John Rivers, the founder of the popular Florida-based 4 Rivers Smokehouse chain, likes to joke that Texas is where he found the two loves of his life: his wife and brisket.
The newest 4 Rivers outpost recently opened in an old brick firehouse building on Marietta Street on Atlanta’s booming Westside.
Before that, though, Rivers had been a frequent visitor to the city, offering attendees at the annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival a taste of his eclectic approach to regionally influenced barbecue.
Beyond the Texas-style brisket Rivers says it took him 18 years to perfect, the sprawling menu of smoked meats includes pork, chicken, turkey, burnt ends, pork and beef ribs, tri-tip, sausage and wings.
In addition, you’ll find sandwiches, a large selection of Southern-style sides, and a surprising number of vegetarian options with seasonal vegetables.
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“Growing up in Florida, you’re not really exposed to brisket,” Rivers said during a recent conversation. “When I graduated from Florida State, I moved out to Dallas. That’s where I met my wife, Monica, and became enamored with the brisket her family smoked. Being 23 years old, I foolishly told them I was going to learn how to make it better than they did.
“Well, that took me 18 years of traveling all over the country for business. Everywhere I went, I had my assistant schedule flights around how many barbecue places I could visit. The outcome of that is what you see on our menu. The brisket comes from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas City. My ribs come from North Carolina. My pulled pork is from Chris Lilly in Alabama. My tri-tip is from California.”
Though Rivers now has 14 restaurants in Florida, Atlanta is the first location outside the state.
“Aside from a group of very good friends that we have in Atlanta, five years of participating in the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival was a big factor in that decision,” Rivers said. “I do festivals around the country, but the people in Atlanta have always been so appreciative and gracious. And the other barbecue restaurants and chefs, like the Fox brothers, couldn’t have been nicer.”
Like the Fox brothers, Rivers has taken his barbecue to the lofty culinary realms of the James Beard House in New York City, which he said was a thrill.
“Especially for a non-chef guy coming out of corporate America, that was a highlight,” Rivers says. “It really was a great honor. I have some true chefs from the Culinary Institute and Johnson and Wales on my team, and it was really neat for me to watch them and see how excited they were.”
Even with that kind of support, though, Rivers realizes that having multiple locations and attempting to turn out a consistent product day after day at each one requires a bit of barbecue magic.
“I remember the first time a reporter called us a chain, I was so offended by it,” Rivers said and laughed. “And that was when we just had three restaurants. But Monica and I go to great lengths to customize every location. I don’t want it to feel like a corporate chain. The one in Atlanta should reflect Atlanta.
“At every single one of our smokehouses, we cook everything from scratch every single day, just like we did in our first one in Winter Park, back in 2009. We haven’t changed one thing from a culinary perspective from the first to the 15th. That’s how we’ve retained the quality. But, frankly, that’s the greatest challenge we have as we grow.”
Speaking of challenges, Rivers said opening in Atlanta has presented one of the steepest learning curves for 4 Rivers so far.
“We spent two years getting immersed in Atlanta to truly understand where would be the best location, especially if we want to have multiple sites in five or 10 years,” Rivers said. “We have to earn the business in Atlanta. Honestly, it’s been very humbling, because we don’t have the brand awareness here. But I like the challenge, because that’s how we started.”
822 Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 1-844-474-8377, 4rsmokehouse.com/locations/atlanta.
More images from a First Look at 4 Rivers Smokehouse