Should you turn your hobby into a career? Joe Neuman decided to leave teaching and coaching at the age of 36 to start Sloppy Mama’s. What began as a weekend activity, smoking pigs for family and friends, is now a full time endeavor, employing multiple people in Mess Hall (where they cook), Union Market, Solly’s, a food truck (where they sell) and catering sites throughout D.C. and Virginia. He’s also created work for wood cutters and launders. Making BBQ us a smoky business.
“The smell doesn’t come out.” When we asked Neuman what detergent he uses, he didn’t tell us. According to him, it doesn’t really matter. The smoke stays with you.
We recently spent an afternoon and evening with Neuman and Sloppy Mama’s. The BBQ restaurant/caterer is the only wood based BBQ restaurant/caterer in the District. Other BBQ joints use wood assisted ovens to get their smokey flavor. Sloppy Mama’s uses their wood for everything they cook (except sides, sides are made at Solly’s, sans smoker – you don’t need a smoker to make fries and potato salad). For about 12 hours a day, they’re running their smoker, cooking an average of 250 pounds a day. “Our business is meat,” says Neuman.
When it comes to the meat business, Neuman breaks it down this way. “It’s building systems, chasing work and hauling shit around town.”
Neuman’s point about building systems is interesting. It’s difficult to imaging the company operating a decade ago. There wasn’t a shared kitchen space like Mess Hall in 2008. The food truck boom didn’t hit until the early 2010s. You couldn’t utilize data shared over Google Drive because Drive didn’t exist until 2012. Uber Eats, the service Sloppy Mama’s uses out of Solly’s, wasn’t created until 2014. All of the systems surrounding the most basic form of cooking are relatively new. But those are not the most interesting aspects of the BBQ business. The BBQ is what piqued our curiosity.
Our day with Sloppy Mama’s began a little before 2 p.m. Right before we arrived, the week’s wood was delivered.
If you’re smoking meats you need a wood guy. When you’re smoking meats you go through a lot of trees. A cord every two weeks. A cord is about four feet high, four feet wide and eight feet long. Sloppy Mama’s uses fresh cut oak from Maryland. It burns hotter and delivers more smoke than other wood. Sloppy Mama’s uses a lot of wood.
The smoker was started around 2 p.m. Brisket, pork, ribs and wings were cooked over the 12 hour period. Brisket is the star.
Brisket is the biggest seller and the main reason we’re with Sloppy Mama’s for the day and night. On a good piece of brisket, the business will have a 50 to 60% yield. At $3.40 a lb., it’s not a cheap piece of meat.
The brisket is seasoned the night before it goes in to the smoker because according to Neuman, “The end product is better when you season it overnight.”
From 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., it’s manned by a smoke master, maintaining a temperature of 275 on average. As long as the wind isn’t higher than 15 miles per hour, it’s a relatively easy task to maintain the ideal temperature. The heat is monitored and the meat is moved within the one of the smoker’s six zones to ensure even cooking. After five hours of smoke, the brisket is wrapped in butcher paper and flipped, essentially braising it and ensuring a balanced, and more even product.
Since brisket needs to sit for at a minimum of four hours (the longer it sits, the better), the staff is stuck manning the smoker until the middle of the night.
When not manning the smoker, the pit master preps the next days food. The brisket is treated with equal parts Happy Sprinkles (a spice rub developed by Neuman, available online and at select D.C. retailers like Odd Provisions), salt and pepper. The pork gets treated with Happy Sprinkles, lots of Happy Sprinkles, they go through 2 quarts of seasoning for a case of pork. The ribs and wings are rubbed with handfuls of seasoning. The guys were also experimenting with the right bacon formula for the bacon in their new breakfast burrito. The sausage is made two to three days in advance.
For the “hauling shit around town” aspect of our day, we tagged along with Neuman to an Ace Hardware, picked up containers from their Union Market stall, dropped off meat at Solly’s and ran after an Uber Eats bike delivery messenger (he took the incorrect order).
After errands, it was back to Mess Hall for more smoker monitoring and emails. This is where the “chasing work” came in. Neuman was preparing for the next day’s 6 a.m. delivery of food to the Elliot In The Morning show (Neuman was planning on sleeping in his truck between packing the food and delivering it. What else are you going to do at 4 a.m.?). In addition to getting on morning radio, he was also working on the First Annual DC Barbeque Bash, May 19 at The Bullpen. The afternoon event is a benefit for Living Classrooms. Sloppy Mama’s does an average of one charity catering event each month.
In the middle of the night, the brisket is pulled from the smoker and brought inside Mess Hall to rest. It’s done when it feels like Jello.
Once all the meat is off the grill and placed into transporters for delivery to their Union Market and Solly’s locations, food truck and catering gigs, it’s time to clean the smoker.
After yielding 3 gallons of animal fat, the smoker is scraped and cleaned each night. It’s power washed every 2 weeks.
Neuman’s day is over when the smoker is cleaned. On a typical day, he’s back up at 6 a.m., works for an hour, gets his 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter ready for school, leaves his suburban house around 9:30 and 11 a.m., makes the rounds to the Sloppy Mama’s and repeats. It does not sound easy. It does not look easy.
“I don’t think physically I could do now what I did when we started.”