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Baldy's Barbecue opens in Farmington

Brian Wheeler opened Baldy's Barbecue earlier this month in Farmington and has done good business ever since. He has plans to further expand the chain, which also includes a Lakeville restaurant.

When Brian Wheeler approached his cousin Chick a few years ago about opening a franchise of the family barbecue business, the answer was pretty simple.

Absolutely not.

In defense of Wheeler's cousin, he had what must have seemed like some solid reasons. Wheeler had never worked in a restaurant, and he didn't know barbecue, both of which made him a pretty bad candidate to open a barbecue restaurant. Wheeler's cousin offered to teach him the basics of running a restaurant. He just didn't want the name of his business, Smokin' Chick's, associated with whatever came of the effort.

Wheeler wasn't easily dissuaded, though. He took his cousin's lessons and he opened his first Baldy's Barbecue in Lakeville. Last week he expanded to Farmington, taking over a vacant building that most recently housed a Burger King.

It turns out he was a pretty good student when it comes to barbecue. In 2011, Baldy's was voted best barbecue in the Twin Cities. And for Wheeler, that's just the beginning.

Wheeler got into the barbecue business out of necessity. After playing football at the University of Missouri he opened his own mortgage company at what turned out to be a terrible time to be in the mortgage business. He was looking for something new, and he saw room for more barbecue restaurants in Minnesota.

He wasn't thinking small, either. Wheeler knew from the start he wanted a chain of restaurants, and he's still working on building his own barbecue empire. He opened his second Baldy's two years ago on the west bank of the University of Minnesota campus. That restaurant has since closed, but he built relationships there that have gotten him regular catering jobs for several U of M athletic teams, and he's planning a return to the area soon, this time in Dinkytown.

"You talk to my people in Lakeville, I've told them from day one, this is not going to be little. This is going to be a big thing. If you're with me from day one, hopefully one day we're sitting in a big high rise going, 'Remember when?' That's my goal.... I'm a big dreamer."

Wheeler found his Farmington location not long after Burger King closed. After some negotiating with the building's owners he got the rent down to a number that worked for him. Then he went to work transforming the building. The fast food chain's blue plastic booths have been replaced by black-and-red booths and tables. The wallpaper is all new, and a big-screen TV hangs in one corner. Burger King's old indoor play area remains, and Wheeler said he'll keep it there as long as it gets used. If it doesn't, he's talked about turning the space into a man cave or additional seating.

So far at least, Farmington's appetite for barbecue seems to be voracious. Wheeler said he started noticing that even before his new restaurant opened.

"The letterman jackets and the Farmington Tiger jackets over in Lakeville really increased right when we put up that sign (in Farmington)," Wheeler said. "People said they didn't want to wait to try us."

Wheeler got approval to open the Farmington restaurant April 12 and opened his doors for the first time at 5 p.m. Saturday night, April 13. In three hours he did $1,500 business. On Wednesday, he had a long line at lunchtime and Friday the restaurant was full for dinner.

He's still got some work to do. He plans to take advantage of the building's fast-food past to offer drive-through service, and he's planning a grand opening for May 4. He hopes to have a patio in place by June, and he's already testing concepts for a possible spin-off restaurant. That's why his Thursday lunch special is the kind of giant burrito that might seem more at home at Chipotle than at a barbecue joint.

"I'm a dreamer. I'm a believer," Wheeler said. "I'm the type of guy, no is never an option."

So far, it seems, Wheeler's dream is coming true. He said he currently does twice his cousin's business.

Sorry, Chick. You had your chance.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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