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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

How 4 Rivers Smokehouse became king of the barbecue

Food items from 4 Rivers

More than 400 people came to support a fundraiser, and that’s how the idea for one of Florida’s most successful barbecue chains was born.

Before his last name became synonymous with mouthwatering barbecue, John Rivers was CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Then in 2004, a phone call changed everything.

“One day, he received a mistaken phone call on his private line about a little girl that had brain cancer,” says Nick West, regional manager of 4 Rivers Smokehouse.

John tracked down the family and offered to host a barbecue fundraiser at a local church to support the girl’s family. Until then, the Jacksonville native had only barbecued for family and friends, inviting them to his backyard for Texas-style brisket.

“In Texas he met the two loves of his life: Monica — his wife — and brisket,” West says.

More than 400 people came to support the fundraiser, and that’s how the idea for one of Florida’s most successful barbecue chains was born.

4 Rivers Smokehouse—named for John Rivers, his wife and two children—opened its first location in 2009 in Winter Park. Today, the Orlando-based chain operates more than a dozen restaurants across Florida.

The menu is multi-regional, with Texas-style brisket, Carolina-style pulled pork, Kansas City-style ribs and California-style tri-tip. There’s also a plant-based entree: Impossible burnt ends.

Then there are the side dishes and desserts: baked beans, collard greens, mac and cheese, cole slow, french fries, sweet potato casserole, cupcakes, brownies, buckeyes and West’s favorite, Hello Dolly bars. 4 Rivers even makes wedding cakes.

“We put a lot of emphasis and attention on our sides,” West says.

Sadly, the girl whose illness inspired 4 Rivers passed away. But her legacy lives on in the company’s mission.

The Rivers family considers 4 Rivers their ministry. The restaurants are closed on Sundays. And 4R Restaurant Group frequently participates in charitable causes. The company is currently developing 4Roots Farm Campus, an organization focused on nutrition, sustainability and economic development in Orlando.

In a conversation with The Zest, West discusses the company’s origin story, trends in barbecue and advice for smoking meat at home. CliffsNotes version: go slow and low, and keep plenty of wood on hand. 4 Rivers uses green hickory; Nick also recommends green oak.

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