Friday, March 31, 2006 

Chef Calvin Woods of Calvin's BBQ

If you live in Chicago and you’re passionate about your ‘Q, maybe you’ve heard about or know Calvin Woods and his two restaurants – Smokin’ Woody's and Calvin’s BBQ. Whether or not he’s your pick for best BBQ in Chicago, there’s one thing you can’t argue: The guy is charmed with the press, and inspires near-rabid loyalty from his customers.

SEEING STARS. I think I’m pretty damn good at spotting talent (and potential stars), especially in food & music. With Calvin, it did take me a little longer than usual; maybe because he was busy laying into me (testing me?), seeing how I would react to his natural street-level banter. For the record, anyone who knows him would never call him g-rated or politically correct; which I find very liberating, refreshing & entertaining (drop the mask - let's see the real you!). The first time I met him, I was trying to recruit him for some culinary event or another, and he wasn’t having it (I'd hate to be some grind-it-out salesman calling on him - you'd have to REALLY want that sale bad to put up with all the razzing). Although I’ve been working on convincing him about the importance of PR & media stuff, for all his in-person bluster and show, he’s not a real spotlight hog, and it’s not easy to get him to do onstage stuff. That said, his star quality really came out after Leigh Hanlon and I shot some photos of him and his food a couple of year ago (on spec, i.e. free). At that point, it became obvious: He’s a culinary star. Leigh even commented that he had a "Hemmingway" look going. Whatever it is, in the short time I've known him, many things have happened to confirm the “food star” title for Calvin Woods.

SMOKIN’ WOODY'S. A few years before I met him, Calvin took over Smokin' Woody's, an existing business on Chicago’s north side that wasn’t doing well. As I tell folks: The previous owner was one of those guys where you have to wonder why he ever chose the restaurant biz. Rumor has it the guy was well-off before he opened the joint, didn’t really need the dough; and he for-sure owns the building for the restaurant. Let's just say his people skills left a lot to be desired (he’d even smoke his cigarettes in plain view as he cooked – not a great image to keep the business flowing). My experience with the guy – and countless others I’ve since spoken to about him – kept me from ever wanting to go back there.

THE MAGIC TOUCH. Quietly, Calvin took over this crippled business, being forced to keep the name as part of the deal. And what he did with there, almost completely on the strength of his personality and charisma, has since convinced me even more that he’s a star. Knowing how hard it is to make a new restaurant successful (the majority of them fail, within the first 16 months), imagine embracing a business with a negative perception, and turning it around. And oh, by the way… with no marketing dollars to really splash the “new ownership” fact. To me, that’s a hard, hard challenge, nearly a miracle. But Calvin did it.

STREET SMARTS. If you've ever hung out on at a sidewalk table outside Smokin' Woody's and watched Calvin do his "show," you'll get what I believe is a snapshot of how & why he turned that place around. He's like a carnival barker, jiving with the folks passing by. FYI, that place gets my vote for one of the best sidewalk dining settings in the city. Right on Lincoln Ave., it's just the right flow for people-watching, not too crazy with car traffic, and the neighborhood is one of the hottest in the city. Here's Calvin doing his "street show" (it's best with women involved): "Hey gorgeous! How you doin'?" Or "Are they making a movie down the street? 'Cause you must be the star, you so beautiful!" And on and on and on - very entertaining.

CALVIN’S BBQ & TED. Regardless of Calvin's name & face on the door, you can't credit his success without mentioning Calvin's partner at the new place, Ted (?). I'm sorry to say I don't know Ted's last name, but he's a key component there. Ted (an equally large fellow, called "linebacker big" in one of their many print articles) is a good guy, and a lot of fun. I think he told me his background was (and is) a contractor; he spent a lot of time getting the restaurant ready to open. Although less visible to some, Ted is around the place a lot with the day-to-day.

Ted & Calvin met each other at Smokin' Woody's, obviously hitting it off. I think I heard something about some high-end tequila being involved (Patron) when the decision was made to partner, but I could be wrong...

LUCK OR TALENT? For a big guy, Calvin has amazing reflexes, which I’ve witnessed. Case in point: Calvin, myself and Ted (his partner at Calvin’s BBQ) were driving back from a morning cooking & music segment we did last summer on NBC Channel 5, promoting Ribfest Chicago. We were close to his Smokin Woody’s restaurant, cruising up a side street, when some no-look dumbass yuppie in a real expensive ride pulls out fast from the alley, not even bothering to look our way. Ted & I would have bet any amount of money there would be some kind of crash - but no. Quick as a cat, Calvin yanks the wheel hard left, avoiding this car. How he missed both the moving car on the right, and the parked cars on the left, was incredible. Even though there was literally about an inch to spare, we still got through clean. Don't know about you, but I'd rather be lucky than talented. Perhaps Calvin has equal doses of both...

