It's high noon along Ritchie Highway, and inside a brick building where the walls are lined with pictures, patches, and paraphernalia from World War II, Vietnam, and other conflicts, a group of soldiers stands beneath Old Glory singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." The anthem, crooned daily as part of a midday ritual, is packed with power and passion. When it's over, there's thunderous applause and a round of whoops and cheers.
An American Legion or VFW post perhaps? Guess again. It's just another day at a local smokehouse known as Mission BBQ, where, alongside heaping helpings of brisket, pulled pork, and baby-back ribs, there's patriotism on every plate. As the restaurant's name implies, it's service first, barbecue second. Co-founders Bill Kraus and Stephen "Newt" Newton set that goal when they opened their first Mission BBQ in Glen Burnie on Sept. 11, 2011.
While committed to making the most mouthwatering spareribs this side of St. Louis, Kraus, a former senior vice president of marketing at Under Armour, and Newton, a former Outback Steakhouse executive, are all about putting your money, quite literally, where your mouth is. Through donations and special events, Mission has helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for numerous noteworthy causes and organizations, including the Wounded Warrior Project, the USO, and Toys for Tots.
"Our mission at Mission BBQ is to serve," says Kraus. "The world didn't need another restaurant, but maybe it needed a place that stands for what's right and that makes you feel good if you have served or are serving."
On his lunch break from Fort Meade, Chief Warrant Officer Ismael Martínez sums up an atmosphere that exudes all things American—from the retro glass bottles of Cheerwine cherry soda to the Craftsman tool chest that functions as a condiment holder: "The food is great," he says, "and we feel right at home here."
Kraus and Newton go out of their way to make the soldiers and others in the field of service feel welcome, often offering them a complimentary sample. "When anyone in uniform is here, they'd better like fudge brownies," says Newton with a laugh. "We're not a nonprofit, but we like to leave a little bit on the table to share. It's just a way to say thanks."
Of course, the gratitude goes both ways. "I love those guys," says Adam Silva, chief development officer for the Wounded Warrior Project. "Bill Kraus and Steve Newton are not only great Americans and patriots, but they recognized their desire to give back in the genesis of Mission BBQ. They committed to us early on, and they've never stopped. And I kid you not, it's the best barbecue I've ever eaten."
Another supporter is Kraus's former boss, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. "Bill has done a tremendous job building the Mission BBQ brand, integrating his passion for the military, law enforcement, and the Wounded Warrior Project as part of the brand DNA," he says. "I see a lot of parallels to the work he did at Under Armour, where he played an instrumental role in leveraging great people and a great product to tell a great story."
It's a concept that resonates not only with Glen Burnie locals, but also at Mission BBQ locations in Perry Hall; California, MD; Canton; and its latest outpost in York, PA, which is slated to open in November. And while the restaurateurs won't discuss exact revenues, Kraus says that the average, 3,000-square-foot restaurant in America today racks up approximately $1.3 million in annual sales, "and we are way, way above average." The founders' ultimate objective is to open 40 stores by 2018—a relatively modest goal by chain-restaurant standards, notes Newton. "The majority of my adult life has been spent with OSI [Outback Steakhouse Inc.]," he says. "With OSI, I saw a machine in which they'd open 50 Outback restaurants in one year. They got off the rocket pad pretty quickly."
As it was for many Americans, 9/11 was a watershed moment in Newton's life, and the day he became a true patriot. "I was going to a meeting at Outback and showed up early that day," he recalls. "It was that day that I shut down all the [Outback] restaurants in Maryland and said, 'Go home and hug the ones you love. We'll come back tomorrow.' This was personal. This was my country being attacked."
For Kraus, his path to patriotism began on the home front, where his oldest son, Andrew, 27, recently finished two tours of duty with the Marine Corps, and his younger son, Alex, just started at the U.S. Naval Academy. Though Kraus never served himself, his maternal grandfather, Frank Shinners, was a gunner in WWI, and his father, Al, fought in Korea. "I had never considered serving," says Kraus. "I grew up during peacetime, but when Andrew first started talking about it, it was hard not to be proud and to respect the fact that he was a college grad, and he was willing to enlist in the Marine Corps and do some heavy lifting. At the same time, the more we were around the military community, the more it raised my desire to ultimately find a way to serve myself."
Though Mission seeks to make the world a better place through barbecue, that couldn't be accomplished if the "q" (hand-carved and slow-cooked over white oak) wasn't so staggeringly good. On any given day of the week, a line forms outside before the lunch shift even begins, and the parking lot (replete with a refurbished deuce-and-a-half military truck for catering, special events, and deliveries) is filled with Anne Arundel County's finest, who arrive in fire trucks, squad cars, and minivans from nearby Fort Meade. (Mission has other fans, too, including President Clinton's Secret-Service team, Charm City Cakes owner Duff Goldman, and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.)
