On a rainy Wednesday at 6 p.m., Sugarfire Smoke House in downtown St. Louis hummed with activity.
Customers lined up, cafeteria-style, beneath a gigantic Sugarfire neon sign to choose from barbecue, burgers, sides and more. Families shared bites of brisket and pulled pork as they sat on ’50s-style chrome chairs at long tables. A cool bluesy mural fills a shared wall with the new National Blues Museum next door.
Mike Johnson owns the restaurant with Charlie Downs and his wife, Carolyn.
“I do the chef stuff,” he said. “Carolyn does pastries and pies.”
They opened their first Sugarfire four years ago, and haven’t looked back.
“It was the right time, a cool concept,” said Mike, 45, from beneath a Schlafly baseball cap. “It’s chef-driven kind of fast casual. High quality ingredients. I think the main thing was we got on this popular barbecue TV show, ‘BBQ Pitmasters.’ It took off from there. We did a lot of Food Network stuff. Once you get into those TV shows, it really helps.”
It doesn’t hurt to use great quality meat.
“We have such volume we can buy the best, primest of the prime,” he said. “We’re going through tons and tons a day.”
Burgers are a special blend of grass-fed beef, boneless short rib and brisket.
“It took a lot of time and practice,” he said. “We sear them in a real flat-top style and season with salt and cracked pepper.”
Mike has owned or been part of about 20 St. Louis restaurants, including Boogaloo in Maplewood, where he had a smoker out back.
“I wanted to go into fast casual,” he said. “We got lucky. Every day, we tell ourselves how lucky we are.”
He’s a hands-on kind of owner.
I taste everything. I’m surprised I’m not fatter. I make sure everything tastes good. I taste all the meat in the morning — brisket, turkey, sausage ...
Mike Johnson on quality control
“I taste everything. I’m surprised I’m not fatter. I make sure everything tastes good. I taste all the meat in the morning — brisket, turkey, sausage ...”
Walking through the kitchen, he sampled side dishes, removing one that wasn’t up to his standards. Near the entrance, he put down rugs as soon as he noticed the floor was wet from folks trekking in water.
“I do all of our social media. That’s part of our success. We have a huge number of Facebook and Twitter followers. We’ve done a lot of funny stuff that got real big. Celebrities come in and take pictures. We send them out. More people follow us. It kind of snowballed.”
He also came up with the Sugarfire name.
“We wanted to incorporate pies, a big part of the concept,” he said. “Carolyn makes the best desserts in St. Louis. And barbecue sounds like a fire. People think it’s a big chain from out of town.”
But it’s a local franchise. He and his partners own three of the six Sugarfires. Four are in St. Louis; one is in St. Charles, Mo., and one is in Washington, Mo. The most recent landed downtown because Mike’s buddy Amos (Harris) owns the building.
“He was telling me about the blues museum next door,” he said. “He put a lot of time and money and effort into the building and it worked out. We noticed in the first week we were so busy and crowded at lunch that we started to run out of seats.”
Their style of barbecue?
“We’re in this barbecue triangle, Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. We pull in the best of each region. We do our ribs Memphis-style, pork Kansas City-style and brisket Texas-style.”
We’re in this barbecue triangle, Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. We pull in the best of each region. We do our ribs Memphis-style, pork Kansas City-style and brisket Texas-style.
Mike Johnson on his barbecue style
The key? “All it is is time and smoke. Salt and pepper and a few herbs and a long, slow smoke ... All of our meat we run out of every day. There’s no reheating.”
He and the staff challenge each other to come up with specials that taste good and sound fun.
“We can do anything,” said Mike. “There are no limits. We may smoke a lamb rack, pork belly, quail or smoked lobster. It also has to have a funny name. Steer Eye for the Fun Guy is ribeye and mushrooms. If it’s not too offensive, we will run it.”
OMG at Sugarfire stands for oink, moo, gobble. The sandwich is smoked pepperoni, beef brisket and turkey. The Big Ribowski is a pulled rib sandwich.
Babyback ribs, brisket, turkey, pulled pork and smoked salmon are always on the menu. Choose ribs with one side, $9.99, or a 6-ounce brisket plate with two sides and a soda, $12.99. They go through 45 briskets a day.
Squeeze bottles of house-made sauces are on every table. They range from white barbecue (an Alabama special blend of creamy horseradish and cidar vinegar) to St. Louis sweet and Carolina mustard.
Sides include baked beans, slaw, tabouleh salad, pasta salad, quinoa, couscous and collard greens.
Mike was born in Biloxi, Miss., attended high school at Parkway South in St. Louis and, in the 1990s, learned a lot about cooking from then up-and-coming chef Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans.
“I got to watch him get all famous. I went to a friend of his in Chicago, Charlie Trotter, who was a French chef. ...”
What does Mike like about his job?
“Everyone says the instant gratitude you get that you don’t get from a normal job. With barbecue, everyone is happy. I did fine dining. Everything is expensive. People are more finicky. Barbecue makes people a lot happier.”
Not far from him, the Greene family of Valdesta, Ga., sat across from the Lantz family, of Louisville, Ky. Both were on a business-spring break trip to St. Louis. Angela Lantz shared brisket and pulled pork with daughter Hayven, 12.
“It’s actually really good,” she said. “Not fatty, not dry. We tried all the different sauces. The cornbread has a good flavor, too ... I would highly recommend (Sugarfire). Every time we have walked by, it’s been pretty crowded. I can see why.”
The neon Sugarfire sign lured in James Miles, of Belleville.
“I work at Papa John’s downtown. I drive by here every day. The big sign just glared at me. I got a burger ($6.49) and it was really good.”
He also got a chance to sample the Big Muddy, a tall sandwich stuffed with brisket and smoked sausage and drizzled with horseradish sauce and barbecue sauce, $9.99, but decided to save it for his boss.
“I think he will love it.”
Sugarfire Smoke House
- Where: 605 Washington Ave., St. Louis, next door to the National Blues Museum.
- Hours: 11 a.m. until they’re sold out, about 7:30 p.m.
- Handicapped accessible: Yes
- Takeout and delivery: Yes
- Contact: 314-394-1720 or sugarfiresmokehouse.com
On the menu
- Pork Belly Hush Puppies — with jalapeno jelly, $5.99
- Cracker Jack Salad — Spinach, red onion, pit ham, blue cheese, cracker jack, and cider vinaigrette, $6.99
- Big Muddy — Brisket debris, smoked sausage, horseradish sauce, barbecue sauce, lettuce and pickles, $9.99
- Brisket — (6 ounces) with one side, $9.79
- Smoked salmon — (5 ounces) with one side, $10.99
- Half rack babyback ribs — with two sides and a soda, $14.99
- Homemade pie — Pecan, Key lime, apple, crack, Mississippi mud, seasonal, $4.99 a slice
- Smoked chocolate chip cookie with sea salt on top, $1.99