

I can’t say I was persuaded. At the time there were about 185 Famous Dave’s restaurants around the country. But I was gratified that the tone of Anderson’s note wasn’t nasty, in fact it was cheerful. He told me about how he started in Hayward and mentioned that his wife was from Edgerton.

He closed by offering himself up for an interview.

That might not have happened, but my soon-to-be-wife, Jeanan, was then teaching a class at University of Wisconsin–Madison called “Entrepreneurship in Society,” and she was always on the lookout for interesting guest speakers.

She put out an offer to Famous Dave, who quickly said yes, and then he and I arranged to do an interview before his speech, over lunch at—where else?—Famous Dave’s on Park Street.

He arrived a little late, as I said. When he got to my table he smiled, shook hands, and when a waitress hurried over and asked how he was doing, Famous Dave said, “Smokin’.”

It was an enjoyable lunch. Famous Dave began by ordering enough food for six people—we were splitting the bill—because he wanted me to try everything.

I loved the ribs, but the best part of the meal was listening while he told me a bit about himself, the son of parents who met in a Native American boarding school in Kansas. His mom was a La Courte Oreilles Chippewa from Hayward with a gift for cooking Southern barbecue. Famous Dave got hooked early, and opened his own barbecue place, in Hayward, in 1994, insisting on everything being made from scratch.

He momentarily interrupted his tale when the ribs arrived, and watched as I dove in. “Does that taste like it’s from a chain?” Famous Dave said. By that time, customers had recognized him and he was posing for photos and signing autographs.

His restaurant wasn’t supposed to be named Famous Dave’s, Famous Dave explained. He’d wanted to call it Diamond Dave’s, but there was a taco place in Iowa by that name with an owner who threatened litigation. He decided on Dave’s Famous Barbecue, but the printer made a mistake and all the signage came back Famous Dave’s. He kept it. Within months they were serving 5,000 people a week, many who came from a distance. He decided to expand.

As I thought about Famous Dave last week. I wondered what he might have been up to since our lunch six years ago, I got a surprise.
Famous Dave isn’t Famous Dave's anymore.

A 2015 story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune broke the news that Dave Anderson split from Famous Dave’s in 2014, signing a one-year, non-compete agreement.

In 2015, Anderson began a new venture, Old Southern BBQ, that now includes four restaurants, three in northern Wisconsin and the fourth, which opened just recently, in the Twin Cities.

You’re not going to get me to call Old Southern BBQ a chain. I look forward to trying Dave Anderson’s new family of restaurants sometime soon.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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