Gobble, Gobble to Go
Smoked Turkeys, Community Support Pull Alum’s Growing Barbecue Business Through a Tough 2020
The aromas are spot-on when you open the door fronting Duke Street in Alexandria, Va. There’s the overwhelming tang of wood smoke, the mouthwatering slow-cooking meat and spices, and finally the combination of all the elements gradually soaking over the years into the dining room’s ceiling, walls and picnic tables.
But the Pavlovian olfactory response—it’s eatin’ time—is tempered just a bit by the view inside Dylan Kough ‘11’s Smoking Kow restaurant: Empty of diners, tables are stacked with bags of potato rolls, cleaning products and random boxes. The condiment bar, now off-limits, stands bereft of the normal symphony of sauces. For a barbecue fan, it all looks a little sad. So, which of your senses do you believe?
Follow your nose, Kough says.
“Believe it or not, we’re not down a ton from last year,” he said one morning last week as several employees bustled around the kitchen and front counter, and customers started trickling in for their carryout lunch. And just in time for Thanksgiving this week, many will be picking up their smoked turkeys—a sideline Kough (pronounced “cow”) started dabbling with in 2018 and maxed out this year to keep business flowing during the pandemic. (He’s been breaking the news to callers for nearly two weeks that he’s out of space to cook any more birds.)
Kough, who entered the restaurant business because, he said, “I wanted to do something that actually made people happy,” hates the fact that it’s unsafe for people to eat inside his restaurants, including a second location in Arlington, where he can observe the joy he aims for his brisket, beans and cheesy jalapeno grits to create.
Although he can’t lay eyes on fans of his restaurant right now, he credits them with quieting the sense panic that hit March 12—the day after the global coronavirus pandemic was declared, when almost no diners showed up for the normally busy lunch hour—and for ultimately pulling the Smoking Kow out of the fire, one to-go order at a time.
“Particularly in March and April, we got an outpouring of support from the community, and I’m really thankful for that,” he said. “The big thing you heard a lot of was ‘save your local restaurant.’”
The seeds of the business—or at least of Kough’s entrepreneurial spirit—were sown in grade school in Bethesda. Stock simulation games in class led him to convincing his mother to start a small account so he could practice stock trading; attending the Robert H. Smith School of Business after graduating from Walter Johnson High School was a natural fit.
But a couple years after graduation with a double major in finance and accounting, while working at a major international accounting firm, he decided poring over spreadsheets wasn’t what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. That’s when he remembered a high school infatuation with the idea of opening a hot dog stand. It had progressed as far as lining up a bratwurst supplier before red tape became too much for the 18-year-old, who’d spent his childhood envying a shaved ice seller outside his local Barnes & Noble.
“I used to think, ‘This guy is really living the life!’” he said. “He was probably making $50 a day, but at the time, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Instead of a snow cone cart, in 2014, a grown-up Kough made his move and purchased a Workhorse catering truck, galloping into what was at the time a Wild West industry in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia. His original idea was barbecue tacos, but facing a line of 30 hungry office workers in Farragut Square, he discovered that a plate of straightforward barbecue was just as welcome, and put food in people’s hands faster.
The restaurant grew out of his Smoking Kow food truck almost by accident. Kough was paying $2,500 a month for a sliver of space in a shared commercial kitchen in D.C. A search for a more suitable option led him to the Duke Street location, which also boasted a dining room. It opened in early 2018, followed by the second location on Sycamore Street in Arlington last year.
The business has attracted some notice, with Washington Post food reporter Tim Carman praising its brisket, featuring an exterior bark that “glistened like stars in the nighttime sky” and its work with chicken, “a notoriously difficult animal to smoke.”
Such publicity helps, but only goes so far, so to maximize cash flow, Kough continued running the two food trucks he now owns—but empty office buildings during the pandemic have crushed that end of the business.
“I took a truck out myself yesterday—totally worthless,” he said. “Last year, we were making $1,200 to $1,300 in the eleven-1:30 time period. Now it’s more like $150. You don’t even cover your costs.”
Robert Miller, a trained chef and food truck owner who used to compete with Kough on the streets and now has teamed up with him on a third food truck, said the Terp is the kind of restaurateur who’s wily enough and dedicated enough to the quality of his food to survive a global crisis that is killing off other restaurants.
“He has the things you look for in a business partner—he’s very honest, he’s a really hard worker—and you have to like the person,” he said. “And when it comes to the numbers, he really knows what he’s talking about.”
Though he left accounting and business consulting behind, Kough said he’s never used his business education more intensely than now in the struggle to get to the other side of a raging pandemic.
“If you asked me where we were going at the beginning of the year, I could have told you,” he said. “I can’t tell you now. Now it’s just doing everything you can do, day to day.”