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Native Sun News: Famous Dave reflects on career of success

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy, Native Sun News Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Business and financial wizard David “Famous Dave” Anderson, the exuberant founder of the Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que franchise that bears his name, takes time out of his hectic schedule to pose with franchise mascot Wilbur the Pig. In the years prior to and since establishing Famous Dave’s in 1994, Anderson has also continued to build a solid, respectable reputation as a politician, motivational speaker and philanthropist. Photo Courtesy David Anderson.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA –– The eponymous founder of America’s most widely recognized and prolific chain of barbecue joints has always had more than just pork ribs on his mind.

Since at least 1971, David Anderson has been working hard establishing businesses, selling other companies, serving the public, furthering his education, writing books, delivering keynote addresses and paying attention to Native American youth, among other things.


Along the way, 58-year-old Anderson, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe, realized his lifelong passion in the form of Famous Dave’s Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que. The restaurant chain famously specializes in barbecue pork ribs, chicken and beef brisket.

Additionally, he helped found several other companies that are now publicly traded on Wall Street, creating over 20,000 jobs and generating billions of revenue dollars in the process. Anderson is considered a visionary and leading expert in brand development and peak product performance within the corporate world.

In 1994, the tireless, optimistic and vibrant entrepreneur humbly opened his very first restaurant in its original incarnation of Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que Shack in the small town of Hayward, Wis., on the edge of the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, next to Round Lake. The specialty restaurant was a tributary throwback to the barbecue joints popularized in the South during the 1940s, featuring slow-smoked spareribs slathered in Anderson’s own secret barbecue sauces. Famous Dave’s was an instant success – serving up 8,000 orders a week during its inaugural run in the sleepy hamlet of 1,800 residents – and, as the saying goes, the rest is (lip-smacking, finger-licking) history.

At almost 190 restaurants in 37 states and growing in less than 18 years, both the franchise and “Famous Dave” himself have indeed attained legendary status. Anderson is now synonymous with barbecue and has become the country’s reigning “rib king.” Prior to founding Famous Dave’s, Anderson said he spent 25 years perfecting his trade secret recipes.

Since inception, Famous Dave’s establishments combined have won over 500 restaurant and food service industry awards, from Best BBQ Sauce in America to Best BBQ Joint to, most recently, a coveted Silver Plate. Silver Plate Awards are presented annually by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association to food service operators who “epitomize the best of class.”

The chain’s flagship restaurant, Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que and Blues, is located in Minneapolis’ Calhoun Square.

Anderson credits his parents and their perseverance in the face of dire adversity as the inspiration for his award-winning foray into the world of barbecue pits and down-home hospitality.

“My dad’s a full-blood Choctaw Indian – I think there’s a little Chickasaw in there – from Idabel, Oklahoma, and my mom is from the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe (of Wisconsin),” Anderson said. “Both of my parents were stuck in Indian boarding schools; my dad remembers being whipped and beaten till his skin bled and broke, and he remembers having to eat soap if he spoke his language,” he said.

“They met at Haskell Institute for Indians, back when that’s what it was called, in Lawrence, Kansas. That’s where they fell in love.”

The former industrial, or trade, school has since been retooled and renamed Haskell Indian Nations University.

Following marriage, Anderson’s parents eventually settled in his hometown of Chicago, where they continued to instill a love of all things barbecue in him.

“My dad, being a good old Southern boy, really missed his Southern food, that’s how important it was for him. My mom recalls him almost dragging her down South almost every other weekend. Seriously, my dad would just drive. And one of the people who raised him was called Miss Mamie. She’s the one who taught my mom how to cook Southern.”

Anderson’s father continued his regular pilgrimages across the Mason-Dixon Line with his family in tow until his mother eventually became skilled at preparing Southern cuisine.

“That’s how important Southern food was in my family,” he reemphasized. Anderson’s father also honed his appetite for dishes from the region while working as an electrician in the Windy City.

“He worked with a lot of black construction workers, and he noticed during lunchtime, every once in a while, they would disappear. When they came back, they had some of the best-tasting barbecue. Being from the South himself, he started tagging along with these black guys. Before too long, he knew every black-owned barbecue joint in the city of Chicago.”

“When we went out, we went to Eddie’s Ribs in Logan Square,” said Anderson. “I grew up with barbecue.”

