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“If you are walking down the right path and you are willing to keep walking, eventually you will make progress.” – Barack Obama
The paths that lead to success in life often take different twists and turns. That is definitely true for a former California corrections officer, deejay and caterer. Going into food service was never part of Kevin Bludso’s life plans as a kid growing up in Compton, California and Corsicana, Texas. He thought he would become a physical education teacher.
“I had no lofty goals or anything like that. I was a child of the summer, and I just wanted my weekends, summers and holidays off,” says Bludso, owner of Bludso’s Bar & Q in Hollywood, California. That idea went up in smoke during his junior year at Bishop College. “I had to do my student teaching in south Dallas. I got into a fight with a couple of the kids in the class, and I realized I hated kids,” recalls the chef and pitmaster with a laugh.
Finding the Right Path
Bludso scrambled to find a new career path with teaching off the table. The son of a Los Angeles police officer applied for law enforcement jobs. He landed one right out of college in 1986, working for the State of California as a corrections officer in Sacramento, California. That career choice derailed 11 years later with a wrongful termination claim. “I’m not the most religious person, but clearly God had bigger plans because he knew where I was going,” Bludso says.
In the mid-1990s, the now unemployed Bludso turned to the barbecue skills he learned from his great aunt, Willie Mae Fields. The woman he called Granny taught him everything about barbecue and business during summers spent with her in Texas.
He had only used his barbecuing talent for fun until he began to make some money catering for hip-hop stars. “I was eight or nine when I started going to Texas. I fell in love with eating barbecue, but I never thought I would go into it as a career. I hated working, and I generally didn’t like food service because it wasn’t easy,” says Bludso.
By the time his new career path led to the opening of Bludso’s BBQ in 2008, the budding entrepreneur was working harder than he ever had. He saw his walkup stand in Compton as a way to support his children and pay for their education. “I wanted them to choose where they wanted to go, and I wanted to be able to afford it. I was praying for some scholarships,” the restaurateur says.
He also wanted his Texas-style smoked meats to be as popular as the food at two legendary spots in Los Angeles, Woody’s Bar-B-Que and Phillips Barbecue. Today, Bludso’s Bar & Que in Hollywood is among critics’ favorites.
In February, Mashed.com put Bludso’s ribs on its list of best in the U.S. BBQ Revolt named Bludso’s one of the 10 Best in Los Angeles. “The timing was right when I came in, and incredible things that were beyond my control started to happen,” Bludso says.
The acclaimed pitmaster credits social media, food television and food writers such as Tony Chow and Jonathan Gold for helping to spread the word about his barbecue. The original location in Compton achieved acclaim as a hot BBQ spot featured in the New York Times, LA Times and Eater before closing in 2016.
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Bludso’s brand now includes the Hollywood location and a concession stand at the LAFC Soccer Stadium. He has a place in LAX’s Proud Bird Food Bazaar and the restaurant San Antone by Bludso’s BBQ at the Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia. A cookbook he co-authored with Noah Galuten, “The Bludso Family Cookbook: BBQ Soul Food and Family, From Compton to Corsicana,” comes out this month.
No Overnight Success
Bludso lets anyone who asks how grueling it was to build his barbecue business. “I went almost 11 years straight without an off day. It’s going to be hard work and some long hours,” says the restaurateur. “You have to be mentally prepared for it. It causes divorces, it causes all kinds of stuff because you’re chasing that dream to get the financial security to make sure your kids have what they have now, but it is a grind.”
His daughter Iman wrote a poem when she was still a little girl. It might describe his work ethic best. Tears came to the barbecue master’s eyes when he read the words years later. “It’s Saturday. I hear my Daddy getting up at four in the morning to go to Bludso’s. My Daddy is not an overnight success,” he shares.
“I hear my Daddy come in at 9 o’clock at night, but he’s going to jump in the shower because he has to deejay a party tonight, even though he just worked 18 hours. My Daddy is not an overnight success.”
Like many African American business owners, Bludso opened his first restaurant with limited capital. He saved $20,000 and got some help from a couple of aunties and uncles. The space he leased a few blocks from the home he bought for his family in Compton had previously housed businesses that failed. “A lot of restaurants don’t make it because you want to start with money. When you start with money, you go further, especially if you have a good product and a good staff,” says the entrepreneur. “A couple of times, I had to pay payroll out of my pocket. I had a couple people who were supposed to stick with me that didn’t. But it’s not their dream. It’s your dream.”
