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June 8, 2015 Business Champions 2015

Bear's Smokehouse fills CT's southern BBQ void

Jamie McDonald (right) and his wife Cheryl (left) left their jobs and tapped their savings to open Bear's Smokehouse BBQ, which now has locations in Hartford and Windsor.
The restaurant's southern barbecue menu, which includes pulled pork and brisket, has become popular among downtown Hartford dwellers and workers who frequent it during lunch and dinner.

In just two years, Bear's Smokehouse BBQ has evolved from sharing space at Bart's Drive-In Restaurant in Windsor to having its own Windsor location and another in downtown Hartford — and business has been, well, smokin'.

“From opening day, it's been full speed, it's been busy since the day we opened,” co-founder Jamie McDonald said of launching in June 2013 at Bart's.

“We rented just a little six-foot counter from them and shared that space,” he said.

The Bart's location also includes The Beanery Bistro.

McDonald is a competitive eater known as “The Bear,” a nickname he had growing up and the inspiration for the restaurant's name. He holds records in a half-dozen eating contests listed on the website of All Pro Eating Promotions, an independent competitive eating organization whose site ranks McDonald No. 2 among its Top 15 Food Warriors.

His focus now, though, is the restaurant.

McDonald, who hails from Kansas City, Mo., and his wife, Cheryl, saw an opportunity for Kansas City-style barbecue in Connecticut and, like many entrepreneurs, jumped in with both feet.

They left their jobs, his in engineering and technical support at United Technologies' Hamilton Sundstrand, hers in human resources at Hartford Public Schools, sold their house and downsized, and tapped their savings, including prize money from Jamie's competitive eating victories.

“We've really taken everything that we've worked for since being married and put it into this,” said Cheryl, co-owner. “It's all funded by us.”

It had been the couple's dream to own their own business someday, and barbecue kept coming up in conversation whenever they wondered what Connecticut could use, she said.

After Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast in October 2012, affecting Cheryl's family in New Jersey, including destroying her grandmother's house, they approached Bart's owner Donald Trinks, who is also Windsor's mayor, and asked if he'd be interested in hosting a chili-dog eating contest to help raise money for Sandy recovery.

He was. The event, in November 2012, raised about $3,000 and Jamie won the competition, single-handedly beating out three-person teams, Cheryl said.

“That was just something we wanted to do; it had nothing to do with barbecue at that point,” she said of the fundraiser.

But in conversation with Trinks, the McDonalds had talked about their interest in owning a barbecue restaurant.

“He said, if you ever want to rent some kitchen space from me and give it a whirl, let me know,” Cheryl recalled.

Eight months later, in June 2013, they took him up on the offer, starting Bear's in Bart's before opening their own location in Hartford in July 2014 and then in Windsor in December 2014.

Bear's wood-fired smokers cook meat each day, with most of the meat raised on a farm in Idaho, Jamie said. Items include pulled pork, brisket, turkey breast, kielbasa, Texas sausage, ribs, chicken, and the popular burnt ends, with various sauces.

“When it comes to the meats and the smoking, that's an art that not everybody has mastered,” Cheryl said, praising the work by Jamie and the people he's trained.

The couple has heard the stories of restaurant failure rates and is grateful for its position.

“We feel pretty blessed with the success that we've had with it,” Cheryl said, crediting a loyal customer base and word of mouth.

Revenues last year rose more than 400 percent from 2013, Jamie said.

Important, too, they believe is giving back to the community. Causes they support include education and veterans, with a specific focus this year on helping vets with post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

Social responsibility is a main principle of Bear's, Jamie said, which he believes has resonated with customers and helped fuel the restaurant's growth.

“We do constantly give back to the community,” reciprocating the support the restaurant receives, he said.

The veterans cause is important to Jamie, who served in the Navy.

Bear's goal is to raise $20,000 this year for “K9s For Warriors,” which pairs dogs that are rescued and then trained with post-9/11 vets suffering from PTSD or brain injury.

Bear's also tries to give back by giving second chances to employees who, for example, may have legal blemishes on their record but desire a fresh start and just need someone to give them an opportunity.

“We just screen whether or not we feel that they've reached a point when they're ready to make a change in their lives and someone just needs to give them that opportunity,” Cheryl said. “Because within that, everybody has something to offer.”

Bear's employs about 75 people now, and it looks for people who are motivated, energetic, and take pride in their work, Cheryl said.

“We want to continue to build a name that people can be proud of,” she said.

The McDonalds continue to look at expansion opportunities as well.

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