It's no surprise that Kraus and Newton have hit on a successful model. The two best friends seem sprung straight from the streets of Mayberry (and use words like "gosh" and "folks" in ordinary conversation). When they met through their Ellicott City parish shortly after Kraus moved to Maryland in 2001, they quickly bonded. Both hail from the Midwest (Kraus is from Milwaukee; Newton grew up in Columbus, OH) and were born a year apart (Kraus is 49; Newton is 50); both married young and have three children, two of whom went to school together, and both share a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, toiling from young ages at everything from newspaper and pizza delivery to car washing. "We were fortunate enough to share similar values in terms of business but, more importantly, in terms of life," says Kraus. Newton gets to the heart of the matter, saying, "I love the guy like a brother."
Despite the fact that they were neighbors, the men most often crossed paths while traveling for business. "Because Steve was so busy doing the Outback Steakhouse thing, and I was doing the Under Armour thing, we'd bump into each other at the airport," says Kraus. "But when we'd get back together, we'd share stories, and through all those conversations, we found out there was a mutual love of barbecue. We knew it didn't exist here. We stored that in the memory bank and thought, 'This is a true business opportunity.'"
Over several years, the more the duo discussed it, the more they believed that barbecue could be the next big restaurant craze. "Steve felt the barbecue business was in the same place as the steakhouse business 25 years ago," says Kraus. "And then suddenly, we had Outback and Texas Roadhouse and LongHorn building these enormous businesses internationally around the cuisine of steak. We started to think the same thing could be done in and around barbecue."
By 2009, despite a lucrative career with Under Armour, Kraus was ready for a change. He took time off to regroup, but continued to press Newton about the idea of starting a business together. "I started getting calls at 10 in the morning," recalls Newton. "'Hey, man, what are you doing?' And I'd say, 'I'm working. What are you doing?' And he'd say, 'Well, what are you doing later this afternoon?' He just kept tugging at me all the time." Adds Kraus, "Make no mistake about it, the only reason we're here is because he said, 'Yes.'"
And so began Bill and Newt's excellent adventure of chasing the scent of barbecue from Mississippi to North Carolina to Kansas City, MO, to Alabama. "The maiden voyage was to Austin, Texas," recalls Newton. "Our favorite place is Franklin Barbecue. We showed up at 9:22 in the morning, and they open at 11. We got in there, and it was the best brisket I've ever had in my life." Gorging on boffo barbecue around the country inspired them to develop winning recipes on their home turf. "On these trips, within the first bite, Newt knows that what we're doing is better than what he just tried," says Kraus. "But every now and then, you'll see the steam and smoke start to come out of him because somebody is doing it better. At that point, we come back here and roll up our sleeves because we need to figure out why their brisket is better than ours and how do we ultimately get to where we are not only on par, but maybe just a little bit better."
While Newton is more of a foot soldier in the kitchen, Kraus is the big-picture guy. "He's an incredible visionary," says Newton. "He'll say, 'This is the summit run, and that's the mountain peak we're going to, and here's how we're going to experience it along the way.' I'm more of an X's and O's guy. I'm just a restaurant guy."
Both men have taken what they learned from their previous careers—in Kraus's case, the branding of a multi-billion-dollar athletic-apparel company and, for Newton, as an insider at an equally successful restaurant empire—to hawk a product they're proud of. "We're not embarking upon this to just be the best in Baltimore or the best in Maryland," says Kraus. "If you're going to be in business and you're going to do the hard work, why not try and be the best?"
And because success can't happen without the support of loyal troops, the Mission BBQ staff meets a half hour before the restaurant opens its doors each day at 10:30 a.m. (and also again in the afternoon). On a late summer morning, Newton and one of his directors of operations, John Turner, fire up the staff for the busy day ahead. As the smokers (nicknamed Annabelle and Beverly) add heat to the small open kitchen, Newton and Turner pass samples of juicy "yard-bird" chicken and house-made fries as a way of ensuring firsthand knowledge of every menu item. There's talk of Mission's 9/11 commemorative-cup campaign to raise funds for local fire, police, and EMS personnel. Already, the register is humming with sales. "To think that we raised $6,000 in one week," marvels Turner. "Li'l ol' Mission BBQ, starting in Glen Burnie, MD."
These days, Kraus and Newton are proud to have joined the ranks of those giving back to their country, despite the long hours and the never-ending appetites of crowds who queue up for their 'cue. "When those American heroes who have raised their right hand and are either protecting our community or protecting our country or, in some cases, both, and they're trying to thank us for what we're doing, we almost kind of laugh," says Kraus. "A bad day for us is when the mac-'n'-cheese goes bad. We have the easy job here."