SUCCESS. There aren’t many restaurants (or any kind of new businesses) I’m aware of that can claim the same kind of instant success as Calvin’s BBQ. It’s truly unusual. He's been busy since his first day, and it hasn’t let up yet. As far as I know, he hasn’t spent much (or anything) on advertising; he’s gotten amazing reviews in Chicago media; and on (the Chicago Tribune’s online entertainment guide), he has the highest concentration of 4 star customer reviews of ANY restaurant I’ve seen there. What's up with that?

MARKETING AFFIRMATION. In the bigger picture, I completely believe Calvin's new venture (I think he opened in July 2005?) is an example of everything lining up perfectly. Business name, website, owner (look and personality), logo, format, location, timing. Green lights, right down the pike. Like all the tumblers for a lock lining up at once, and the vault opens wide. To be certain, you can't ignore other key elements for this success: past experience (and failure), successes, street savvy and current culture.

HUMBLE? For all the outward signs of him being an extrovert, I practically had to beg Calvin to sign off on the “Calvin’s BBQ” name and logo. (he wanted to call it “Woody’s”). FYI, he also fought me on adding his photo to his logo, one of my designs. At first glance, Woody's makes perfect sense, considering his last name. However, as the owner a few registered trademarks, and having been forced to become VERY familiar with the related legal workings (I've had run-ins with TV Food Network and Chipotle Mexican Grill), I know that using that name would have been a very, VERY bad idea. Why?

TRADEMARK TROUBLE. Had he gone with that name, he would have gotten his ass kicked down the road by the registered trademark owner of that name, a BBQ chain called Woodys Bar B Q, which owns close to forty units in the Southeast Unites States. NOTE: I own a few marks, and have some firsthand legal experiences I'll share at another time. Specifically, as the owner of a trademark, that chain is legally compelled to cease & desist any other business using the same name. Result: Calvin would have been forced to change not just his name (a killer), but also his signage (outdoor sign, vehicles), menus, t-shirts, hats, website, etc. A very serious expense, enough to kill a lot of small business owners. He also told me he “wasn’t feeling it” with using his photo on the logo. But I have a completely different perspective on that.

AUTHENTICITY! To me, what can really help create customer loyalty for a brand, band, business, restaurant, etc. is being authentic. Not an act; someone who lives & dies it, every day. What you see is what you get - powerful and effective. I’m thrilled when I go into a bar for the first time, and there really is a Johnny, or Sue, or Buster (or whatever person's name the place is called). I want to meet THE man (woman). On a bigger level, there was Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Paul Newman, The Frugal Gourmet (before his past caught up with him), Paul Prudhomme, etc. All examples of a real person driving a brand.

Finally, Calvin is now telling me he's about ready to launch his own brand of BBQ sauce - we've been talking about that for a couple of years now; his logo was also done specifically with an eye on that very thing. Based on Calvin's luck & talent, his merchandise might be more successful than his restaurants - you never know...

PHOTOS: Leigh Hanlon for Pens & Lens.

NEXT UP: Mexican Chefs Who DON'T Cook Mexican Cuisine

Saturday, March 25, 2006 

(Sir) Chip Znuff of Enuff Znuff

The Chipper. The White Rasta. Sir Chip. These are a few names I use for Chip Znuff, a couple of them which I coined myself after knowing and playing with him for a few years now.

Chip & his Enuff Znuff band are originally from Chicago’s south side (and I’m not), so I didn’t know much about them until a few years ago. They had some nice success in the 80’s, had a major label behind them, a top 40 hit (or two?), got video play on MTV, and picked up some pretty famous fans (like Howard Stern). But it would seem the rock & roll lifestyle took its toll, and although they still tour with some newer players, it’s probably fair to say the band has yet to recapture that success. Especially since one of the original members (Derek Frigo) recently died of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles.

HOWARD STERN. As any true Howard Stern fan knows, Stern is a SERIOUS Enuff Znuff and Chip Znuff fan. Stern has Chip on the air often, knows their songs, gets an obvious kick out of Chip, and talks openly about how Chip is “always baked – always smokin’ the weed.” Click here to visit Enuff Znuff's site and hear an MP3 audio clip of an 2005 interview from Stern’s show. As it's safe to say Stern has a much bigger audience than me, I hope it's also safe for me to confirm what Chip and Stern both discuss openly (the inspiration for my "White Rasta" title for him). And while that description may be true, it would be colossally unfair to let that stand as Chip's whole story.

SIR CHIP. This is another moniker I coined for him, speaking to his EXTREMELY melodic approach to bass, which I'm convinced was inspired by Paul McCartney's equally melodic bass parts on so many Beatles records (Sir Paul, Sir Chip - now you know). Chip is the one bassist I work with who can get away with so much movement inside a song (also known as "busy"). If it were anyone else, I'd tell them to reel it in, and simple out RIGHT F***ING NOW! But Chip's playing is so musical, so spot-on-in-time & tone, so creative, it's hard to discourage his natural instincts. FYI, what's really interesting is when he plays with our Lonesome Halos band (Americana, country/rock genre). Most people would have a hard time understanding how a hard-rocking bassist would work in this format, but to my ears, it's great. And did I mention what a melodic player he is?

MEETING THE CHIPPER. I first met Chip a few years back, playing at a 50th birthday party of a former Enuff Znuff associate (Manager? Producer? Unclear...). The place is called Wise Fools in Chicago, a pretty nice mid-sized room in Lincoln Park. I'd grabbed some "usual suspects" to get through the gig (including a great chick drummer, Theresa Drda). Unbeknownst to me, Chip was a guest, hanging in the back, wearing his perpetual funky floppy hat & hippie sunglasses. Chip or no Chip, for whatever reason, it was a good night for me.

Did you ever have a day (or night) when you simply can do no wrong? Kinda like driving through the city during rush hour, and every light you hit is green? Speaking in pure musician terms (setting aside business for a moment), the pinnacle is this: no disconnect between thought & action. You think it, you play it, absolutely no difference between the two. That was me that night, and Chip was witness to it. I'm hoping to have at least a few more musical nights like that before I die.

Anyway, after a set or two, I walked over to introduce myself, and Chip says “I love the way you play, bro.” I thanked him, and asked if he’d like to sit in with the band. After peeking at the setlist, he picked one: “Polk Salad Annie.” Chip definitely brought the “star” vibe onstage with him; pedaling the low E string with one hand (repeating one note over and over), smoking a cigarette with the other, sunglasses intact. Cool cool, daddy-o. And Theresa Drda loved every second of it - what drummer wouldn't?

DRIVING THE DRUMMER. Another thing that’s unusual about Chip as a musician: He oftentimes drives the drummer, which is counter to most bands. Here’s the typical live band structure: The band leader calls the tunes, and a lot of times the tempo, too. After that, it’s the drummer’s job to drive the band, with everyone else falling in with them. However, with a player like Chip, who has extraordinary time, tone & attack, he’s usually leading the drummer. And if there’s any drummer who can’t lock in with Chip… NEXT!

THE HUMAN ANTENNAE. One last thing I've observed about Chip's playing: He's a scary-good quick study, (damn near) a one-take guy in the studio, and has incredible recall of tunes, even after not playing/hearing them for a couple of years. In my world, that's the kind of player you want on your project, as there's a minimal learning curve, and you sound tight right away (this is not unnoticed by others; Chip gets hired on world tours by bands like Missing Persons, or the original drummer from Guns & Roses; He's also hired frequently for recording sessions by music producers, most recently having done some tracks with an artist called Twista). But why is this?

I have a theory I've never heard anywhere else, which I'll share now. I truly believe some musicians (like Chip, and I've met a few others along the way, including Lee Sklar and Jim Keltner) have evolved beyond listening with their ears. Their whole body almost becomes an antenna, soaking up the song, anticipating changes, intuitively locking in. It's an unconscious, streaming process that's subtle yet powerful - they listen with their bodies. Perhaps that explains why Chip can maintain his "White Rasta" lifestyle, but not be subject to - musically, at least - the stereotypical behavior those "Just Say No" boneheads would have us believe.

VH1 REALITY SHOW. Just this week (Monday afternoon), I got a call from Chip: “Elliot!” (His nickname for me, referencing my guitar playing similarity to Elliot Easton of the Cars, a huge compliment). “Elliot, I need some more shirts this week - by Thursday.” Among other things, I design t-shirts, including this most recent one. Turns out Chip & what's left of the original members are taping a reality show this week in L.A. for VH1. I don't have all the details, but it may be called "Band On The Run?"
So I made some calls, found a shirt printer in L.A. who said they could meet the deadline; I tweaked out the image, and they got the shirts on time.

