When Teressa Bellissimo smothered chicken wings with butter and hot sauce, she couldn't have dreamed that the result would become the most popular dish at Buffalo's Anchor Bar and the city's best-known export.
In a famously risky business, the entrepreneurs featured here have turned their restaurants and products into regional, even national, icons. How did they do it? Luck played its part, but ingenuity mattered, too. Take Mission burritos: The corn tortillas commonly used in the Mexican favorite weren't readily available in San Francisco, so entrepreneurs switched to wheat to wrap up burritos named for that city's Mission District. But the real secret of these companies' success has been consistency. In the face of well-funded imitators and fad diets, they've stayed true to old recipes and family traditions. Bon appetit!
No mere strip joint
Every few years, Larry Woodman gathers the family members who work for Woodman's of Essex for a photo. It's a pretty crowded picture. Larry, his two brothers, a sister, and 48 other relatives all work at the 75-employee fried-clam shack on Boston's North Shore.
It all started in 1916 when Woodman's grandfather, Chubby, dropped some whole clams into the fryers at his sundries-and-snack shop. The crisp-but-juicy morsels became legendary among New Englanders, who spurn fried clams made from mere strips rather than whole clams. "[Chubby] quickly realized that he could make $35 frying the same clams that he was selling in the shell for $4 or $5," says Woodman, the $3.7 million company's president. The original building has been expanded and now houses the restaurant and a catering business. "The main reason we feel our restaurant has the best flavor is that nobody else uses lard," says Woodman. "We get people who throw their two cents in with concerns about that, but I just tell them I take my 40 grams of Lipitor every day."
A Mission to Fulfill
San Francisco's Mission District is famous both for the artists once attracted by cheap rents and the overstuffed Mission-style burritos that fed them. The deals may be gone, but the district is still packed with taquerias specializing in burritos: grilled steak, roast pork, chicken, or one of dozens of other choices, wrapped in a flour burrito with rice and beans. Foremost among them is Taqueria La Cumbre. Raul Duran, a native of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and his wife, Michaela, opened it in 1967 as a grocery. But their burritos were such a hit that the store became a full-time burrito joint in 1972. The original Valencia Street store and a second one in San Mateo, Calif., brought in $2 million in 2004.
Last year, Raul retired and son Edward, 44, took over the 21-employee company. La Cumbre's imitators now include chains such as Chipotle and Baja Fresh. "Lots of people have taken our formula, and they may have made it prettier, but it doesn't taste as good," says Edward, who has an uncommon zeal for freshness: The store's microwave is used only for its built-in radio.
If it ain't broke...
When Arthur Bryant died in 1982 at the age of 80, a cartoon in the local paper showed the barbecue icon being greeted at the pearly gates by St. Peter, who asks: "Did you bring sauce?" Barbecue lovers had another question: Would Arthur Bryant's, the restaurant that his brother founded in the 1930s, survive without its pitmaster? Industry veterans Bill Rauschelbach and Gary Berbiglia bought the Kansas City, Mo., restaurant in 1983, then reopened it with the same countermen slapping slow-cooked beef brisket and pork ribs onto paper plates and Bryant's niece Doretha still making the famous tangy, slightly gritty, red-orange sauce. "We modernized it but kept it as a hole in the wall -- a clean hole in the wall," says Rauschelbach, the company's president. They have since opened two locations in the suburbs. Together, the restaurants, with 100 employees in all, brought in $6.25 million in 2004. But Rauschelbach and Berbiglia don't mess too much with the original. "We've had to replace the floors and the blinds over the years, and we catch the devil from longtime customers," says Berbiglia. "They're very adamant about things staying the same."
Upstate New York's Greatest Gift to Western Civilization
In 1964, Teressa Bellissimo did what any good cook does when faced with leftover ingredients -- she improvised. She took wings too large and meaty for the stockpot, fried them, and smothered them in butter and hot sauce. They became a fixture at Anchor Bar, the Buffalo restaurant Teressa and her husband, Frank, founded in 1930. Her wings are now so common that many people don't even know they're named for Buffalo, N.Y. "Wherever you go, if you sit at the bar, you can most likely get Buffalo wings," says Ivano Toscani, who has run the $4 million, 110-employee Anchor Bar since 1990. He worked with Frank and Teressa, and, later, their son Dominic, taking over after his death. The menu has changed over the years, but the wings stayed. "For some people, the original wings weren't hot enough, so we came up with a hot sauce and a suicidal sauce," says Toscani. It's working: Every day, Anchor Bar sells some 1,500 pounds of wings.
Good Enough for Grandma...
There's no debating the origin of Derby Pie, a chocolate-and-walnut concoction trademarked by its creators, Walter and Leaudra Kern. The Kerns developed the pie in the mid-1950s for the Melrose Inn near Louisville, where they managed the dining room, and named their pie after the city's famous horse race. A decade later the Kerns launched a baking company, Kern's Kitchen, out of their home. "Grandma baked the pies three at a time and cooled them on her porch," recalls grandson Alan Rupp, who now runs Kern's.
Rupp vigilantly guards his forbears' recipe. Kern's Kitchen has filed 10 trademark infringement lawsuits, going up against big names such as Nestlé Foods. Rupp's six employees sign confidentiality agreements, and no one is allowed in the kitchen when the baker is combining ingredients. The effort has paid off: When Rupp came on board in 1973, Kern's Kitchen had 14 customers, nearly all of them restaurants. Today, it has more than 100 wholesale customers, a mail-order business, and annual sales of about $750,000. Business is especially brisk in the weeks leading up to the May race, when Rupp hires temporary workers to meet demand. No matter which horse crosses the finish line first, Kern's comes out the winner.
By Sarah Breckenridge