John Rivers Is Smokin’
The former healthcare exec has customers lined up outside his new corner office, Four Rivers Smokehouse, waiting for barbecue.
John Rivers has a secret marketing plan, and it centers on the seemingly endless line of customers outside his Four Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park.
“There has to be a line outside; there’s no room inside,” he says with a grin. “I sort of did that on purpose.”
The queue for his ’cue starts before the restaurant on the corner of Fairbanks and Formosa unlocks the door, and doesn’t end until the place closes at night. Since opening in October 2009, Four Rivers (with Rivers billed as owner and pit master) has become a social hotspot. Friends meet in line and discuss sandwiches; passing motorists slow down to see what the fuss is about; Facebook fans—of which there are more than 2,700—share strategies. (“Go at 2:30,” one posted, “before the moms pick up their kids from school.”)
A former executive for pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, and for Priority Healthcare in Lake Mary, Rivers bought the ex-tire repair shop for use as a working kitchen for the burgeoning catering business he started in 2004 out of his Winter Park home. He was advised not to join the already overcrowded field of barbecue restaurants in Orlando (including ones owned by Orlando BBQ maven Johnny Rivers—no relation) and to stick to catering. But the appeal of serving food directly to his growing crowd of fans was not one he could resist.
“We opened October 26—it was supposed to be July 4th,” he says. “People watched the website, and started knocking on the window asking when we were opening. They never had the food, but they wanted it!”
With his beacon of salt and pepper hair and outdoorsy good looks, the 45-year-old Rivers is approached at events and at the restaurant as if he’s an old friend. That, he says, is the biggest outcome of his unexpected success.
“I used to know everyone who ate my food,” he says. “It still amazes me that people walk up to me who I don’t know.”
The accolades Rivers receives can be emphatic. One very enthusiastic online fan wrote, “Finally a BBQ place in Orlando where I didn’t feel like jumping over the counter and punching the cook in the face.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Rivers grew up in Jacksonville and graduated from Florida State University. He spent several years in Texas, where he was introduced to both his wife, Monica, and the art of brisket smoking, courtesy of her family. The couple has two young children who, it can be assumed, will carry on in Dad’s smoky tradition.
The Smokehouse recipes have developed over decades of old-fashioned experimentation. “I have spreadsheets for every type of meat,” Rivers says as he talks about rub, temperature and wood variations, whether to marinate or inject, and how long to smoke.
The restaurant sells as much as 12,000 pounds of prime rib, pulled pork and St. Louis ribs every week. Two industrial wood-burning smokers run 24/6. (The place is closed on Sunday). Angus beef brisket is smoked overnight for 18 hours every day. (“Come at 11 a.m.,” Rivers says, “when it’s the best.”) Chicken and ribs come out of the smoker four times a day.
What arrives at the Four Rivers take-out counter is slow-cooked heaven, with a deep essence of seasoned wood and a dry-rubbed flavor that is part spicy Texas and part sweet Kansas City. Rivers calls his food “intentionally non-regional,” with a gleam in his eye that suggests plans for expansion that go beyond Orlando. There are several more local properties in his sights, and there’s a picture on his phone of a 1950s motor home he wants to convert into a roving BBQ van.
Walking through the woefully small table area by the parking lot, Rivers approaches one of his new friends.
“How’s everything?” he asks a happily sauce-smeared 20-something who looks up, too busy chewing to respond. Rivers smiles, patting him on the back. “Can I get you a dessert?”