Good food, a business degree and being blessed made the difference for Bludso. He picked up valuable insights working with other foodservice professionals. “I learned about the integrity of the food. You’ve only got one time to make an impression. You can’t sell old barbecue.” Bludso’s Bar & Que owner also found out that it meant careful planning to avoid food waste. “You can’t give people dried-up food and expect to have a successful business. That was tough in the beginning. I wouldn’t serve anything day-old. I would throw it away.”
As the popularity of Bludso’s slow-smoked beef brisket, ribs, chicken and sides grew, so did his need to trust someone else to do the bookkeeping. That taught the restaurateur to keep a close watch on the numbers. “Make sure the business of the business is being taken care of. Even if you have somebody doing it every week, you need to take that time to go over the numbers and the sales and make sure no one is stealing. You need to do that,” Bludso says.
The long hours, odd jobs and unwavering persistence paid off when the entrepreneur partnered with James Starr to open Bludso’s Bar & Que. The Compton native had other expansion offers but wanted advancement that let him turn over day-to-day operations to chefs he trained. “As you expand, you have to have a trustworthy team around you to get to where you need to get to. TV came calling years before, but I could never get out of the kitchen,” he says.
Starr and Galuten, Bludso’s cookbook co-author, traveled to Texas for Granny’s 90th birthday celebration, and the deal was done. “We had a ball, and the rest is history. We worked it out, and it’s just been getting bigger and bigger,” says Bludso. “None of this would be possible if I hadn’t partnered with them.”
The partnership is on track to add new locations along with the publication of Bludso’s cookbook. The chef and pitmaster was part of the Compton influence on this year’s Super Bowl. His restaurant catered for an NFL tailgate party that served more than 10,000 VIPs. “We’re just getting started. We had to slow down with the pandemic. The food business got hit so hard, but we’ve got some irons in the fire. I have more time to think,” Bludso adds.
Lessons from Granny
A day seldom passes without the businessman thinking about Granny. So much of what he knows about barbecue, people and life came from Willie Mae. Bludso speaks of her with deep respect and love. “My Granny wasn’t an educated woman, but she taught me so much. Her first barbecue stand was bootleg. She had a juke joint and everything. Everybody loved to be around her.”
Granny recognized Bludso’s entrepreneurial potential long before he took that career path. “My Granny said you’d better go back to Compton and get your own business. You’ve got too much of a smart mouth to work for anybody. She was right.”
The Corsicana businesswoman also taught Bludso the value of treating customers like family and learning their names. “Granny was a stickler for that. It just lights people’s faces up. She would always say make it like you’re making it for your mama,” he says.
Bludso calls Granny one of the funniest people he has ever known. “She told him to keep laughing through the tough times and even poke fun at himself. “Granny and her friends laughed at everything. That’s how they get through it.” He then describes how she dealt with him getting teased about his nose. “I have a big nose. My Granny said, ‘You don’t have a big nose. You just have small checks.’”
“I have a saying, ‘I don’t give to be blessed. I’m blessed, so I give.’ She would always say as long as you’re giving, you’ll always get.” The summers spent with Granny by the barbecue pit endowed Bludso with a treasure chest of wise words from Willie Mae. “My Granny always said, ‘I like T-bone steaks and ribeye steaks. I don’t like mistakes. If you eat a mistake one time, you should never want to eat it again.’”
Another lesson Bludso took to heart is using challenges to get stronger. As his Granny would say, “I’m stronger when I’m down. When you’re down, you’re looking up, and your mind is clear. You’re thinking.”
Before she passed away at age 95, Willie Mae Fields traveled to Compton to visit her great nephew’s barbecue place. “She loved it. I was one of the only people who could cook brisket for her,” says the pitmaster. “She sat in the back of Bludso’s one day, had her Hennessy and smoked her a joint. She was so proud. Granny had seen the entrepreneur spirit in me, and I thank God she did,” Bludso says.
