Alarm bells didn't bring Capt. Randy Wolodkewitsch, dressed in his navy blue fireman's pants and T-shirt, to a west Omaha Bag 'N Save store last Friday morning.
Wolodkewitsch and four other Omaha firefighters were the sole customers in line at the store's deli counter around 11 a.m., their police scanners squawking. The group left a shiny red truck parallel parked outside behind Tattoo Bob's Bar-B-Q, a mobile smoker attached to a flatbed hooked to a white pickup truck.
As the group waited, Bob West, a.k.a. Tattoo Bob, slowly rolled a cart of caramelized, deep brown ribs. These are the same ribs that recently won West second place at the annual American Royal Barbecue Contest in Kansas City, Mo., where nearly 600 cooks competed. Tattoo Bob also finished 12th overall in the contest, the highest a Nebraska team has ever placed in the American Royal.
“I've heard he's phenomenal,” Wolodkewitsch said. “So we pulled up to get something for lunch.”
The firefighters bought all three of the whole chickens West had smoked in the parking lot of Bag N Save that morning, beginning around 5:45 a.m. They waited while West also packed them two racks of ribs, just off the smoker.
“It's pork. What's not to like?” firefighter Curt Huey said. “It's like happiness on four legs.”
A grocery store parking lot might seem one of the more unlikely places to find award-winning barbecue, but West said the firefighters aren't the only Omahans who seek him out at grocery stores around the city every Friday and Saturday.
West fell into the world of barbecue four years ago at age 44. He needed another part-time job and decided he wanted to cook.
“I just ended up starting this because there was no good barbecue in this town,” West said. “A lot of people don't believe they can find good barbecue inside a grocery store. But I've never had someone try it and not like it.”
A family friend who happened to be the president of the Greater Omaha Barbeque Society took West out for barbecue in Bellevue. There West met the former owner of a local barbecue joint, and he ended up cooking with the restaurant owner that weekend at a contest. His adopted team came in second.
“It totally hooked me,” he said.
During the next year, West would cook in about six or seven more barbecue contests before he decided to try it himself. West met another local barbecuer who cooked at Hy-Vee Supermarkets around Omaha, so he decided to contact Bag 'N Save to see if the store might be interested in a similar arrangement. West and his friends took samples to the store, and the grocer agreed to a partnership. But a couple weeks later, the owner of the smoker and the Bellevue restaurant who was going to cook with West left Omaha.
“Overnight, I had a gig but no smoker,” West said, chuckling. “I thought, 'What do I do now?' ”
He found someone who had a smoker he wanted to unload. West didn't even ask how much it cost before he agreed to buy it.
Bag 'N Save managers were still interested in having West cook, but they wanted to try his food, since it was now a solo gig. West whipped up beans, coleslaw, pork ribs and boneless beef short ribs and showed up.
“It was a good quality product,” said Glenn Judevine, the deli director for Bag 'N Save and No Frills stores. The stores decided to start with the ribs and whole chickens, and West had his first gig, at 108th and Q Streets. He called it Tattoo Bob's — he got the nickname because his bowling league had three Bobs and his friends decided to call him “Tattoo Bob.” He lives up to the name, with two full sleeves of ink.
West never worked in the food industry before, but he'd always loved to cook. He began cooking on his own backyard grill at age 17, spending years perfecting recipes for things like beef jerky. He caught on fast to how things in the grocery store deli worked, and it didn't hurt that everyone at the store loved his food. He got more gigs. West added chicken pieces to his smoker, along with the whole birds. Then brisket. Then turkey legs. During lent, he smokes salmon.
Judevine said customers get excited when Tattoo Bob is in the store,
“People really look forward to it,” he said. “Bob is a small, local guy and we want to continue to support him.”
The stores pay West per load and the store provides him with the meat. He brings his own secret rub, manufactured at International Spices in Fremont. He has also arranged to sell his bottled barbecue sauce, another secret recipe, in the stores.
