Dustin Olson of Fat Maggie’s talks about BBQ, backyards and beer

Photography by Dustin Prickett

A year or so has passed since Fat Maggie’s opened its doors for business in the Dixieland section of Lakeland. The owners hit the ground running and haven’t skipped a beat since, as the
quaint restaurant is filled to capacity for nearly every lunch and dinner service. I talked with Dustin Olson of Fat Maggie’s about what sets apart this tiny, tucked-away barbeque, beer,
and burger haven from the rest.
The Lakelander: The first thing I noticed when I came in on opening day was the way you staged your beverage program. You don’t see any major labels, not even with your sodas. As a consumer who is trying to minimize my intake of those kinds of products, I really appreciated those  exclusions. Can you give some insight as to why you’ve taken that approach at
Fat Maggie’s?

Dustin Olson: It’s just not what we believe in. If it isn’t something I would serve in my house to my friends, why would I choose to serve it elsewhere? We’re trying to create a familiar atmosphere here. It’s a smaller space, obviously. We want customers to feel welcome, as they would if they were in my backyard or my living room. So that’s reflected in all the beverages we serve.
TL: When it comes to recommending craft brews to your customers, are you finding resistance with people who are only familiar with the larger distributors?

DO: Not too much anymore. I get some who ask, “Why would I like this?” Or, “What makes this special?” Craft beer is often a collaboration, and to me that’s pretty fun. Some start drinking being kind of ignorant about it. Not in any bad way. You have to start somewhere, right?
TL: I think a lot of people correlate craft beer with something stronger than normal, which is not necessarily true. For brewers, it’s an art form, so they constantly feel an urge to push the boundaries of each particular style.
DO: In essence, it’s also a small-business, communal approach. People want to support people. They want to support local, not this huge conglomerate, these huge corporations. They want to go to their local grocery, their local farm, even their local restaurant to get something special. That speaks to why craft beer has spawned here. It’s very American, to be able to create.

We want customers to feel welcome, as they would if they were in my backyard or my living room.

TL: I agree. You do see there is more care put into things when you do it yourself, or at least if you’re closely associated with the person making the product. I see our generation trying to go back to an old-school way of thinking, more hands-on and hand-made.
DO: That’s true. Even the brewers and breweries have gone back to Europe, to the origin of beer as we know it. They go back to where the monks were brewing, finding out how they did it, to capture the feel. It’s the same for food. People have said, “If this is a modern conception of food, let’s throw that out and go find out how this all got started and make it better.” Then they riff on it by mixing old and new together.
TL: Is it okay that I group Fat Maggie’s as a barbeque restaurant? How do you think beer and barbeque mix together?

DO: Sure, it’s definitely OK. It’s pretty synonymous — beer and barbeque. We launched the restaurant serving beer only in cans, as it’s nostalgic to us. If you’re at a cookout at someone’s house, there better be good barbeque, and more than likely you’ll have lots of cans of beer, especially if you’re outside. There’s a great connection being with your friends or family in that setting. Since then, we’ve done a mix of cans and bottles, but we’re still chasing that nostalgia vibe.
TL: Being in Florida, it’s easy to say that beer tastes better when you’re outside in a relaxed atmosphere.

DO: Exactly, it’s all in the context, as much as you can capture that in a commercial setting. Our due north is to try and recreate all those great parties with friends we’ve had over the years, but on a daily basis. I think of all the barbeques we had, and beer has always been in the equation. We’re constantly trying to bring new brews to the table, searching out unique things to try. It has made for good times.
www.sunglowphotography.comTL: Have you considered doing Pigfest this year?

DO: [Getting the attention of his wife, Heather, he asks:] Have we registered for Pigfest? [She nods and says, “Pro.”] We registered for Pro?
TL: What’s the difference?

DO: The difference between pro and amateur is that we’re going to get our butts handed to us in our own backyard.
TL: I don’t really understand the competition side of competitive barbeque. To me, they don’t always reward the best, because there are so many factors in what makes competition barbeque good.
DO: Taste is so subjective. I’ve talked to other proprietors who run barbeque joints and they say they always get owned in competition. It’s because those guys who rule the circuit
prepare for weeks and weeks to make one piece of meat taste and look good, for a singular bite. But we’re competing anyway. If we get anything better than dead last, that will be OK. We just go for the party.
TL: Maybe the last-place team won’t show up and you’ll have an automatic victory.
DO: Yeah, or maybe someone will forget to bring their chicken!
TL: Do you plan on doing more beer dinners at the restaurant?

