Boaz BBQ embodies entrepreneurial spirit

Boaz BBQ

Owner: Antywone Sanders

Address: 1689 Elm St.

Phone: 563-500-6378.

Services: Barbecue restaurant.

When Sugar Ray’s closed in 2017, it left a barbecue void in Dubuque. And Donnie Edwards felt so strongly about the niche returning to town that he opened Boaz BBQ in the middle of a global pandemic.

“I just really took a risk,” said Edwards, who recently sold the establishment. “I just always try to look at the glass half full versus half empty knowing that COVID can potentially (make me) not have enough revenue to maintain business. I still felt that it was a need.”

Edwards owned the local eatery at 1689 Elm St. until early November and said he felt that “every city” — not just Dubuque – should have some type of barbecue.

“(I want) people to know that you can come to Iowa for good barbecue,” he said.

Antywone Sanders, who has lived in Dubuque for two years, purchased Boaz. Part of what attracted Sanders to the barbecue restaurant was when a customer he saw that it was independent and small.

“I liked the atmosphere when I came in,” Sanders said. “The food drew me back.”

Customers, according to Edwards, are fans of “the beloved peach baked beans” and how they smoke the meat — something he said is “unique and its own.”

“We just always try to keep the grills hot and the smoke going and hopefully that draws a crowd,” Edwards said.

Since taking ownership, Sanders said he has received “a lot of customer feedback,” and will be keeping what customers love about the menu. Future menu items will include soul food, more beef selections; vegetables like collard and mixed greens; and sweet potato pie.

“I love the interaction with customers. I love people,” said Sanders, who’s also a manager at Discount Tire. “That’s why I work with Discount Tire as well. Just being friendly, I love hearing people’s stories and sharing information, something about being hand in hand with people. I love making people happy. Just a couple of weeks we’ve been here, it’s exactly what we expected. They love it.”

Dubuque Chamber of Commerce CEO Molly Grover said she was “really excited” to hear about Edwards’ initial plans for Boaz.

“His passion for barbecue was really evident,” Grover said.

While it is no secret that the pandemic disproportionately affected communities of color and disadvantaged communities, Ryan Sempf, vice president of government and external affairs at the Dubuque Chamber of Commerce, said it was inspiring to see a “successful Black-owned business” in downtown Dubuque.

“(Opening Boaz BBQ) in a place that would have otherwise been vacant, really, I think is valuable and shows the entrepreneurial spirit of Dubuque,” Sempf said.

Sanders has been cooking since he was 9 years old when he started helping his grandmother with meals.

“It’s something that I enjoy. I can’t explain it, I love it,” he said.

While Edwards told TH Media when the restaurant first opened that he wanted to change Iowa’s perception as a barbecue area, doing that was challenging as he said the pandemic continued to test his business model.

“We do have a barbecue restaurant now, the bad part is it’s hard to maintain business … and you just never know,” he said. “And it’s really hard. It took a toll on me a lot to maintain this business and (I’m) struggling to keep up with the bills and expenses during these times.”

The federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund, according to Sempf, was “very beneficial” to area restaurants, though the funding depleted quickly.

“A lot of businesses struggled to make ends meet,” Sempf said.

Statistics the Iowa Restaurant Association shared with the chamber reported that 800 Iowa restaurants shuttered during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) stated in October that a majority of restaurants continued to be understaffed, despite some jobs returning as COVID-19 restrictions eased.

“The last two months represented a sharp deceleration from the average monthly gains of nearly 200,000 jobs during the first seven months of 2021,” the association said. “As a result, eating and drinking places remained more than 900,000 jobs below pre-pandemic staffing levels.”

Additionally, a mid-year report from the NRA stated that “three in four operators say recruitment and retention is their toughest challenge despite employment gains.”

Restaurants, according to Grover, are “social experiences” by nature that the pandemic created challenges for.

“We know our restaurant community has struggled, but even despite that, our restaurant community is strong and we look for ways to support our restaurant industry from a chamber perspective,” she said.

There’s a unique flair and character that restaurants bring to the area, according to Grover, especially those that are locally owned.

“It is so important to the character of not just Dubuque, but any community, having those local hometown restaurants,” she said.

Sanders’ wife said they want to be a staple in the Dubuque community through Boaz.

“That’s his joy and that’s what keeps him going,” Francen Sanders said.