Eddie Deen, president of Eddie Deen & Company, talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about the origins of his famous barbecue, how he inspires and motivates his employees and his “Internal Freedom” life skills course.
If there’s a rock star of Texas barbecue, it’s Eddie Deen. In the restaurant and catering business for 35 years, he is the founder of Eddie Deen & Company, a catering and special event business in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that was selected to serve thousands of guests celebrating George W. Bush’s inaugurations as both governor of Texas and president of the United States, inaugural festivities for every Texas governor in the last 20 years—including Gov. Greg Abbott—and has prepared up to 20,000 meals a day for relief workers in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike.
Deen, who grew up on a working ranch in Wills Point about an hour east of Dallas, was raised on farm fresh foods and credits his mother with teaching him the value of nutritious eating. “My mom cooked three meals a day from the garden,” he says. “I wasn’t accustomed to TV dinners or anything but great food.”
While attending college at Texas A&M University, Deen would occasionally host parties—his barbecue was a hit with fellow classmates—and, after graduating with a degree in Agriculture, he opened his first restaurant in 1980 at a marina owned by his family on the shores of Lake Tawakoni. “I saw the opportunity to try my stake at barbecue,” he says, adding that it only took him an hour to create the recipe for his flavorful sauce. “I wrote down what I thought should be in a barbecue sauce and how much each ingredient should be. I have never changed it; everything is still true today.”
Cooking, Deen notes, is both a science and an art. He applies scientific methods to everything from smoking brisket to baking bread. “If you’re baking bread, you need to understand all the forces going into bread making. Yeast is a living, one-cell organism that needs sugar for energy, salt as a stabilizer and oil for elasticity. Water activates the yeast. Eggs are added for flavor. Each of these ingredients is equally important, but if you get the salt and sugar backwards you’ve got bad bread. If you set the stage right, it will unfold. It’s the same for great barbecue.”
For the last 15 years Deen has been visiting shelters throughout Dallas and mentoring to parolees and the homeless with his “Internal Freedom” course. “It took me about six months to write the curriculum,” he says. “The basis of the class is that children are born as a ship with a captain but somehow, some way they lose the captain. That is the underlying cause of their problems.”
Eddie Deen: The key is to look at all the forces involved in catering an event and then write a theory to best describe how nature will unfold. If somebody wants me to serve barbecue on the moon tomorrow, there are too many forces against me. [Laughs] If we have enough air in our basketball and everybody is a ship with a captain we can overcome any reasonable barriers.
Opportunist: Have you faced any challenges through the years as you grew your business?
Eddie Deen: The biggest challenge in the last few years has been social media. Everybody is paying attention, becoming their own media and sharing their experiences on Facebook. If somebody shares one experience and a lot of people respond to it, what happens is that individual feels better about himself because people acknowledged his story. Once people see or feel the benefit of that, they need to go out and create another experience to share. As people share their experiences, they become more and more addicted to sharing greater experiences.
The biggest story for business owners today is how do we constantly improve our art? We have to be more like artists and constantly set the stage to be more interesting, which challenges all of us in the hospitality industry. So I’m thinking franchises will be in a little bit of trouble because they constantly have to ask themselves how they can be different. A scientist looks at the similarities in differences and an artist looks at the differences in similarities. You have to look at business as a scientist and an artist. A scientist may follow a model that works well someplace else, but an artist takes that model and makes it more interesting.
Opportunist: How are you making your model interesting?
Eddie Deen: The key is through employees. Employees must have a love for learning. Never in the history of the world do we need a love for learning as we do today. Learning is a process in which neurons that fire together are altered, so that they have a propensity to fire together again. Employees have to be able to set the stage to learn and also be able to explain what they learn—and learn how to be systems thinkers. Eddie Deen & Company is a subsystem within the greater system, which is the hospitality system. The hospitality system is a system in which we have to set the stage for the customer to construct a great experience. To do this, our objective is to set the stage for employees to love learning. They then become masters at setting the stage for customers to construct a great experience.
Opportunist: How do you inspire your employees?
Eddie Deen: We walk them through a series of questions. For example, I might start by asking if they’ve ever bought milk in the grocery story. Most people say yes but I, of course, say no. Then I ask ‘If the milk was sour did you get what you wanted?’ Of course they say no and I make this statement: ‘If the milk was sour and you didn’t get what you wanted, are you going to the store to buy milk or to buy the benefits of milk? … because if you’re just buying milk then you should be happy with sour milk.’ Nobody has ever wanted Eddie Deen or Eddie Deen’s barbecue; they want the benefits of Eddie Deen’s barbeque, which in today’s world becomes a story on Facebook.
