Only In Ann Arbor: Ron's Roadside BBQ (aka Romanoff's Catering)
The reviews on Yelp
say it best. Between the effusive praises and complaints that their favorite dishes were sold out, folks like Peggy F of Northville describe Ron's Roadside BBQ
(a.k.a. Romanoff's Catering) as "hidden off to the side of nowhere and nothing." And that just seems to fuel the passion for a family business that has been an Ann Arbor fixture for almost 40 years but mostly attracts those who are 'in-the-know.'
Roman Philipp started his business as a small catering company in the ‘60s, then built the kitchen that currently houses Romanoff's Catering and Ron's Roadside BBQ in 1973. Roman and his family ran the business for all these decades until he passed away a few years ago. At that time, Roman's son Ron was living in New York and operating his own BBQ restaurant; his father's death prompted him to come home and helm the family business.
To say Ron is an interesting character would be an understatement. He studied at LaVarenne
Cooking School in France, worked in high-profile kitchens in Manhattan and the Hamptons, was a chef for the Barefoot Contessa
, spent some time out in New York's wine country then decided to open his own BBQ restaurant in upstate New York.
"I wanted to experience things myself and really round myself out," Philipp explains. "It was an experience that could never be repeated." The restaurant, called the Farmer BBQ, was tremendously well-received, even garnering some attention from the New York Times
"I always loved barbecue," he continues. "[My friend and I asked each other] why are we making everybody else rich?" Philipp says that people "swarmed" there, willing to wait for a table for an hour and a half or longer. But as first-time business owners - two guys with plenty of cooking experience but no practical business experience - the restaurant had issues. "It was kind of a ‘what do we do?' decision, then dad passed away and it was the [push] I needed, " Philipp explains.
Philipp returned home and took over Romanoff's Catering operations, which had been a successful enterprise for decades - with no storefront and minimal advertising. They used to do all the catering for University of Michigan's varsity sports including the teams, the booster clubs, the pitchers' clubs, everything
. But when they lost the contract with U-M (new management wanted to mix things up and try some different companies), Romanoff's had to slowly rebuild a client base in order to sustain.
"The family all ran the business together for years and we were crazy-busy," he says. "It was insane. But times change. Now we're building back up and are doing cool stuff again."
One of Philipp's strategies to keep the company moving forward was adding a small storefront for carry-out business, called Ron's Roadside BBQ. During the summer there are picnic tables outside where people can enjoy their food (quite literally on the roadside) or just take it to go.
The catering side of the business is also regaining in strength. Their catering portfolio includes traveling sports teams, television and film sets, corporate events, weddings, graduation parties, BBQ buffets at Ann Arbor's Domino Farms office park, and a wide range of other events and occasions. Customers can choose to pick it up, have it delivered, or opt for full service in which Romanoff's will do all the set-up and tear-down and have staff at the event handling all the food. "We have a package for everybody," Philipp states.
What has made Romanoff's, and now Ron's Roadside BBQ, such a popular place despite being off-radar for all these years is how they the quality of their barbecue. Low and slow is the key to good ‘cue, and that's their unofficial motto. They've got their own smoker out front and smoke all their meats over hickory wood, apple wood and cherry wood.
"We cook it really slow so it doesn't shrink much and is still tender," Philipp says. They serve Carolina-style pulled pork, city-style ribs and Texas-style brisket: "Each region has its own indigenous barbecue … when [I had my restaurant] on Long Island we could really experiment and come up with [different recipes]."
In addition to low and slow meats in different regional styles, Ron's and Romanoff's also make everything else they serve from scratch. They bake their own bread, make their own salads (which includes both German and American potato salad, beet salad and a very popular cucumber salad) and their own mac & cheese. They also make their own specialty soups, chili, chicken chili, chicken and sausage jambalaya, and more. One of their most popular items for carry-out is the Trio on Brio, a combination of pulled pork, pulled chicken and brisket sandwiches on homemade rolls. The Memphis Throwdown combo is a huge combination of sliced smoked brisket, pulled pork, half a chicken and half a slab of ribs big enough for two people. "We oversize everything!"
But the barbecue business isn't the only thing Ron inherited. With it came thousands of soldiers. You see, Roman was an avid collector of classic toy soldiers – the kind that are made of lead and stand about 2.5-3 inches high. He used to make them, sell them, trade them, and would travel internationally to collect them. "He would go all over the place," Ron says.
The collection includes Revolutionary War and WWI soldiers with ornately detailed uniforms, "really beautiful stuff," boasts Ron. Roman was so well-known within the community of collectors that people would seek him out when they were in town.
"We catered a banquet for University of Michigan with Gerald Ford, and the Secret Service agents were collectors themselves and would seek out [my dad]. It was pretty cool!"
Ron believes the collection tops 200,000 soldiers. They used to have an entire building on their property dedicated to displaying a portion of the collection but the township forced them to shut it down.
"We used to let people in for free just so they could see it and enjoy it! But it turns out the liability was too much, so we contained it to the house and will show it by private appointments."
If you are interested in seeing the collection yourself, Ron says just call the restaurant.
Philipp has been back in the business for four years now and says that things are "growing exponentially" every year. He plans on reopening one of their catering halls so they can host a weekly Friday night German buffet with live music and German beer, and also have it available for catered events and weddings - even offering a Sunday brunch inside. "We're cleaning that up still; we need to get our inspections done but hopefully by summer we'll have that open."
"My dad was a great chef and he taught me a lot. But he didn't want to change at the time," Philipp's adds. Ron has learned the importance of being flexible in the food industry, and is now positioning his long-held family business for the next generation of customers, and hoping to serve them for the next 40 years.
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com
All photos by Doug Coombe