Longtime St. Louisans might remember Larry Lampert. Back in the day, Lampert starred in the television ads for his own Larry Lampert Auto Centers. At the time, Lampert was a man of three hundred pounds, and his auto-parts empire, at its peak a chain of eighteen stores, was pretty much where you turned to for your carburetors and your fan belts. Then the AutoZones and the Advance Auto Parts came along, and even with his ubiquitous TV spots, it became nearly impossible for Lampert to compete as an independent in the market he once dominated.
Lampert shut down the parts barns and turned to the pizza business, opening Papa Nate's Pizza in south St. Louis. Again things went well. But then, like a big bad wolf following little-pig Lampert from house to house, the national market began blowing down his door again. Imagine Lampert telling this part, in his grandfatherly, aw-shucks, Captain Kangaroo storytelling voice. "And then guess who came in? In comes Domino's, and suddenly you couldn't sell a pizza unless you had a coupon.
"So then I thought, hey: sub sandwiches."
Lampert sold the pizza business and opened Fatman's Sub Shop on Olive Boulevard and Warson Road.
"We get into that and we start doing gangbusters with subs," he says. "And then guess who came in? In comes Subway. I started to think: 'This is crazy.'"
Now it's August of 1995, and Lampert decides that for his upcoming birthday, he's going to have a barbecue celebration at Fatman's. Barbecue was always a Lampert family favorite -- and, as Lampert realized when he began offering barbecue at his sub shop, a customer favorite as well.
The entrepreneurial cogs in his brain whirled once more. "There are no national chains for barbecue, because it's very regionalized. It's very taste-specific. And people who like barbecue will go anywhere for barbecue."
Lampert closed down Fatman's Sub Shop and opened Fatman's Barbeque. Fatman's Barbeque did as well as Papa Nate's and Fatman's Subs, but when someone came along wanting to buy the business, he figured it was time to retire. Then he found that he was bored out of his mind, so he opened Plush Pig Barbeque, a catering-only concern. With no mass-marketer lurking around to snatch his customer base, the operation got so big that Lampert found himself with the choice of either relocating to a bigger facility or scaling back.
Lampert doesn't believe in scaling back. He called for reinforcements, inviting his daughter Angie, who'd grown up around his food businesses and previously worked in wholesale distribution and as a manager at Culpeppers, to go in with him on a restaurant and catering operation.
In downtown Clayton.
Two months ago Plush Pig opened its doors on Forsyth Boulevard, in the space most recently occupied by the erstwhile restaurant B. Tomas.
Considering how many ventures Lampert has undertaken over the course of his meandering career, it's funny to hear him say, "I believe in doing five or so items well. If we can't do an excellent job in five items, we have no business being in business." At Plush Pig, that means Carolina pulled pork, Texas beef brisket, sausage, ribs and chicken, available in a round-robin assortment: a one- or two-meat dinner with fries and slaw; two ribs and a meat with fries and slaw; a "mixed grill" (two ribs, pork, beef, chicken, sausage and fries); any meat on a sandwich; or a monster, kitchen-sink family platter that'll feed a family of four or five.
Lampert, a sauce-on-the-side barbecue man, does all his smoking on-site, using Missouri cherry wood. He knows that smoking, kinda like pizza-baking, is not an exact science. It depends on things like the humidity, and how cold it is outside. He'll smoke a pork butt for twelve to fourteen hours, a brisket for about eight to ten.
Plush Pig's barbecue is awesome. The brisket is angel-soft, one edge of each piece limned with a blood-red smoke line. Eating it is like tucking into a brisket pillow. Actually, eating it is like playing with your food, because it's just too tempting not to grab each piece with your thumb and forefinger and dangle it into your mouth.
The pulled pork is right-on, sweet and smoky all at once, and a fun-as-heck, gnash-happy workout for the bicuspids. When served as a sandwich, on an untoasted burger bun with slices of white onion and pickle, the bun proves no match for the pork -- but that's as it should be.
The ribs and sausage run a close second to the brisket and pork. The rib meat doesn't quite faint off the bone, but it hardly puts up a fight, and much to Plush Pig's credit, there's much more meat on the bone than you get with your average rib. The sausage's casing can sometimes be too capitulating; other times, it's got a great snap to it.
Plush Pig sells Boone's Farm by the bottle and baklava for dessert, which is just hilarious. The baklava -- which seems to contain a whole stick of butter and an entire bee's-nest of honey in each bite -- is a holdover from the days of Fatman's Subs. Says Lampert: "Barbecue is a manly sort of thing. It's heavy, and I thought that baklava fits right in with that. Plus, I like baklava, and I only serve what I like here. We don't serve coffee, and guess why? Because I don't like coffee."
The Boone's Farm idea father and daughter came up with together, and it's not something they've ever offered before. But they felt it would show precisely what kind of kick-back place Plush Pig ought to be, because, the old man says, "everybody has a Boone's story to tell, and it's never a bad story."
In fact, so dedicated are the Lamperts to offering a good-time establishment, the elder Lampert believes his main competition now are chains like Applebee's and T.G.I.Friday's -- restaurants that pour a lot of money and marketing into their ambiance. Plush Pig's interior looks like somebody's backyard deck. The seating is all handmade picnic tables, with two umbrella-topped patio tables in the back. The house-made barbecue sauce sits atop each table in old liquor bottles. The walls are festooned with picnic baskets, tennis rackets, a headboard from a brass bed and vintage beer and soda ads -- the same contrived Americana commonly found in those other places. The difference at Plush Pig? Larry Lampert himself, for one, wearing an apron, sitting down to chat and urging you to holler if you need anything.
Oh, and how did Lampert lose all that weight? He claims he "just stopped eating." Now that he's opened up his new barbecue joint, we'll see how long he can keep the weight off.