With the popular Whitby barbecue joint getting set to bring its southern-styled goodness to downtown Toronto, we spoke to owner Darryl Koster about the logistics of translating suburban success to the inner city.
The boon in barbecue restaurants in the city inevitably draws comparisons to already established places like Phil’s and The Stockyards but there’s another joint that often comes up when Torontonians talk about smoked meat—and it’s a 45-minute drive outside the city.
Buster Rhino’s Southern BBQ is consistently rated as one of the city’s best even though it’s in Whitby (with another outpost in Oshawa). Those without a car (or the time to take a train) can currently find pitmaster Darryl Koster’s sandwiches at the Distillery District’s Sweet Escapes. In the coming months, a Buster’s Rhino will be opening in the city (the location’s currently a secret) but for the time being, Koster gives us a primer for those who’ve never been.
So what is southern barbecue?
It’s cooking low and slow over hardwood or charcoal. In southern barbecue there are hundreds of styles but the main ones are Texas, Memphis and Kansas City. After you do that initial cooking, the regional styles come in the sauces and spices. North Carolina uses a vinegary type of sauce that doesn’t contain tomatoes—just vinegar, spices and herbs. South Carolina uses a tomato, mustard, Worcestershire and vinegar base. Alabama has a white sauce and then you move on to the Midwest that has a more molassy tomato sauce. Mine is similar to Carolina barbecue but I have my own style. Let’s leave it at that.
I’m assuming your recipes are something you’ll take to your grave.
There are only two people who know them: my chef Scott McDonald and myself. (Note: Koster’s personal site has some other recipes to share).
For those who aren’t familiar with Buster Rhino’s, tell us a bit more about yourself.
I started to barbecue about 21 years ago when I was 21 years old. I travel often to South Carolina to visit my family, who are competitive barbecuers. I’d party with them all weekend, eat a lot of barbecue, then head down to Florida to scuba dive and then come back to South Carolina and do it all over again before going home. Do this for 20 years and you’d start to pick up barbecue. My family down there has always been ranked third or sixth barbecuer in the world in the Memphis barbecue network. That’s how I learned to do this.
And what do they think of your barbecue?
They love it but they don’t eat pulled pork. Same as me. I don’t eat pulled pork either after pulling several thousand pounds of pork after all those years. I used to work at a pizza joint when I was 15 and I had to cut up 50-pound bags of Spanish onions. I couldn’t eat onions again until five years ago. I’d eat pulled pork once every few months and test the pork here to make sure it’s alright before it’s served.
You’re in the middle of an industrial neighbourhood in Whitby—why open here?
We started out as a meatpacking plant. This front area wasn’t meant to be a restaurant. When we opened, we didn’t have a huge customer base for southern barbecue. There was me; Cluck, Grunt and Low, which closed pretty quickly; and Phil’s, that was it. We didn’t have a lot of restaurants buying pulled pork from us so we thought to turn the front part of the space into a restaurant, since there are 20,000 people who work this neighbourhood. In the beginning, we didn’t really make a lot of money because people here weren’t really into barbecue but soon it became popular in Toronto. We got a mention in the newspaper in Toronto and people started to come up here. In fact, most of our customers are still from Toronto.
Until you open in Toronto, are there any places in city you’d recommend for barbecue?
A lot of people know how to barbecue really well but don’t use the seasoning, sauces and spices that I like. That being said, the one I’ll go to is The Stockyards—if I was in the city and Buster Rhino’s hasn’t opened yet.
You’re keeping the Toronto location a secret but what can you tell us about it?
We’re planning to have a sit down restaurant with appetizers, desserts and some beer. One of the issues is that we don’t want to have just one restaurant. We want to open several so we have to make sure they’re almost cookie-cutter and serve the exact quality of food at all the locations. We’re already franchaised with another store in Oshawa but I want to own all of the locations. Not to be greedy, but to ensure they all hold up the same standards.
What about the timeline?
We’re hoping it’ll be within six months depending on the city of Toronto. If the place we get is already a restaurant, it’ll just be like putting lipstick on a pig but if it’s a blank space, we’ll have to deal with permits and such. Toronto has the consumer base and the walk-by traffic. It’s hard to get into any other city and get the same traffic in Toronto. If we open on Bloor for example, I’ll probably get more walk-by traffic in a day than in Oshawa in a year. Toronto’s a big city and can probably hold six or seven Buster Rhino’s.
Just sit-down or takeout?
Both. The sit-down restaurant will be our initial focus. But if you look at Bay street and the Lake Shore, there are so many condos that we can just do a lunchtime takeout, but anything more than that won’t work. People in those areas will go elsewhere for a sit down meal. Some of these condos have up to 6,000 people so you can just do a takeout sandwich place and survive.
Will everything be smoked in-house at the new place?
We’ll have a smoker but some of the food will have to be smoked here in Whitby. You can put that on Chowhound.
So you read the forum?
It’s actually insanely valuable for a restaurant owner. I don’t use it for restaurant recommendations but I can post stuff on there and people will know I’m involved and look for feedback. Within our first month of opening, someone wrote that our food was too salty and it turns out one of the girls at the front of the restaurant was screwing up. I almost fell down when I took a bite of the food because it was so salty and I wouldn’t have known if someone didn’t write about it. The same thing with Twitter. It’s a valuable tool to get to know your customers and I think they appreciate a simple thank you—especially when they’re spending money at your place.