Boy Meets Grill: Greg Newman stokes the flames of his smokin’ hot catering company
All stories by Christy Scannell
SDUN Senior Editor
If starting at the bottom and moving your way up is the path to success, then Greg Newman knew what he was doing in the early ’90s when he signed on as a dishwasher for a catering company to work his way through college.
Newman went on to earn a music degree but by then he’d been promoted to the caterer’s operations manager. Deciding that service trumped songs, he progressed to becoming a sought-after manager for black-tie level catering and, later, for specialty barbecue caterers.
In 1998, Newman’s years of experience came together when he launched Bar None Barbecue.
“I was able to blend the concept of elegant catering with the fun of barbecue,” the Kensington resident said. “It really created something unique for the area.”
Along with his wife, Brigette Zeiss—whom he’d met in ninth grade at Taft Middle School—and $7,000, Newman opened shop. It wasn’t easy at first.
“I walked through business park after business park, cold calling and handing out brochures,” he said.
That first year, an event planner who knew Newman from past catering jobs guaranteed him 30 gigs. Newman did all his food preparation in a deli owner’s kitchen when the deli was closed, and he bought a van, a small trailer and a chuckwagon for onsite cooking. At the end of the year, he’d made $70,000 working alone.
By 2008, Bar None’s best year to date, the company had sales of over $1 million from catering 350-400 events per year. His 15 full-time employees—including Zeiss, who left her technical writing career in 2000 to join him in the business—and 15 part-time employees operate Bar None from a 4,000 square-foot office in Allied Gardens, hauling cooking wood, slabs of meat and all the fixins in vans and trailers throughout San Diego County.
That wood is placed on custom chuckwagons—Amish craftsmen in Ohio make the axels and wheels—that are hauled onsite for the event. Bar None uses only a “choice” grade of meat, cooking up chicken, ribs, steaks, sausages, burgers, fish and hot dogs for as many as 4500 people per location. Smokin’ Joe Jones produces a special barbecue sauce unique to Bar None, while all the sides and salads—from ranch-style beans to tropical fruit salad—are made at the company’s headquarters.
Newman said his decision to avoid weddings in favor of corporate clients has been important to Bar None’s momentum. Even though he gets at least 100 calls a year to cater weddings—some people even try to trick him into cooking at their weddings by calling them “parties” or “family gatherings”—he is confident his policies of no weddings, no more than three Bar None events per day and a 50-person minimum has been essential.
“We don’t do tastings,” he said about his decision not to accept wedding clients, “and we can’t cook for a romantic dinner for two at the beach. The chuckwagon and our setup is really designed for a large group experience. Our meat comes in cases.”
Newman admits he nearly did back off on his minimum-guest count last year, though.
“The [recession] really trickled down, even into small companies, and [businesses] got really paranoid about spending money. Catering is an extra, a way to say thank you to employees, so that was the first to go off the budget,” he said. “Our industry was hit really hard. We were down $400,000 in ’09.”
A switch to catering more private events plus asking employees to take on more tasks and not raising prices has allowed the company to survive. Newman also places a heavy emphasis on customer service.
“If you e-mail us or call us you are getting a call back right away and a quote that day or within hours,” he said. “And another thing that’s different about us is our website has all our own photos from actual parties so people can see what it will be like. Other caterers don’t do that.”
Newman said he goes to 90 percent of Bar None’s caterings.
“I really like being in different locations and meeting different people,” he said. “There’s always something different. It’s never the same. And I get to be outdoors at places like Mission Bay and Crown Point.”
Barbecuing is fun, he said (see his tips below), but owning a catering business is not for the faint of heart.
“I had 4000 events under my belt before I even started Bar None. So you’d better be willing to work really hard, have experience at what you’re doing and be good with money,” he said.
It’s not all work and no play for Newman. Remember that music degree? He has recorded two alternative rock CDs: “The Cuts You Said Were Good”—available on iTunes—and “Pregnant.” But he said the only thing he plans to be taking on the road are more chuckwagons—not tour buses.
We grilled Greg Newman, owner of Bar None Barbecue, for some home barbecuing tips:
• Use utensils made for barbecuing, such as a meat fork with a long handle.
• If you are using charcoal, allow the coals to turn white before cooking. And don’t spray lighter fluid through the grilling grates.
• Never cook frozen meat—always defrost first. Frozen meat tends to cook from the outside in, making it look done on the outside while the inside is still raw.
• A simple but delicious rub for all meat is salt, pepper and granulated garlic.
• Before barbecuing bone-in chicken, precook it in an oven to around 165 degrees, then finish it on the grill. This avoids undercooking and burning due to uneven grill temperatures.