Anderson further recalled how important it was for his father to always have the right ingredients for all of his favorite recipes. His father would make additional trips to Oklahoma in search of what were once only regional specialties.

“He would bring back different corn flour, hot sauce – back then, Tabasco (sauce) was the only thing you could find in grocery stores. Down South, you had different hot sauces that my dad liked. He liked different corn syrups, sorghum syrup, and sourdough – some of the things that weren’t common up here in the North.”

Anderson’s father also relished a particular brand of pepper that was only available throughout the South at the time.

“I was influenced at an early age how important certain ingredients are,” he said.

Famous Dave’s cooking skills were developed primarily under the tutelage of his mother. During his youth, he spent the majority of his summers on the Lac Courte Oreille Reservation, his mother’s homeland.

“I learned how to cook from my mom, working in her Indian fry bread stand. We used to make a wild rice soup, and today, that chicken wild rice soup” is a menu item at Famous Dave’s restaurants, said Anderson. “I think you could say my cooking got its roots for being Indian.”

In speaking about his maternal, familial tribe, Anderson emphasized the commonalities shared with other indigenous nations.

“The Lac Courte Oreille Tribe has some shining moments and – just like many tribes – is dealing with some other issues with desperate economic times, as well as the rising influx of gangs and drugs,” he said. “Economically, I think we have a high unemployment rate. Even thought the tribe has a casino, it’s on a downward slope.”

Throughout the course of his varied and extraordinary career, Anderson has admirably managed to attend to his philanthropic side.

“What my wife and I have decided to do, we have the LifeSkills career leadership work. We have a career skills training program that we make available to Indian college students. We’ve also done work up in Canada. We’ve helped a number of tribes, with my son up there. We’ve given a lot back to our at-risk Native youth through our career and leadership training program.”

Established in 2002 by Anderson and his wife with a $1.5 million gift, The LifeSkills Center for Leadership provides scholarships to at-risk Native youth for attendance at top rated leadership workshops. According to the LifeSkills website, the center facilitates youth participants’ transition from “passive members of their schools and communities” to “bold leaders that have direction and focus.”

Anderson clarified his less-involved current role in the operations of Famous Dave’s Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que restaurants and the subsidiaries’ parent company, Famous Dave’s of America Inc.

“I am the founder of Famous Dave’s, and I am a shareholder of Famous Dave’s. But today, Famous Dave’s is a publicly traded company on Wall Street under the Nasdaq Stock Exchange, so I don’t own Famous Dave’s. The public owns Famous Dave’s. There’s a corporate staff, there’s a corporate board of directors, and I’m sort of retired today, although I do a lot of work. I help open new restaurants. I help develop new recipes. I’m not active day to day in the running of Famous Dave’s.”

Headquarters for Famous Dave’s of America is located in neighboring Minnetonka. In addition to his success as a restaurateur, Anderson had a long and equally successful, parallel career as a politician, most notably with the U.S. Department of the Interior. In September of 2003, he was appointed assistant secretary of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs by President George W. Bush.

“It was a two-year commitment because, for a year, I had to deal with the U.S. Senate,” he said. “The position required a confirmation (by the Senate), and it took almost a year to comply with that.”

“Even though I spent a year in office, it almost took two years out of my life.”

He abruptly resigned from the post in February 2005.

The experience was very disappointing, said Anderson, although he was honored and humbled to have been considered.

“I think it’s an honor for any Indian person to be considered for that position,” he said. “I think it was a disappointment for me in the fact that there had already been another person before me. I kind of got thrust into this as not going in being in full command because a lot of this other person’s staff was already in place. And I think one of the aha moments was to find out that you’re not really in charge.”

Prior to Anderson’s appointment, Neal McCaleb of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma headed the BIA for a two-year stint. He was also named to the position by Bush.

“It’s just like any other (federal) department, whether it’s the Department of Education, it’s the Department of Defense (or) it’s the Department of Agriculture. When people come in, just like President (Barack) Obama came in and said everything was going to change, and almost hardly -----anything has changed. It was the same for me when I got in. It’s because the solicitors that are in the department, in reality, they’re almost the policymakers.”

According to Anderson, the solicitors are the powerful attorneys who work within the bureaucracy of Washington, D.C.

“You ask if this can be done, and (the solicitors) say ‘It’s not how we do things. It’s against policy’,” Anderson said.

