Restaurant entrepreneur Jordan Wright trades corporate career for barbecue pit

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 5,619 views 

Jordan Wright, owner of Wright's Barbecue in Johnson.

A Christmas present seven years ago helped stoke an entrepreneurial fire for Jordan Wright.

“My dad bought me a [Big] Green Egg,” said Wright, who left a corporate career in 2017 to give his full attention to a budding catering and food company, Wright’s Barbecue. “But the only rule was

I could never bring up the chemistry set again.”

The Big Green Egg, a popular grill and meat smoker, was Lynn Wright’s answer to a running joke in the family since Jordan was 12 years old, when his mother Pat gave him a chemistry set as a Christmas present.

“Every year after that, we’d bring that up at Christmas — the chemistry set,” Jordan Wright joked. “No matter what the gift, the punchline was ‘At least it’s not a chemistry set.’”

With the Big Green Egg, Wright started smoking meats for informal get-togethers with friends and family. That led to an itch to start a catering business, which he did on a part-time basis while working in commodities and foodservice sales for meat giant Tyson Foods Inc. Catering blossomed into a food truck in 2016. And then a second food truck.

After successfully juggling both of those careers, Wright had a choice to make.

He bet on himself. With a wife and three children — the youngest being a 2-month-old — it was no small bet.

On Oct. 19, 2017, four months after his final day working for Tyson Foods, Wright opened Wright’s Barbecue inside a small and unassuming white house at 2212 Main Drive in Johnson. With a menu that specializes in Texas-style brisket, ribs, sausage, pulled pork and smoked chicken, the restaurant has quickly gained legs as a go-to destination for barbecue.

Operating hours are from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, but overnight shifts keep the pit fires cooking 24 hours a day.

“We cook with wood fire every day,” Wright said. “We start cooking on Monday morning, and we don’t stop until Saturday night. There are people here at all times tending the fire and watching the meat. That’s what makes us unique. It’s like you’re walking into my house for a weekend barbecue every day.”

Menu offerings range from $6.85 for a barbecue sandwich and chips up to $19 for a three-meat plate with two sides. Wright, 32, said monthly food sales totaled $20,000 in October 2017, reached triple digits by the following spring “and kept growing from there.” He said the company’s biggest sales month in 2018 was about $230,000.

“What I originally projected to [financially] survive in this place, we’ve done nearly four times that,” Wright said. “It was a really modest goal, but it’s been amazing.”

When Wright made his initial foray into operating a food truck in 2016, one of his customers saw a diamond in the rough.

Rick West, CEO and co-founder of Fayetteville-based research firm Field Agent, has been an entrepreneur for nearly two decades and launched multiple startups focused on technology and innovation.

“We had about 20 mutual friends at Field Agent. Everybody knew Jordan, mostly because of his food,” West recalled. “He catered an event for us one day, and I was sold.”

West said just because Wright wasn’t a tech entrepreneur didn’t mean he wasn’t an entrepreneur he wanted to get involved with.

A three-meat plate of ribs, smoked sausage and sliced brisket – the Texas Trinity, is complemented by bacon burnt ends and two side items at Wright’s Barbecue.

“We started having really good conversations about what it means to be an entrepreneur, staffing, growth, culture, leadership, vision,” West said. “With my 30 years in the business world, I love to pour into guys like this. And as a restaurant guy, he’s the perfect kind of entrepreneur you want to pour into.”

West is more than a mentor, though. He’s a Wright’s regular.

“I eat there once a week whether I need to or not,” he joked.

West and Field Agent co-founder Henry Ho are two of several small-business owners in the region whom Wright credits with helping shape his entrepreneurial journey. His father, Lynn Wright, who runs the commercial lending group for Regions Bank in Little Rock, is also in that group. Ben Booth, owner of Booth Building & Design of Fayetteville and Zac and Kelly Stuckey, owners of Crown Beauty Bar of Fayetteville, are others.

Fayetteville restaurateurs Grant Feltner (Feltner Brothers) and Chef Maudie Schmitt (Café Rue Orleans) have also been sounding boards.

“I don’t view any restaurant as a competitor,” Wright said. “We’re all trying to do a job that feeds our community and adds to the culinary offerings in our area. Any time you can connect and grow and learn from people, that’s awesome.”

Wright said he’s learned that no matter the type of business, customer service is key. He often cites Chick-fil-A — a recognized industry leader in customer satisfaction — as the measuring stick for his own restaurant.

West agreed, but with a caveat: The food has to be on point.

“Jordan can’t do what he’s doing and the food suck,” he said. “If the food was just OK, [the business] would be dead by now. This only works if the food is really, really good.”

Wright built up the restaurant’s clientele the past few years through his food trucks, situated at different locations including the Fayetteville Farmers Market, and by catering to corporate events throughout the region.

A breakthrough, though, was finding a daily fixed location for the food truck to operate for lunch. That happened in early 2017, when Wright negotiated a deal for $25 per week to park the food truck in a grass field near where the existing restaurant is. At the time, the tenant of the white house was an antique business.

When the building came available in late July that year, Wright signed a five-year lease agreement to transform his business from food truck to brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Wright’s Barbecue opened in October 2017 at 2212 Main Drive in Johnson.

Wright’s Barbecue now has about 25 employees (15 full-time) and offers a healthcare plan to its workers, who are all paid well above minimum wage.

“My wife and I are big proponents of taking care of our people and making sure they have an income they can live off of and be proud of, that their hard work pays off,” Wright said.

Besides the customer service, Wright’s unique atmosphere is another differentiator. The small-ish size (about 1,300 square feet) of the white house allows seating for about 40, which most times leads to long lines of patrons waiting to enter the front door and step immediately into an ordering line. In the spring and summer, a fenced-in dining area with plenty of picnic tables offers more seating. March 17 will kick off weekly live music on Thursday and Friday nights and all day Saturday.

This winter, Wright put up a large heated tent near the entrance that serves two purposes — a place for customers to eat, or a place to wait in line before getting inside to order.

Wright said the goal for 2019 is to grow the restaurant’s catering business, and make ordering food more accessible. Wright’s recently started offering to-go orders and signed up in December with Bite Squad, the popular food delivery service that has helped meet the growing demand for more convenient food.

As for expansion, Wright said he is being patient in his approach.

“It’s hard to replicate unbelievable,” he said. “As shoddy as this little building is, it’s pretty darn cool. I think having one location is awesome, but at the same time, if we have the ability to replicate — and I think we do — then I’m not too afraid of that.”