• Never push down on steaks or burgers with a spatula while grilling. “Cooks get bored,” Norman said. “So go get a beer or something but don’t take it out on the meat by squeezing out all the juices.”
• Burgers should be cooked five to seven minutes per side. The first side is done when the juices come up through the top of the patty.
• Sear tri-tips in a pan to seal in juices and then put them on a grill.
• Swordfish works best on a barbecue rather than flakier fish such as halibut. Don’t try to grill any meat under ½-inch thick.
• Rub ribs with salt, pepper and granulated garlic, squeeze lime juice on them, and then place them with some water and liquid smoke in a sealed pan. Cook the ribs at 300 degrees for about two hours, then finish them on the grill by basting barbecue sauce and honey on both sides, turning to get a good char.
• Test all meat for doneness using a meat thermometer. Beef, pork and fish should be at 145 degrees and poultry and ground beef should be at 165 before eating.
• After red meat is removed from the barbecue, allow it to rest for five to 10 minutes before eating for the moistest, tastiest meat.
Party planner Darin Dietz has been arranging soirees, directing weddings and overseeing catering for many years in both San Francisco and San Diego. He opened his own business, Darin Dietz Events, in November. San Diego Uptown News asked Dietz for ways to transform a backyard barbecue from adequate to amazing.
• Hire a bartender. “When your guests arrive and see a bartender they will feel really special. And it will give you more time to spend with them,” Dietz said. A bartender for an afternoon or evening is about $150-200.
• Consider renting high-top tables and chairs guests can gather around for eating and drinking. “You can pick them up in your car and they’re not expensive.”
• Any party should always have an Act 1, 2 and 3. Dietz suggests Act 1 be a specialty drink (see XX) handed to guests as they arrive, Act 2 can be games or an activity and Act 3 the meal, dessert or dancing.
• Keep the menu simple and always have a fruit salad for color.
• Colorful linens and casual flower arrangements are all the decoration needed for a garden party.
• If the party is in the backyard, place a sign at the front of the house so arriving guests know where to go.
• When you set up the food buffet, use common sense about how the food, condiments and utensils are arranged. Plates should always be first. “No one wants to be embarrassed about where to go or what to do—direct your guests.” Pull the table away from any walls so guests can help themselves from both sides.
• Dietz recommends “minute to win it” games such as bouncing a Ping Pong ball into cups on a one-minute timer. “Everyone will get into it and start counting down the 10 seconds. It gets competitive but in a casual way that gets guests involved.”
• If you play games, gauge your guests’ interest and move on to another activity once the fun is over.
• Grill the meat onsite but have everything else ready beforehand. Let guests help with the grilling if they want.
• If you have a pool, “Consider the intimacy of the group you’re inviting.” Business associates probably wouldn’t be comfortable disrobing to swim, while close friends would expect to use the pool. Dietz advises either placing decorations in the pool if it is off-limits or tossing in pool toys and stacking colorful, fluffy towels nearby if you want people to jump in.
• For music, hook up the trusty iPod. “See how the party goes and be ready to adjust the music as needed. Take requests—people get into that.”
• Have room temperature bottled water ready at the door as guests leave.
• Make sure you talk to all your guests during the party. “You shouldn’t have to apologize to someone that you didn’t get a chance to talk,” Dietz said.
Uptown News’ own “Hoptown Girl,” Lauren Duffy, says these are the brews for barbecue.
A burger done right offers a range of flavors: creamy cheese, tangy condiments, moist vegetables. A pairing is tricky, for you need a beer with heft, complexity and a little bit of boldness. A black IPA such as Stone Brewing Co.’s Sublimely Self Righteous has the maltiness to stand up to beef coupled with a bold hoppiness to match whatever fixins you prefer on your bun.
In the wintertime, there is nothing better than a hearty steak paired with a robust porter or earthy dubbel. But when the sun is shining, I can’t bear to think about such heavy beers. For a barbecue, I like to go with a spicy saison, such as Lost Abbey’s Red Barn Ale. Golden in color with a complex, earthy undertone, the spicy and peppery notes of this style can bring out the best of a seared, juicy and slightly rare steak. Plus, it pairs well with a range of side dishes, too.
There’s a myriad of flavors going on in a well-rubbed or sauced rib, and you want your palate to enjoy each and every one. A beer pairing should have a bit of a malty backbone, but should cleanse the palate and let the tangy flavors of barbecue shine. Stay away from aggressive beers, and instead opt for the clean flavors of an amber lager, like Lightning American Amber.
For the light, delicate flavors of grilled fish, I can think of no better accompaniment than a crisp, citrusy IPA like Alpine’s Nelson Rye. Bursting with grapefruit flavors, this style is at once refreshing and palate-cleansing; a beer that belongs at a summertime barbeque.