"No matter how much I wanted to shake things up and create a Bureau of Indian Affairs for Indian people, I was always faced with policies and procedures and also government unions," he said.

“I think there are some very capable people in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many of them are the ones that are belly-to-belly with our Indian people out in the region; the regional offices or the local offices are usually the ones that do the most work. There’s a lot of trimming down that could be done within government. Somehow, if the money could go directly to Indian people, that would be better.”

However, attempting to make a difference within the federal bureaucracy is a battle that can’t be won, indicated Anderson.

“I would never do it again,” he said firmly.

Anderson’s primary objective during his tenure as head of the BIA was to improve the current system of Native American education.

"I’m a believer," he said, "and I had this vision for turning our BIA schools into leadership academies."

“It seemed like every time we wanted to get something done, there was this unseen force of politics” working against us.

By his own concession, Anderson is not a great politician.

“I’m an entrepreneur, and I’m a very good entrepreneur,” he said. “I’ve helped create some very famous businesses. And Famous Dave’s will do almost half a billion dollars – $500 million in sales” for the fourth, and final, business quarter of 2011.

Famous Dave’s of America will publicly announce those earnings following the close of the stock market on Feb. 15.

“There are Famous Dave’s restaurants from coast to coast. From Washington, D.C., to California, from the state of Washington down to Texas, we have Famous Dave’s all over the country.”

In further reflecting on the time he spent working for the U.S. government, Anderson said, “I’m a great entrepreneur who happens to be a Native American, but you almost have to have a political foundation to last in the (BIA). It was just best for me to go back to where I’m used to being able to get things done.”

Anderson passionately structured the future of this country’s indigenous peoples against the backdrop of the antiquated, futile system of governmental bipartisanship and its enmeshment of Native American policy in the form of the BIA.

“First of all, I don’t think it’s (just) the future of Indian people, it’s also the future of America,” he said. “I really believe today that my experience in Washington, D.C., has done nothing but reaffirm what I believe that most people in America believe: that our government is deadlocked, or gridlocked.”

The Republicans won’t vote for the Democrats, and the Democrats won’t vote for the Republicans, said Anderson, and I believe today that the real strength of America is what happens in local communities.

“The same thing holds true for Indian country. I believe today that while the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been somewhat of a voice for Indian people in the past, the real voice of Indian country and the real strength of Indian country is what happens within our own Indian communities. If there’s any future for Native America, it certainly is not going to come from the Bureau of Indian Affairs – it’s going to come from our own people having the drive and the determination to become economically self-sufficient and living as a determined people," he said.

Anderson said he also believes that the continued survival of indigenous peoples in America is not only contingent on past traditions, but is further dependent on establishing new traditions.

“I believe that the real reason why our elders and our forefathers were respected, it wasn’t because they knew how to harvest wild rice or they knew how to take down a deer and turn that hide into moccasins or they were able to harvest and dry the meats, I believe that what they were doing was surviving successfully in their environment. And I think that’s key,” he said.

“As Indian people, our legacy has always been about being able to survive successfully in any environment, under any condition. I think about our elders or forefathers – they might be horrified that we are trying to teach our young people how to make moccasins if we can’t first sit our child down in front of a computer and teach that child how to look up the family’s investment portfolio.”

Anderson said Native peoples have to be diligent about being able to survive successfully in today’s economic, political and social environments.

“It’s like the computer is our new buffalo. We have to be able to navigate the digital highway with the same effectiveness that our forefathers used to be able to read the tracks of different animals, whether it be the buffalo or the deer, they were able to look at the ground and they were able to figure out where to go next to be able to harvest, to be able to survive.”

And Anderson is a living testament to possessing the ability to survive, as well as thrive, as a Native American. He said that he initially did not expect his Famous Dave’s venture to be as phenomenal as it has been and that he has made the impossible possible in his life.

“My story really just proves that anything is possible. As Indian people, we can start and run businesses and have them expand nationally – if you’re willing to work hard and if you devote yourself to making other people happy.”

Anderson is scheduled to make an appearance in Rapid City for a public speaking engagement on entrepreneurship at the University Center, 4300 Cheyenne Blvd., on Feb. 21 at 11 a.m. MST. The event is sponsored by South Dakota State University, one of the center’s participating universities.

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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