4 Rivers Smokehouse

Moving Upward: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

As our Moving Upward video series continues, we enjoy opportunities to work with and learn the story behind Tampa Bay businesses that continuously strive to make our home a better place to live and work. In our sixth project, we’re excited to share the story behind 4 Rivers Smokehouse!

Founded in Florida in 2009, 4 Rivers Smokehouse is a family-owned business specializing in slow-smoked barbecue, homestyle sides, and fresh bakery items with 14 locations in Florida and one location in Atlanta, Georgia.

Founder/CEO, John Rivers’, commitment to Texas-style bold flavors and creative ingredient combinations has garnered numerous accolades for the 4R signature style of BBQ, including an invite to cook at The James Beard House in 2013 and being recognized as one of “The South’s Best BBQ Joints” by Southern Living.

How It All Started

When John moved out to Texas after graduating from Florida State, he found the two loves of his life….his wife and brisket. Growing up in Florida, John didn’t have a lot of beef in his barbecue. Most of his barbecue consisted of pulled pork and ribs and when John went out to Texas and discovered the brisket, he was very impressed from the beginning.

That “lit his fire” to learn how to make it and be the best brisket Pitmaster in Texas. It took him over 18 years while traveling during his career in the healthcare industry to hone his taste and talent for brisket perfection.

In 2005, there was a little girl in John’s community who had cancer. John and his family had offered to help her and her family financially with the medical treatments, but the family refused. Instead, the family allowed John and his family to organize a barbecue fundraiser for the little girl at her church.

That first barbeque fundraiser was the catalyst behind John’s barbeque ministry that he ran for four years anytime children, schools or churches needed to raise money.  Ultimately, in 2009, this led to the opening of a small commissary that was supposed to be used to run the barbecue ministry out of.

“Obviously, God had very different plans for us. Now we sit on 15 restaurants in Florida and up into Georgia.” John said.

Even though the business has become a very success restaurant chain, they still treat their customers like the ministry back when it all started in 2005.

Keeping It Consistent

There are two things that John sees as challenging when running multiple location restaurants.  One is the consistency of the food and the other is the consistency in the people and service. John and his team learned a lot of lessons as the business grew about outsourcing their food and key products to keep them consistent. They chose a long time ago that would never happen. Each store continues to smoke all of its meats and cook all of their sides. They have put a lot of time and energy into ensuring that consistency through training and technology.

Value of the Team

The value of the John’s team cannot be understated. With so many locations, they can tell them how to dress and how to make a recipe, but at the end of the day what people remember the most when they visit a 4 Rivers establishment is the way they are treated. That attitude stems from being treated the way they want to be treated. If they wanted the team members to treat the guests with respect, it had to be done on the front end.

Over the years the 4 Rivers team has spent five to six times more in training than they do in advertising. The purpose of that is to create a remarkable experience. The root word of remarkable is remark. They want people to walk out of each establishment and tell people about the business since they do not invest as much into advertising as they do training their people. There is nothing that influences that “word of mouth” advertising than the people at each 4 Rivers.

4 Rivers’ culture is the lifeblood of their business.  When they talk about being a significant business, they have to make that idea prevalent in all of their business decisions and actions. John believes that upper management has failed if the team members they employ come into work and view it just “as a job”.  When team members view that brisket they are serving as an impact in someone’s life, they view their work much more meaningfully. When everybody shares that common vision of why they are in business and how to go about supporting it best, that is when the company culture grows.

“Food costs are secondary, guest satisfaction is first.” John said.

Community Involvement

Someone told John a long time ago, that a business owner will come to a crossroad between success and significance in due time.

“Success is defined in so many different ways by our community and society…it’s how big the company is, how much money you make, how many people work for you. All of those things are good as long as you don’t allow them to define who you are and it is not the primary reason why you are in business.”

The company’s success enabled John to be significant and to make a difference in so many people’s lives. Not just the people who walk through the door at each 4 Rivers location, but also the people who are working side by side with each other.

4 Rivers’ mission is using their God given gifts to make a difference in the communities that they serve.  Now starting off, John’s vision was not to own multiple restaurants. His dream was to start a company that he would use to serve as an example to show other people in the marketplace and young people that you can run a successful business and use that business to make a difference in the community.

In 2015, the 4R Restaurant Group established the 4R Foundation Inc. to ensure the continuation and enhancement of its charitable efforts. They host and participate in events that bring awareness and support to impactful issues benefitting respective charities such as Cows ‘N Cabs in Winter Park, Florida, as well as its sister event, Pink & Swine, in Tallahassee, Florida.

Their latest initiative is The 4Roots Farm and Agriculture Center, a 40 acre farm in the Orlando area, which will be dedicated to fostering a healthier and more economically vibrant regional food system.  The produce from this farm will go towards feeding the kids in the Orange County school system.

“You give people three things your time, your talents and your resources.  If you want to get them off your doorstep the fastest, write them a check. If you want to see them grow, you lend them your time, share your experiences, and you build up their confidence that they can be successful long after you have touched their life.”

Here is a look behind the scenes during our time at 4 Rivers Smokehouse:

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