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Restaurant turns stolen BBQ smoker into new opportunity

Haven does its version of the pandemic pivot.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. March 5, 2021
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The staff at Haven, sister restaurant of the famed Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, created a new recipe for instant success by mixing two ingredients. One is new: the pandemic pivot. The other is an old one: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

For Haven, the result is Larceny BBQ, a monthly pop-up food stand, for dine-in or takeout, that, in the words of a promotional press release, “will steal your appetite.” The concept has been wildly popular in its first two months, says Haven Executive Chef Chad Johnson, selling out in food and seats in the restaurant.

Larceny BBQ was born from lemons, or in this case, when the restaurant’s homemade smoker, a hunk of a machine it used for 15 years, was stolen from the parking lot in 2020. “The guy who stole it, he had to he had to put some sweat equity into it,” Johnson tells Coffee Talk. “It’s not a light piece of equipment.”

A native of Western Kentucky who grew up in BBQ culture, Johnson and his colleagues had used the smoker as something of a lab. They made everything from mayonnaise to ham on it, in addition to traditional ribs and brisket. Annoyed with the brazen thievery of their beloved and appetizing apparatus, the Haven team recently bought a new smoker, a Marshall. “It’s big enough you can cook a lot of food on it,” Johnson says, “but it’s not big enough to run a commercial barbecue restaurant.”

The led to the pivot: Instead of using it just for experiments and some menu items, Haven turned its smoker into an event. It debuted the pop-up in a Saturday in January, featuring traditional combo plates, a la carte meats and sides. It sold so many advanced on-line orders, Johnson says, they shut down the system. The second pop-up Saturday, in late February, was also a hit in pre-orders. “This thing is taken on a life of its own and has given us something fresh and relevant to do,” Johnson says.

In addition to good food, Johnson traces the success to a pandemic business lesson: “People are looking for value,” he says, “and a sense of familiarity.”

The pop-up smoker will keep the flames going, with the Haven team continuing to push the menu to include more surprises. “We switch it up every month,” he says. “There are no sacred cows on our menu.”


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