Family in Smoke and Soul
Bludso’s Bar & Que’s owner has captivating stories about his life in Compton and his summers in Corsicana. His police officer father and Black Panther sympathizer mother divorced. But together, they and other family members kept Bludso away from the gang violence that ravaged some parts of his community. “Compton is my heart. I’m going to always put it up there where it belongs. Most of our neighborhood is still the same. I bought a home on the same street I grew up on, and I raised my children there. I still have a scholarship fund in Compton. I still do a lot for the city.”
His soon-to-be-released cookbook shares family stories, life lessons and more. Most of the 75 recipes were inspired by Granny’s cooking and barbecue specialties. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I live by that. I use the same wood and the same rub. I use post oak and pecan or red oak and a little applewood,” Bludso says.
“The Bludso Family Cookbook” gives readers everything they need to know about selecting meats, preparing barbecue pits and slow-smoking beef, pork, lamb and more. The recipes cover sauces, rubs, sides and desserts. There is even a recipe for Bludso’s famous Hennessy on the Rocks.
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He believes the stories and the lessons make his cookbook stand out. “It’s just showing a little boy from Compton learning life through food. It’s not just barbecue. It’s a soulful journey through smoke and soul, from the horses and roads in Texas to Chevy low-riders in Compton.”
Passing It On
The new cookbook is not the only way Bludso shares his barbecue knowledge and business acumen. He trained the chefs at all of the Bludso locations, including the restaurant in Melbourne. “I’m not in there for the day-to-day at the restaurants that much. But when I’m there, I’m still looking for certain ways the meats should look, for certain marbling in brisket the same way Granny would teach me when I was 11 and 12 years old,” he says.
Bludso no longer uses cameras to watch over restaurant operations from his home in Texas. That drove him crazy, so he puts his trust in his trained staff to an extent. “You still have to have eyes and hands on it. I still do pop-ups, cook and go to all the restaurants,” Bludso explains. “The first thing I do is sit down and have a plate. I send spies in there all the time too. They know Big Brother is watching.”
Frequent TV appearances on Food Network and Netflix give Bludso a chance to share his expertise as a judge for barbecue competitions. He has even learned a few things from judging competitors on the Netflix hit “The American BBQ Showdown.” (Watch The American Barbecue Showdown | Netflix Official Site) He recognizes the passion and innovation displayed by contestants. Bludso chuckles as he describes what he gets out of judging. “It made me see how much people love the game of barbecue. I love being a part of it. But if there’s something I can steal, I will.”
The soon-to-be 57-year-old entrepreneur gets even more joy out of fostering recognition for African Americans’ contributions to barbecue. Bludso is one of the mentors for Kingsford’s Preserve the Pit. The fellowship program promotes the culture and history of Black barbecue traditions in America. Aspiring barbecue professionals get support through training and grants.
As a father of three, Bludso might have expected one of his children to take over his restaurants one day. However, his Granny encouraged him to get a degree and prepare a backup plan, so he did the same with his children. “Once you stop having goals and stop learning, life is over. Keep your mind clear and keep growing. I had to come out of the kitchen to do that.”
The restaurateur’s oldest son Adryus is in his last year of medical school at the University of California, Irvine. His daughter Iman is a senior at Alabama State University. His youngest son Dallas is studying psychology at San Diego State University.
“I always tell them, ‘Nothing is going to be easy, but it will get easier.’” That advice comes with more wisdom from Granny about making the most of each day. “I don’t choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be happy and win the day,” Bludso says.
The chef, pitmaster and cookbook author starts each morning with a quote from Granny on his mind. Sometimes it is a lyric from a song that inspires him, including one from the Stevie Wonder song “As.” Bludso says, “The lyric that got me through the day is, ‘Kindness knows no shame.”’
One more thing Bludso tells his children and anyone focused on achieving financial and career success is to stay open-minded while finding the right path. He also reminds them to remember this if they get off course. “Your heart is going to always pay you. Your heart sometimes has to be put back in shape. God has to work your heart out to get it where it needs to be, and then your heart will start paying you again.”
You can order barbecue and merchandise from Bludso’s Bar & Q online. Get the latest information on Kevin Bludso on Instagram or follow him on Twitter and Facebook. His cookbook is available starting April 12.