Name: Michael Gratz
QB Community member name: @mgratz
Business: Prairie Fire BBQ
Location: London, UK
Originally from Kansas City, USA, Michael Gratz found himself disenchanted with his job as a banker. When his wife accepted a job in London in 2012, he happily used the international relocation as an opportunity to shift his career in a direction he was more passionate about. While London is a major culinary center, Michael found the city lacking in American-style barbecue. Add that to Michael’s love of cooking, and a delicious idea was born. Today he and business partner, Eric Rosenberg, operate pop-up restaurants, trade at street food markets and create a retail line of sauces and rubs - all in the traditional Kansas City-style.
We caught up with Michael ahead of QB Connect London, where he is a featured vendor, to discuss the ups and downs of working for himself and what he’s looking forward to at QB Connect London February 27-28.
What made you decide to open a barbecue biz in London?
I have always had an interest in food, to the extent that I attended culinary school years ago to improve my cooking at home. When we arrived in London, I was amazed by the diversity of the cuisines here. However, there was one cuisine that wasn't represented -- Kansas City-style BBQ. As a native of the Midwest USA, having great barbecue is a weekly ritual, similar to the British Sunday Roast. I’d always daydreamed of owning a food business, so it made sense for me to fill the BBQ void in London.
Was it difficult launching a new business in a new country?
Starting a business in a new country was challenging. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know where or how to find suppliers, and I didn't have a ton of money. Back in 2012 street food was just starting to become a phenomenon in London, so I saw this as a low-cost gateway to start a small food business. I went out and talked to others in the industry and offered to help them for free. I wanted to connect with people and learn the ins and outs of the growing industry. As a result, my network grew, I found recommended suppliers, developed a brand name and made new friends.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned working for yourself?
The one piece of advice I would give is to have a business partner with an opposite skills set from yours. When you're a sole proprietor, business stops when you're not working. But you can’t be good at everything. The right partner can do things you don't specialize in, allowing you to focus on your strengths. Plus, a partner is a great sounding board for ideas.
My business partner, Eric Rosenberg, joined me in this journey in 2015 and has been integral in our growth. Our skill sets align perfectly -- I excel at the creative branding and food development, while Eric's expertise is analysis, technology and strategic business. My head is in the clouds, and his head is in the details.
How did you choose your business name?
I had a long list of potential names for the business -- County Fair Q, Barn Door BBQ, Cowtippin' Q -- which are funny to look back at now. I wanted a name that evoked Midwestern Americana, as well as conveyed the type of food we serve. I landed on Prairie Fire BBQ because “prairie” conveys the Midwest USA, the food is cooked with “fire” and BBQ is the style of cuisine. Also, fun fact: prairie fires are controlled burns that happen every autumn on the grasslands of Kansas to rejuvenate the land.
Are your customers familiar with American BBQ or was this a hurdle for you?
In the beginning, many customers would say the food reminds them of the stuff they'd seen on American TV shows like Man vs. Food or Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Fortunately, the TV did most of the education on American BBQ for me! I just have to explain what makes Kansas City Style-BBQ supreme over the other regional BBQ styles.
What are the other styles of American BBQ?
There are four prominent regional BBQ styles in the US: Kansas City, Texas, Memphis and Carolina. Carolina style is all about the pig, with a vinegar- and mustard-based sauce. Memphis style is primarily pork ribs with a dry rub. Texas style is all about beef, a simple salt and pepper rub without a sauce. Kansas City style BBQ is the best of all the meats served with the BBQ sauce everyone thinks of -- red, rich, a little sweet and smokey. A great sauce compliments the meats, it doesn't cover it up. To do great Kansas City style BBQ right, you need to be a “pitmaster” and also make a great sauce.
What does your typical day look like?
In the early days when it was just me, I would start at 4 a.m. at Smithfield Meat market picking up meats. I’d head to the catering kitchen to make sauces and prep the meats for overnight smoking, then have lunch service and repeat the cycle. As we’ve grown, operations are more streamlined now. We have the meats delivered and have chefs to help with all the prep. My days now consist of looking for new business opportunities, developing new products for retail and working our private catering events.
What is it like to work for yourself?
I love being my own boss, making decisions and driving the business in the direction I choose. I get to do the important, non-work things in life like taking my son to school each morning. On the other hand, it’s also very challenging shouldering all the responsibility of the success of the business. There is no room for procrastination, and stress is something you definitely need to manage.
What do you hope to gain at QB Connect London?
I hope to meet other entrepreneurs and hear their stories of success and failure. A bonus will be having our BBQ sauces there and sharing a true taste of Kansas City.
Joining the QB Community connects you to others who, just like you and Michael, dare to work for themselves. (Sign up here!)
Need more information? Here you go!