Saturday, July 14, 2007 | Nearly a decade after opening shop in a tucked-away storefront in Mission Hills — and almost three decades after peddling his first barbecue dinner in Ohio — Phil Pace is reaching heights normally reserved for piles of pulled pork and cole slaw that come on his famous sandwiches.
Pace temporarily closed the Phil’s BBQ in Mission Hills to open a more expansive dining room in Point Loma, a move that has yielded him three to four times more business and his patrons some relief from the hotspot’s notorious waiting times. In addition, Phil’s BBQ will be opening up a banquet hall behind its Point Loma location to accommodate a growing demand for Phil’s BBQ’s catering arm.
This week, the 46-year-old Pace sat down with us to chat about the restaurant business, his move west, and the lengths barbecue fans have gone to get their hands on his recipe.
What brought you to California?
The weather. I realized that every night in the restaurant business is a Friday night in San Diego because of the weather. We had to deal with the weather back home, and me, the restaurant business and the weather did not agree.
I wanted to take a little sabbatical before opening up because I had been working all my life. My parents had been in the restaurant business — my father for about 55 years and my mother for 42 years. They had an Italian restaurant and I started working for them when I was eight.
What made you want to transition to barbecue?
We used to cook ribs to season the spaghetti sauce with cheesecloth. My mom and dad would take it out of the spaghetti sauce and then we would sit and eat it as kids. A friend of my father said, “You guys should serve this. Put it with the spaghetti sauce.” We started doing that, and then six months later he came back and said, “You’ve got to serve barbecue ribs.” That’s basically how it got started.
You then came to San Diego. How would you describe the barbecue scene here?
Great. It’s something different, out of the ordinary.
I had experienced Italian restaurants like I was used to, brought up and raised in: meatballs and spaghetti and mushrooms and marinara sauce and that’s it. When I first came out here to California, I noticed there are flairs off of what Italian food really is, which is good. And I notice a lot of people here in San Diego kind of miss that home-cooked, Midwestern-style food. I think that’s what kind of separates my food and my style from a lot of other places.
What about the barbecue? We’ve heard about Texas-style barbecue, Kansas City barbecue, Memphis barbecue. Does your recipe fall into one of those? Or is there a taste specific to San Diego or California?
No, not really. In Texas, they like their beef. They like it smoked. I kind of consider my barbecue to be a little on the Louisiana style, but with my flair. Down south, in the Deep South, there’s usually vinegar, mustard bases. But mine is kind of a sweet and sour.
What is the most difficult aspect of running a restaurant?
The help is a big deal. But then, too, is the consistency of the food. And third is the consistency of the restaurant — making sure that it’s clean and has good service. We offer a lot of that. We get a lot of compliments all the time from the guests.
Speaking of help, what’s it like trusting your kitchen staff to execute the recipe you concocted on a consistent basis every day? Are you watching every batch?
It’s up to the staff. I’ve got a head prep cook, the same for almost 10 years. I have a kitchen manager that’s been with me for almost nine years. Myself and my business partner, Jeff (Loya), have been involved in the day-to-day operation. There’s really not a day that goes by that we’re not here, unless it’s a family matter.
And in the management part of it, we try to get them to a point where they can take ownership later on down the road. As soon as I start stepping back a little bit, sometimes things kind of go south.
My experience with restaurants is that people open them and then leave them. They stay for the big hurrah at the beginning and then they think it’s going to stay there. But this is one business you should never take for granted.
Someone posted this about you on a website: “I would sacrifice my firstborn if Phil would baste the child in barbecue sauce and serve it with a side of beer-battered onion rings.” Care to comment?
I once had someone who wanted to put the sauce in his cereal.
Do you receive a lot of these types of requests?
No, not really. I take a lot of pride in what I do and people enjoy the food. And not just in enjoying it, but in appreciating it. With the many, many restaurants that we have in San Diego, and you can pick the ones that you really, really like and spend you’re hard-earned money … well, people like to voice themselves. With somebody like that, it’s hilarious.
Aside from the reviews I found of your business, you made news when some of your neighbors in Mission Hills didn’t like the smells coming from your restaurant. The Air Pollution Control Board won a judgment in court because of it. What’s the matter, people don’t like the smell of barbecue?
It was a battle, but I wasn’t going to go down quickly, just because of the way I was brought up. It was a problem really that got blown up. Like I tell a lot of people, we never said no to the problem, we just said give us some time. But people in the neighborhood didn’t want to wait. There are still some people out there that have some hard feelings. To me, that doesn’t make any sense.
How did you fix the problem? Barbecue is going to smell like barbecue, right?
In the beginning, nobody really knew what to do. But we put systems in that would cost us $125,000 a year to maintain …
It’s cost me three-quarters of a million dollars. But, you know, my mother’s Hungarian and she had a lot of sayings. She said, “You know what son, don’t worry about it. Right now, your revenge for what’s happened to you is your success.”
To what lengths have admirers of your sauce gone to get the recipe? Any ridiculous offers?
God only knows. They ask all the time. I say, “How many zeroes do you keep in your checkbook?” We’ve got a lot of things that are trademarked and registered …
About seven years ago, I had a gentleman walk in with a million-dollar check. He said, “I don’t want to do anything, I just want to be a silent partner, and I want you to take this.” And I said, you know what, it’s not all about the money. He complimented me when I said that.
But, you know, a recipe is a recipe. It all depends on how much pride, how much TLC you want to put into it.
It’s summertime, and there are many people who are going to try their hand at barbecuing. Any advice for these amateur grillers?
Come here, we can pre-cook it, and you can finish it off at home.
I had a friend who came in, who took home some of our food, and then he grills it at home. Well, he tried to get away with saying he did it himself. A few of his guests said, “No, no, we don’t care how you screwed it up on the grill, we know these are Phil’s ribs.”
— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN