Wednesday, January 16, 2013 / 8:05 AM
Larry Lampert wishes he had saved the big sign in the window of his former Fatman’s Barbeque shop in Olivette. The huge, all-caps sign read “CRISPY SNOOTS” and it definitely distracted drivers passing by on Olive Boulevard.
The promise of fried pigs’ noses was campy, but it was no joke – Lampert introduced barbecue on the menus of all his sandwich shops, and it sold like… like barbecue in St. Louis, i.e., really well. Sandwiches soon yielded to smoked swine. The owner’s handful of sub shops bowed to customer demand, and became barbecue shacks.
Now, history repeats itself. Lampert and his daughter and partner Angie Lampert (above) will change the name and concept of their Maryland Heights sandwich counter from Mister Lunch to Lampert’s BBQ, closing the former this week (Jan. 18) and re-opening after a remodel as the latter in mid-February, they said.
The voluble, opinionated elder Lampert, who has a long history as a restaurateur in these parts, is happy to tell you that he was ahead of the curve many a time, and then forced to make a switch when the market changed. The forthcoming change-in-concept, he said, is just the latest in a long series of the same.
In the early ‘80s, Larry sold auto parts in retail storefronts with his brother Jack (their classically goofy commercials should be viewable on youtube, but alas, are not). Then came Western Auto and Auto Zone. Casting about, Larry bought a giant fryer that he would fill with 400 pounds of lard (!) to make “kettle-cooked chips,” long before they became today’s chip de rigeur. He got advice on what potatoes to use from the former owner of Old Vienna, he said. He sold bags of the chips to Schnucks and Dierbergs stores, as well as Amighetti’s.
Larry transitioned from chips to pizza. His Papa Nate’s Pizza parlors predated the rise-to-hegemony of Domino’s in the early ‘80s, he said. He turned to sandwiches, eventually owning nearly a dozen Fatman’s Subs shops in the late ‘80s. (He named them after himself. In the auto-parts commercials with Jack, he was known as the “big” brother.) Subway, he said, gradually made him superfluous.
He put barbecue on the Fatman’s menu. It sold, big-time. Fatman’s Subs became Fatman’s Barbeque. Eventually, the Fatman’s empire dwindled to two restaurants, and Larry sold them and retired.
Retirement, it turned out, was not in Larry’s vocabulary. His next move was a food truck, long before it became trendy. In’ 02 he bought a former TWA airport shuttle bus, installed a smoker in the vehicle, cooked pulled pork and smoked sausages, and sold lunch in the parking lots of Wal-Marts throughout the state. Larry shlepped to Troy, Wentzville, Washington, everywhere. He mounted one of those inflatables shaped like a small hot-air balloon to the top of the bus to attract customers.Larry’s wife Tina once brought a single slab of ribs on the bus, to cook for themselves so they could have a festive dinner. When Tina wasn’t looking, Larry removed it from the smoker and sold it to someone on the parking lot. Tina was not pleased, but she was probably not overly surprised. They invented the word “entrepreneur” for Larry.
The balloon and the bus were cute, but the simple truth is that people are helpless before barbecue. The aroma from the smoker reaches our caveman brains, and it’s all over. Again, Larry would turn to barbecue.
The Lamperts opened the Plush Pig in posh downtown Clayton in ’05. Four years later, the St. Louis County health department found asbestos on the property, and advised Larry that it would be too much trouble to remediate. It was a good run, but Larry would have to move on. He knew the feeling.
Larry’s act two for the Plush Pig unfolded in Rock Hill (right), from ’09 to ’11. After two years in that spot, he said, the bank foreclosed on the property at about the same time he became very ill. Larry closed up shop. Gradually, he got better. Then, he did what he does -- he plotted.
In September of last year, Lampert opened Mister Lunch in the former Foxy’s Red Hots space in Maryland Heights with daughter Angie. The lunch spot (for the next few days, anyway) features basic deli sandwiches, hot dogs, and a popular gyro, all with familiar Lampert touches.
Larry said he (still) cannot compete with Subway, what with their $5 footlongs (and $2 sandwiches in December). Even the nearby QuikTrip on Fee Fee Road undersells him, he said, and the area businesspeople have not been flocking to Mister Lunch in droves.
For the Lamperts, the next move was clear. Guess what they decided to do.
“So many customers have come in and asked for barbecue,” said Larry. “We’re gonna give them what they want.”
After a remodel, the family plans to re-open as Lampert’s BBQ in mid-February. The smoker will disgorge rib tips, pulled pork, brisket, turkey, and spicy sausages. It’s intended to be simple, just-the-facts-ma’am barbecue, with a minimum of choices, served from behind a counter in the fast-casual style.
It will differ from the Plush Pig in a number of ways. A menu emphasizing reasonable prices means ribs are out, and rib tips are in. It also means sides are included with everything. It will be different from the Bandana’s just down Dorsett Road, he said, by virtue of its rapid-fire service and modest price points.
Sandwiches will include the “Road Kill,” which is pulled pork atop spicy sausage, a Carolina sandwich with slaw mounded on pulled pork, the gyro from the Mister Lunch menu, and others. We'll put a request in for “The Bernie” (left) a tasty Italian beef with giardiniera named after longtime employee Brian Bernstein.
“Big Plates” of pork, brisket, turkey, and sausage come with two sides and garlic bread. A mixed grill should appease SLM restaurants maven George Mahe, who was kicked out of the Plush Pig years ago for requesting just such a sampler of all four meats. (Mahe and Lampert have mended the fence, by the by.)
The usual sides are here – potato salad, creamy cole slaw, baked beans, green beans, and garlic bread.
The Lamperts make their own rubs and sauces. The latter include a sweet St. Louis-style sauce, which is not cloyingly sweet, and a hot variant.
As usual, Larry is thinking ahead. He envisions a chain of Lampert’s BBQs throughout the metro area, echoing the success of his Fatman’s days. After this one takes root, he said, he’ll begin soliciting business partners.
And, as per usual, Larry is not one to sit still or avoid controversy.
“We’re going to be open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights,” he said, “but we won’t have a liquor license. So we’ll have BYOB, but I’m thinking we’re gonna print on the menu that we hope people will bring A-B InBev products only. No matter what anybody says, that is still a St. Louis company. It employs St. Louis people.”
Larry has an opinion. He has a plan. He has a family that has enjoined his many, many battles. Now, he is healthy again, and he takes approximately 5% more guff than he used to, which is to say, he still fumes, but he does not blow his stack nearly as often as he did in the old days.
He rises yet again, like the phoenix – or the smoked turkey, if you will.
In St. Louis, in 2013, the formula is clear: you sell barbecue. Nobody understands that quite as well as Larry Lampert does.
Scheduled to open mid-Feb.
Mon-Thurs 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.
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