After Bret Chandler earned a land management degree in 1982, he quickly learned it was not a good time to find a job in the oil industry. So, naturally, he went into the pizza business.
“I went to work for (the late) Ken Selby at Mazzio’s, first in Tulsa and later in Florida,” Chandler said recently. “We came back home in 1990 with one kid, another on the way and no job. We were living with my folks.”
He said he was watching an infomercial one day about get-rich methods of buying real estate, and the message clicked for Chandler.
“I went to the Bank of Tulsa — it’s now gone — and was told it had two properties for sale, one in Tulsa and one in Broken Arrow,” he said. “I took both.”
The one in Tulsa was at 1601 S. Harvard Ave. It was an old house that previously held an Asian restaurant that had “gone belly up,” according to Chandler.
“I had a place but no vision,” Chandler said. “I thought I knew something about the restaurant business because of Mazzio’s, and I noticed most of the decent barbecue then was north or west but not much in midtown. I went with barbecue.”
He remodeled the old house, which he said he believes was built before Harvard Avenue was paved, with pine-paneled walls decorated with a collection of old beer and gasoline signs.
Rib Crib opened in 1992 with five meat options and two side dishes.
“We had no air-conditioning when we opened,” Chandler said. “We didn’t get air-conditioning until December the following year. It was a pretty humble beginning.”
Today, Rib Crib has 61 locations scattered across eight states, and Chandler still is at the helm.
“At some point last year, we realized we had to do something with this original building,” he said. “It was either tear it down and build a new prototype or remodel. I’m glad we decided to remodel and keep its old bones.”
All of the pine survived the remodel, which included a new entrance, a new bar area and new decorations, such as music posters and vintage black-and-white photos of Tulsa scenes.
The menu has only one more meat than the original on the regular menu, but overall, it is considerably longer, with a variety of salads, spuds, sandwiches, burgers, baskets (chicken tenders, chicken-fried steak, catfish) and sides.
On a recent visit, we ordered a three-meat combo with a choice of two sides ($16), a Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($10) and extra sides of red-skin mashed potatoes ($2.19) and side salad ($2.99).
We got the salad first, and it was huge for a side dish. It was filled with crispy lettuce, tomatoes, and white and yellow cheeses with a tasty ranch dressing, all topped with flash-fried tortilla strips.
The combo included three stubby ribs (I picked “sweet, sticky” Okie over Original), which had a fair amount of meat and a pleasant flavor I didn’t find particularly sweet or sticky.
It also included five slices of smoked chicken and five slices of brisket. The chicken and brisket were tender but a little dry and benefited from shots of original barbecue sauce and Carolina mustard sauce from squeeze bottles on the table. It also came with a complimentary piece of corn.
The “sweet and smoky” baked beans were sweet and smoky and dotted with bits of meat. Whether it was pork or brisket, I couldn’t tell, but it was good. Seven thick-cut onion rings were nicely breaded, sweet and tasty.
The star of the night was the Carolina pulled pork sandwich. It was stacked high with shredded pork, lettuce, tomato, a flavorful and crunchy coleslaw and Carolina mustard on a bun. It was a big mess and terrific. More napkins, please.
This store and one in Arkansas are testing out a new brunch menu, served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, that includes breakfast tacos, a burrito, sandwich and breakfast bowl. It is available in addition to the regular menu.
Among the new decorations I found interesting was a concert poster of the Grateful Dead playing at Fairgrounds Pavilion. What was interesting was tickets were available at Froug’s Department Stores, among the city’s best-known stores for many years.
The renovations began at the first of the year, and the restaurant just recently reopened.
“This is where we started, and today, we have some 2,000 employees,” Chandler said. “I’m really proud of that.”