Opportunist: That’s interesting.
Eddie Deen: Imagine a baby is born like a basketball. It’s critical that the basketball be full of air because what’s inside the basketball is the captain that creates the buoyancy, the life and the love for learning. My job is to make sure all my employees are ships with captains who have plenty of air in their basketball and feel lovable, important and significant. If an employee feels unlovable or inadequate, they won’t be able to set the stage for other people to construct a great experience.
Most systems are only interested in obedience, compliance and conforming ‘trail horses,’ as if everybody is supposed to be a robotic extension of some factory or franchise. What I look for is the cutting horse who will be resistant to being a trail horse.
Opportunist: What exactly is a cutting horse?
Eddie Deen: A horse that, when it walks into the arena, self-governs and makes its own decisions and wows the audience. Whereas to get a trail horse, you have to mortify the horse into a spiritual death for survival purposes. You don’t want that horse to self-govern or to think; you want it to follow the trail.
The key here is we aren’t talking about horses at all. As a scientist I’m just using horses as a model to explain about people. A lot of Americans have become trail horses in a sense and in today’s world with people wanting greater experiences, we need cutting horses because we need better ideas, greater services and greater products to unfold.
In America we cannot compete with India and China to create better trail horses. Why is that? China and India aren’t interested in captains. The fact that Foxconn Technology Group, which makes Apple products and a lot of others, put nets around their factories to stop those who want to commit suicide says they do a better job of creating trail horses than we do here. They aren’t interested in the captain. They only care about the ship.
Opportunist: How many facilities do you have?
Eddie Deen: We have two facilities in downtown Dallas. One is Eddie Deen’s Ranch next to the Dallas Convention Center. Recognizing that people coming to Dallas are looking for a Texas experience, we built a western town indoors. It became a no-brainer where, instead of getting on a bus and traveling outside the city looking for a ranch, we brought the ranch to them.
The other facility is called Edison’s. The theme is 1930s to 1940s Dallas, and we cater a lot of weddings, receptions and upscale parties there. A 1947 Bentley sits in the foyer and sets the stage. Everybody wants a picture taken with that car.
Opportunist: What motivated you to launch your ‘Internal Freedom’ course?
Eddie Deen: It started at Fort Sill Army post in Oklahoma and unfolded from there. I recognized that lots of employees were preparing food there with no purpose or meaning. So I asked them what the soldier they were serving was willing to give away. The answer was the ultimate gift: his life. Then I asked the employees what they were wiling to do for somebody who was willing to die for somebody else? That really made an impact. We started talking about laws governing how to cook and suddenly everybody became interested in those laws and the quality of food skyrocketed.
Opportunist: Can you tell us a little about the course?
Eddie Deen: When I took the program to homeless shelters I started asking people when they first perceived their power get taken away. In every story people said it happened as a 5-year-old. What happens when you turn five? Everybody typically learns how to ride a bicycle. That week we went into the shop and put an extra gear into a bike so that when you turn it right the wheel goes left. We took the bike back to the shelter and offered everybody $100 if they could ride my new bike. Nobody could, of course, because they’re programmed to ride the other bike. Everybody started having epiphanies about the pathway back to prison and realized it was abhorrent childhood experiences that occurred at the same age they learn how to ride a bike.
The program is based on teaching people how to go back and change adverse childhood experiences. Like I said earlier, if a baby is born like a basketball what has taken place is somebody puts a knife in the basketball when they’re five years old. So, going back to the definition of learning as a process, if the neurons fired together are altered by abuse what is taking place is children are learning very specific behavior that sets the stage for them to unfold into negative situations. Whatever you touch, see, smell, taste and hear—all these sensory inputs—are combined by the brain into a model. We walk them out to the captain and teach them how to rewire the ship. It’s the same formula I use for my employees.
Opportunist: Why is giving back so important to you?
Eddie Deen: If you feel lovable and significant, what else can you do? If you know there’s a formula on how to be happy, you definitely don’t want to keep it under your bushel. The idea that the world can be a better place regardless of whether you’re just smoking brisket or teaching people how to lead the captain back to the ship. It goes back to finding pleasure in your work and being able to recognize and understand the benefit it brings to your community.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Eddie Deen & Co. on Twitter: @EddieDeenAndCo
Follow Eddie Deen's Ranch on Twitter: @eddiedeensranch
Cover photo: Associated Press