We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
For such a tiny storefront, Phoebe’s BBQ puts out a prodigious amount of barbecue — the kitchen goes through 2,000 pounds of pulled pork each week (as well as all the other Oklahoma-style smoked meats on the menu). The South Street West shop has been in business since 1994, but its popularity only really took off during the past decade or so, after young gun Stas Botsaris took over.
Now 35, Botsaris bought the business when he was just 23. After being trained in ‘cue technique by Phoebe’s previous two owners, he began to make improvements. He raised the quality of his ingredients, boosted the richness of his seasonings and embraced the opportunities offered by the Internet with online ordering and coupons. In 2014, he expanded his catering operation and launched a mobile food cart.
Since he’s behind the counter of his take-out restaurant every single day, it wasn’t tough to pin him down for a few questions. As he pulled chunks of meat off a pork shoulder and slid skillet pans of cornbread into the oven, he discussed how some of the best food in Philly comes off of trucks, why he thinks Yelp reviewers are too harsh and why he’d rather succeed than “be normal.”sta
How did you decide to buy a restaurant?
After high school, I tried college briefly, but it just wasn’t for me. I was more interested in instant gratification, making money. My family’s always been in the food business — pizza shops, grocery stores — and when the opportunity to take over Phoebe’s was presented to me, I decided to go for it.
Did you know the previous owner?
Yes, he was Greek, like me, so our families knew one another. His name was Spiro. He was ready to get out, so he trained me, showed me the ins and outs, and then we parted ways. For a few months he assisted me in some minor things, but after that it was just my show.
Did he teach you his recipes?
All the recipes are from the original owner, a guy named Joel [Marucheck], who opened the place in 1994. Joel actually came by after I bought the place. He said, “Hey listen, here’s what you do: stick to the recipes and you’ll make money.” Spiro told me, “Stick to the recipes and buy better stuff, and you’ll make money.”
Better ingredients. I buy fresh vegetables every day, at Giordano’s on Ninth and Washington. I get the best quality meat from Mercy Meats, another South Philly company. I like to keep it local, if I can. I like to support them, but also, the bigger purveyors couldn’t care less about a little guy like me. I’ve also made changes to the recipes, over the years. I changed the mac and cheese, changed the barbecue sauce.
What kind of sauce do you use?
The sauce is a tomato base, but it’s mixed with cider vinegar. Usually, most styles of barbecue, it’s just one or the other. But this is Oklahoma-style barbecue, which means we also use a dry rub on all the meat, even the poultry. Then we smoke everything, right here in our smoker. Then it gets sauce when we serve it.
Oklahoma style isn’t very common around here, is it?
Not a lot of people are familiar with Oklahoma style — they know Texas or North or South Carolina. Another thing that’s different is our cornbread. It’s not sweet. There’s a misconception about cornbread for barbecue. People think it should be like a muffin, and that’s not really the case. It’s supposed to be served in your platters, so it can soak up the sauce. You use it like a sponge to clean up the plate when you’re done. Philadelphians don’t take too well to that, so we wrap it separately, and sprinkle it with sugar if you want.
What’s your biggest seller?
Our pork ribs and our pulled pork. We’re known for our ribs, but the pulled pork is also a fan favorite. The most popular lunch is probably a pulled pork sandwich with a side of mac and cheese. Then we introduced our “Mad Love” sandwich, which is a pulled pork topped with mac and cheese, inside the bun. It's kind of like the new age cheesesteak. It's like a distant cousin of both the roast pork and the cheesesteak. It wants to be part of the family.
Where did the name of the restaurant come from?
It was the original owner's wife's name, Joel's wife. And I believe her cat was also named Phoebe. Now I have a cat, and I named her Phoebe. I just felt like it was the right thing.
Why did you decide to launch a food cart?
That was a whim one day. I wanted to be able to get our food all around Philadelpha - even though we already deliver in almost a 25-block radius from here, which covers a lot of West Philly and South Philly and all the way north past Spring Garden.
Has the cart been a success?
Yes ... I’ve been very fortunate. I had a lot of help from Josh [Kim] of Spot Burger. He's kind of mentored me through this whole thing, the food vending business, and it's been a real delight. We do all the major festivals, we do private catering, birthdays, weddings. It's probably the wisest decision I've made since I've been in business. It's such a trend right now. Some of the best food in Philadelphia is not coming out of brick and mortars, it’s coming from food trucks.
Are you sick of barbecue, or do you still eat it?
I’m not sick of it. I eat my own food, because I’m here, but I’m intrigued by how other people do theirs. If there’s pulled pork or some sort of ‘cue on a menu, I want to try it. It fascinates me, and I want to compare it to mine. Fortunately, I don’t think anything else does quite compare to ours. Except one, actually, and that’s coming off a food truck. Oink and Moo. He does a nice barbecue; he cares as much as I do.
Do you call yourself a chef?
No. I do not. I've been cooking since I was a little kid, but I wouldn't call myself a chef. Out of respect for other chefs. What I am is a restaurant guy. I know how to be in command and run a restaurant. That said, I could probably throw down with a few of them.
So you cook things other than barbecue?
Sure. In the store, we stick to our strict barbecue menu, but for catering, if you called and wanted some salmon or shrimp or scampi, we can prepare that as well. My expanded catering menu will be up on our website this March.
You do a lot of catering?
Yes. Most of our afternoon business is to corporate offices or party packages. I’d like to get more into it, keep this place just as it is, but eventually open a full-blown catering hall. Obviously, it takes time to build up a solid business doing that, but we already do a good amount. We’re fast but reliable. I’ve spoiled my customers on the fact that if you call last-minute, we can still get it done.
Like when we catered for Obama. He came to Temple for a political event — this was something like five years ago — and they had to feed 1,000 people. They placed the order with me on Wednesday and needed it by that Saturday. It was crazy. We were going 24 hours for a few days to get that ready.
What other notable customers have you had?
I don’t like to mention names. We do a large business with most of the Philly rappers, and a lot of sports stars. We don’t make a big deal of it, with pictures on the wall or anything. I think we’ve earned street cred because of that. They just pull right up front, we know their cars. We get to do some of their catering events, too; they give us a lot of love.
Do you pay attention to online reviews, like Yelp?
I read them, but I don’t really pay attention to them. Everyone has a right to their opinion. But, some people, I don’t think they get the damage it can do. When you’re writing a review, you have to take into consideration that it’s someone’s livelihood you’re talking about. People have families, bills that have to get paid.
But we do have a huge online presence. In this business it's either adapt or die. I offer Living Social coupons. I offer Groupons. If we didn't do online ordering, it’s not like I would be at risk of closing, but I wouldn't have changed anything. I mean, I'm in the business to succeed, not to be normal. You only get one shot. You have to go for it.
2214 South St., 215-546-4811
Hours: noon to 10 p.m. daily