DO: [After a short pause] Yes, it’s definitely going to happen again down the road at some point. We are actually going to start brewing, Lord willing and if we can jump through all the hoops. We already have a great relationship with a gentleman who is going to come in and brew on-site.
TL: Do you have a recipe already?
DO: His recipe is legit.
TL: Is it based on your personal preference?

DO: Yes and no. He brought me some stuff one day, and I was blown away by the quality of it. We sort of bounced back and forth, and now we’re really excited. Again, it comes back
to passion, honesty, and the love of it. We aren’t trying to cash in or get rich off of it. I’m just really excited to work with him. If we make a great product, something might come of it. But
if it doesn’t, we need to be OK with that as well, and do better. We’re going to try and have three or four house-made beers at any one time, trying to keep it seasonal. So that means ten months of summer beers and two months of winter.
TL: Will you be brewing beer specific to your style of food? It’s hard to find a beer that goes well with everything. But to find a beer that tastes better when you add food is, well, awesome.
DO: It certainly is a luxury. I never would have imagined we would be able to work with someone who can do it so well. A lot of it, too, is education. Like I said before, people come in and say, “I don’t drink house or craft beer. What can you give me that I might like?” We will always try and have something that bridges the gap. Florida Cracker by Cigar City has been a great beer for that. It’s getting easier to steer people in the right direction.
TL: I agree it’s getting easier, and the craft beer movement is building a head of steam in Lakeland. With that said, it’s still hard to find Florida-made beers in the city. How long do you think it will be before that changes?
DO: I hope the Brew Hub helps that. I think the problem is that Cigar City is so easy to find now. You can find it in almost every store that sells beer. That’s what people know craft brews to be in Central Florida. It’s not a problem, though, because Cigar City is pretty delicious. If nothing else, I think the Brew Hub will bring beer to the Southeast that hasn’t been available before now.
TL: What are some of your favorite beers at the moment?

DO: Right now, it’s between Mission Shipwrecked Double IPA and Stone Imperial Russian Stout. I’m so excited about what they’re doing in San Diego. And we serve the Mission
Shipwrecked here, which makes it even better. I also like Ten Fidy from Oskar Blues. And hey, it comes in a can!

Cheer on the Fat Maggie’s crew as they compete in the 18th Annual Lakeland Pigfest, which takes place January 24-25 on the grounds at Tiger Town. And be on the lookout for the highly anticipated launch of Fat Maggie’s made-in-house brews as well as a continuing lineup of beer-pairing dinners coming in the near future.

[item title=”Fat Maggie’s Ipa-Battered onion rings”]
www.sunglowphotography.com2 cups all-purpose flour
1 12-ounce beer (Jai Alai)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon smoked chipotle chili powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 large Vidalia onions, sliced in rings
Oil for frying
• Heat oil to 350 degrees F.
• Whisk all the dry ingredients.
• Whisk in the beer.
• Toss the rings in the corn starch. The corn starch acts as a binder for the batter to stick.
• Dip the rings in the batter. This part will be messy; just embrace it.
• Carefully dip the rings in the hot oil.
• Fry until golden brown.
[item title=”Fat Maggie’s famous beer cheese”]
www.sunglowphotography.com1 stick of butter
1 cup of milk
1 cup shredded Parmesan
1 cup shredded mild cheddar
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1 cup shredded white cheddar
6 ounces of beer (Narragansett)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

• Place medium-size pot on Medium-Low heat.
• Melt butter.
• Stir in milk and bring to a simmer.
• Stir in Parmesan and let melt for 3-4 minutes, stirring gently and often.
• Stir in all the other cheese and let melt for 3-4 minutes, stirring gently and often.
• You have options when it comes to when to add the beer. The earlier you add it, the less you will taste it. We add ours at the very end so the beer flavor is bold, but you can add it with the milk at the beginning for a more mild beer flavor.