The man who made Red Robin a national chain has plans for local legend Pecos Pit.
Barbecue queen Debra Wise will continue to own and operate the flagship branch of Pecos, long ranked among the city’s best barbecue, at the low-rent SoDo shack that’s drawn steady lines for decades. Wise still owns that business and will keep the secret recipe to the barbecue sauce that husband Ron, who recently retired, developed from his family kitchen.
But entrepreneur Gerry Kingen, the owner of the view-licious Salty’s restaurants and the man who turned Red Robin from a small Eastlake taven to an international operation, worked out a deal with the Wise family giving him the rights to franchise Pecos Pit. He plans to open an order-at-the-counter, sit-down Pecos branch by the end of the year in a location close to his heart — the building that housed the original Red Robin. (That original joint, at the south end of the University Bridge, closed in 2010 after the owners deemed the historic building too expensive to maintain). Kingen would like to be developing satellite Pecos locations by the beginning of next year, and franchising by the end of the year.
“We have a location that is our location, and then he has the world,” Deb Wise said earlier this week. If she ever chooses to sell the SoDo flagship — which she doesn’t see happening soon — Kingen has rights of first refusal. He’s also purchasing the barbecue sauce through Wise.
Wise said that Kingen has the right to change up the Pecos menu at his locations (look for beer, for starters), and that however he does so is fine with them, as she expects that “the quality is there and the place is clean.”
“Gerry, I saw, is very hands-on quality control. You go into Salty’s, you get good food. I thought, if ths is going to happen, it couldn’t happen with a better person than Gerry.
“He’s really just a great restaurant entrepreuner. He’s done very well — and we knew him. He’s been eating at Pecos since we opened.”
Kingen, who began the conversation with the Wises a few years back “while getting my Pecos fix” (of the pulled pork, fyi), was inspired by Ron Wise’s readiness to retire, and by a plummeting economy that would reward affordable, “truly delicious food that would stand the test of time.” When he learned the original Red Robin building was available (he had told Red Robin execs they should “bronze it” like a pair of baby shoes when it closed) the serendipity was irresistible. “It’s actually in good structural shape,” he said.
Given his history, he’s not worried about making missteps with such a well known local institution. “All you’re doing is refining it and evolving it a little bit…” he said. “Having done Red Robin, which is incredibly complicated, this is really simple, which is the beauty of it.” And he thinks Pecos will have a broad audience.
“We already have interest in China.”
In the meantime, though, Wise is still serving up brisket and pork spiked with hot links to the SoDo lunchtime crowd. She’s got a sign up now assuring regulars that their Pecos is there to stay for some time, outdoor-picnic-table-seating and hot sauce and all.
“I don’t want to retire…” she said. “I love working and I love that job and I love the people. You can’t just walk away from 33 years of customers.”