MAGNANIMOUS. That’s a word you don’t see or hear all that much, especially when applied to musicians. But I think it suits Chip. Most folks seem to like Chip pretty well, he's universally nice to people, and he seems to be fairly nonplussed about who he knows. I didn't know he was pals with Howard Stern until last year; and I find out last week he's pals with the president of VH1 (the reason they're doing the reality show this week). Now THAT'S what I call cool, folks.

ENUFF! Well, that's enough of this (for now). But when Chip gets back into town, we've got some other stuff happening - did you know Chip LOVES to cook? Stay tuned...

Chip Znuff Photo: Leigh Hanlon.

NEXT UP: Chef Calvin Woods Of Calvin's BBQ

Tuesday, March 21, 2006 

In Being The Rock & Roll Chef®..

My name is Marty Larkin, aka The Rock & Roll Chef®. A few years back, I went ahead and got The Rock & Roll Chef registered as a trademark (dig the "circle R") which makes me the only person who can legally call themselves that. Having a trademark is usually a good thing, but as part of the deal, you have to protect it from time to time, which can be time-consuming and expensive. But enough of the legal stuff for now.

Beyond being the R&R Chef (I really am a professional chef and professional musician), I’m involved with a few other projects, which somehow end up all feeling pretty much the same. To me, most of the things I work on fall under the food, music or entertainment categories. Having said that, I’ve discovered most people have a hard time understanding how someone can be doing so many different things; or, at least, can’t believe that you'd be good at any single one of them. Or they just flat-out don’t believe what I’m telling them. I think our culture is to blame for this prejudice against jacks-of-all-trades; we’re trained from an early age to think only in terms of singular labels and categories for people.

I have also been accused of having too many projects going, of not deciding what I really want to be when I grow up. To which I say: Save it. The kind of people who would say that don't "get" me, and I don't "get" them, and I’m past giving a f*** about it. No, there’s just no substitute for a well-placed swear word. Poetry, in fact, when used correctly – like when Richard Pryor swore (vs. Eddie Murphy). So deal, baby.

Maybe part of all this activity is the desire to taste it all: To quote a late/great Warren Zevon tune: "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." If I live to get old(er), the one thing I don’t want to take with me is… regrets. They’ll eat you alive, make you crazy, get you talking to yourself, chastise you. Regrets are the unforgiving inner dialogue, gunning you down like a solitary, perpetual firing squad that keeps on killing you, killing you, killing you, over and over. Hey, maybe I’ve gotten my ass kicked on something, did or said the wrong thing, made bad decisions on people I affiliated with; and maybe it happened more than once… but at least I’ll never have to say: What if? To me, taking those thoughts into old age would be a curse FAR greater than most things I can imagine.

And so, after a lot of reservations about starting YET ANOTHER project, and not wanting any regrets in this area... I’m taking the advice of senor Leigh Hanlon, my scary-smart, fun and sociable, good with a quote, trivia king, amiable bar fly, shameless pun-monger and information junkie pal, and I’m starting this blog. FYI, Leigh and I work on a lot of cool stuff together, and his name will be popping up here quite a bit. As a newspaper guy (Chicago Tribune), Leigh's been urging me to do a blog (and a podcast), with a heavy spin on commercially-relevant content for quite awhile (i.e., recipes, culinary arts, etc.). While I understand and agree with his idea towards me being more commercially successful, it's taken me some real gumption to bolster the motivation to start yet another project, especially one in front of the computer screen. Startup is always the hardest part, especially another "spec" project - not a real exciting prospect for me.

PEOPLE POWER. After a lot of stops & starts with this thing, searching deep, here's the angle I think I'll pursue with this blog (after music, food & entertainment of course): People. If you’ve ever heard it said and believe that “the people you know are your greatest resource,” then I suppose I’m pretty resourceful. I’m not saying I’m on good terms with them all, but I really do know a lot of folks. Just like I know there’s a lot more to life than working one corporate job or career (not that there’s any real security or loyalty there), I’m truly interested in all kinds of stuff and the people involved with it. Especially creative/talented people and their projects/passions, who aren’t afraid to take a risk. The REAL heroes walking planet earth.

So, if I’m gonna spend more time sitting on my ass and killing my eyesight, I think I'll just highlight the projects and people I’m involved in, which I find incredibly interesting, and hope you do too.

NEXT UP: Chip Znuff of Enuff Znuff