West leaves his other job, operating a printing press, on Thursday nights and comes to the grocery store to get ready for his weekend gigs. He prepares whatever he's cooking a day in advance and lets the rub soak into the meat overnight. If he's cooking turkey legs, he brines them.
He arrives at the designated store early Friday mornings and fires up the smoker. Once the meat has cooked for about two hours, West uses a hand-held sprayer to mist an even layer of apple juice over everything. It's something all competitive barbecue cooks do, he said, because it creates a deep caramelized finish as it blends with the dry rub.
The ribs and chicken will cook for about four hours; brisket will cook for nine. This day, West had loaded his smoker with applewood, but he also likes plum wood and hickory.
Inside the smoker are long racks that slowly rotate. West arranges the meat in a specific order, and as the rack moves, meat juice and caramelized apple juice drip down, coating everything in the smoker with flavor. He credits much of his success to the smoker, which ran him $7,000 used — it runs $13,000 new. There are no hot spots, the heat is even and damp, and it has no openings that let in outside air, which allows him to cook with it year-round. To pay for his fledgling business, West took out a $3,000 personal loan and a $4,000 loan against a motorcycle he owned.
His schedule at the stores is flexible enough that he can arrange to go to competitions. West does a few things differently when he's cooking meat competitively: He uses St. Louis-style ribs instead of baby back ribs, and he coats the meat with brown sugar to make it sweeter. Competitive judges in the Midwest, he said, prefer sweet barbecue. He'll cook the ribs at a lower temperature for competition, and he takes more care with them, wrapping them in foil after about three hours of cooking to ensure tenderness.
“I don't want anyone to think I am cutting corners when I cook at the store, though,” West said.
He aims for the same award-winning texture at the grocery store that he does at competition.
“Ribs should not be falling off the bone,” he said. “If the meat falls off, it's overcooked.”
West's ribs are incredibly smoky but not too sweet, and though the meat has been doused with apple juice, there's no distinct flavor of apples. Each bite is rich, tender and moist. When it comes to chicken, many barbecue cooks won't cook the white meat, but West has perfected it. Each bite is moist and shot through with deep smokiness and subtle spice.
There are secrets behind West's chicken — butter is one. The rest he won't reveal.
Many times, depending on the store he's at, there can be 15 people in line when West rolls in his cart of chicken. He's sold out his whole load of chicken — more than 100 pieces — in fewer than 30 minutes at some locations.
On Fridays, West cooks two loads, which come out of the smoker at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. On Saturdays, he just does one, and it's done around 11. The ribs are $14.99 for a full rack and $7.99 for a half. A whole chicken costs $6.99 and a turkey leg is $4.99. Smoked beef brisket runs $8.99 a pound.
West has hopes for Tattoo Bob's. He wants to cater more — he worked the wedding of two Bag 'N Save deli department employees, and he hopes to do more events like that someday. He wants to keep working toward a grand prize. He also would love to open his own storefront. And he wants to sell his rub in stores. Maybe he'll open a food truck.
“I have way too big of a following not to try,” West said. “I still shake my head and wonder how this all happened.”
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Where to find Tattoo Bob
Oct 18-19, No Frills Supermarkets, 50th and G Streets
Oct. 25-26, No Frills Supermarkets, 820 N. Saddlecreek Road
Nov. 1-2, Bag 'N Save, 50th and Harrison Streets
Nov. 8-9, Bag 'N Save, 156th and Weir Streets
Nov. 15-16, No Frills Supermarkets, 7402 N. 30th St., near 30th and Weber
Nov, 29-30, Bag 'N Save, 156th and Blondo Streets
Dec. 6-7, Bag 'N Save, 108th and Q Streets
Dec. 13-14, Bag 'N Save, 50th and Grover
Dec. 20-21, No Frills Supermarkets, 1230 S Washington St., Papillion