Bartender Jeff Shimanek, a native San Diegan, has shaken and poured drinks for everyone from blue-collar workers to CEOs to sports stars at various spots around the city, including the defunct Star of the Sea downtown. Shimanek now can be found at Bully’s East in Mission Valley, where he concocted these poolside chillers just for San Diego Uptown News readers.
4 cups watermelon
2 oz. simple syrup*
juice from half of a lemon
1 ½ oz. dark rum (Shimanek prefers Lahaina brand)
1/8 oz. melon liqueur
1. Puree the watermelon with the simple syrup and lemon juice in a blender.
2. Muddle mint in a glass using a barspoon. “I like to use a barspoon rather than a muddler because the barspoon breaks the veins of the leaf and spreads the oils better in the glass,” Shimanek said.
3. Add ice to a cocktail shaker. Pour in 1.5 oz of the puree, the rum and the melon liqueur. Shake until chilled.
4. Pour into a glass with ice. Top with club soda. Garnish with a lemon twist and mint leaf.
½ oz. brandy
½ oz. triple sec
1 oz. orange juice
juice from half of a lemon
2 oz. white wine (Shimanek prefers Albariño or Pinot Grigio)
1 t. sugar
1/8 oz. sour apple liqueur
apple or orange slice for garnish
1. In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine everything but the club soda and fruit garnish. Shake until chilled.
2. Pour into a wine glass. Top with club soda.
3. Slide an apple or orange slice over the glass’s rim.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Cook until sugar dissolves. For a shortcut for the Watermelon Mojito, add a handful of mint and steep, removing the mint before using the syrup.
Matt Gordon, chef at West Coast Tavern and co-owner of Urban Solace, offered up his recipe for barbecue sauce, which he pairs with salmon or pulled pork.
West Coast Tavern BBQ Sauce
1 c. ketchup
1¼ c. brown sugar
1 c. honey
1¼ c. rice wine vinegar
2½ c. apple cider vinegar
2 t. smoked paprika
1 t. ground clove
2½ c. worsterchire sauce
1 bay leaf
1 T. sriracha
2½ c. brandy
¼ t. pepper
¼ t. kosher or sea salt
Mix all ingredients in a stock pot and let simmer for 1 hour. Remove the bay leaf before using. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to two weeks.
This sauce is perfect for a barbecued king salmon:
4 6-oz. portions of king or sockeye salmon (not farmed!)
¼ c. olive oil
juice and zest from 1 lemon
1 T. fresh chopped parsley
dash of kosher or sea salt and fresh ground pepper
1. Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, zest and parsley.
2. Marinate the salmon in the liquid for 1 hour.
3. Sprinkle the salmon evenly with salt and pepper and grill on a very hot grill! Cook just long enough to get good grill marks. Salmon should be eaten while still pink in the middle (kind of like a medium rare to medium steak). At the last minute of cooking, brush with the barbecue sauce to finish.
Barbecued Pulled Pork
5 lbs. natural pork shoulder (boneless is fine) cut into baseball-size chunks
1 T. kosher salt
1 T. black pepper
½ T. cayenne pepper
½ T. smoked paprika
½ bunch celery
½ c. garlic cloves
1 c. homemade barbecue sauce (above)
½ c. sherry
1. Season the pork with the spices.
2. Grill or sear the meat in a pan to caramelize the outside.
3. Place the meat in a deep casserole dish and add the barbecue sauce, sherry and enough water to cover the pork.
4. Cover in foil and bake in a 350-degree oven for 2.5 to 3 hours or until very tender (falling apart).
5. Let the meat begin cooling for 1 hour in the juices and then remove the pork from the dish.
6. Shred the meat with tongs or a fork and toss with more of your homemade sauce and serve!
Gilberto Bravo is manager of Proprietor’s Reserve Wine Bar, a cozy spot behind Rosie O’Grady’s Irish Pub at Adams Avenue and 34th Street in Normal Heights (proprietorsreserve.com). Although people tend to think of beer with barbecue, Bravo said wine pairs well with summer grill parties.
He suggests starting with a glass of rosé and or vinho verde to greet your guests as they arrive for the afternoon or evening. Two to try: Domaine Ott Rosé, Provence, France (2008, $19); Encostas Do Lima Vinho Verde, Portugal (2008, $10).
Three for barbecue:
• Domaine Du Vieux Lazeret Chateauneuf-du-Pape (2005, $31)
• Belasco “Llama” old vine Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina (2007, $14)
• Cinnabar Mercury Rising Meritage, Paso Robles (2007, $18)
For a refreshing palate cleanser after the meal, Bravo recommends Delirium Tremens golden ale from Belgium.