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American barbecue (BBQ) seems to have quite a mesmerising hold on those who come across it. Nizar, who first discovered American BBQ more than a decade ago in Dallas, Texas, happens to be one of them. 

He used to work in the airline industry as an engineer and chanced upon the local Texan BBQ culture. Describing it as a way of life, Nizar shared that every Friday was a BBQ lunch. “Within 10 miles of my office, we had eight BBQ joints so we were spoilt for choice.”

It became such a habit that every time he caught a whiff of BBQ smoke, he’d get excited and salivate, “Kind of like Pavlov’s dogs,” he joked.

Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill

Loving the taste of smoked meats, Nizar visited multiple restaurants in and out of Texas that served it. Doing this allowed him to test and figure out how the meats were smoked, which turned out to be crucial for his future venture. Even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time.

Upon returning to Malaysia three years later, he quickly realised that there weren’t many people serving American BBQ. 

So he decided to be one of the few pioneers and launched Cowboys Barbecue & Grill in 2014.

Being a pioneer

The Cowboys Barbecue & Grill team / Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill

Having not much capital to work with, Nizar and his other two co-founders (who have since left to pursue other interests) opted to get a food truck. 

It was the most cost-efficient way to get the brand started and allowed them to move around. This meant they could gain market validation from different locations and gave them the opportunity to provide catering services. 

To increase their odds, the trio also participated in food events. “We were fortunate enough to be one of the early pioneers of the modern food truck in the Klang Valley, which helped us get a lot of media coverage,” Nizar shared. 

Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill

However, American BBQ was still a novelty in Malaysia then and faced several misconceptions. The most jarring one is that when someone mentions barbecue, we picture live fire grilling.

Smoked brisket and its 10-hour-long, tedious cooking process weren’t something many were familiar with. “But sharing what we do is a big part of how we connect with our customers, so I looked at this as an opportunity to educate and promote [American cuisine],” Nizar shared.

As the business grew and feedback became increasingly encouraging, he took the plunge and left the comfort of his corporate job at Malaysian Airlines (MAS). 

But then the pandemic happened and challenged the brand’s resourcefulness and adaptability.

Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill

Solidifying the business

Much to their luck, Cowboys Barbecue & Grill had some financial reserves and they were quick to change business strategies. 

Nizar could still recall how blurry the first month was with the team scrambling to move previously in-person-only operations online. 

The brand was barely breaking even for the first four months. Nizar had to dip his hands into personal finances and sell the brand’s second food truck to keep the business afloat. The brand worked with NGOs to prepare food for the B40 groups in their area to cover overheads too. 

Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill / Chin B

As a business owner, though, he realised this wasn’t sustainable in the long run. 

“I knew that once the economy opened back, dining would be very different [and] I couldn’t survive operating only from a food truck,” Nizar shared. “[So] I took this time to revamp our menu with plans of opening our own BBQ place.”

Specifically, the menu changed from being food truck-based to a more family-oriented restaurant. “This really saved us. Our deliveries shot up and from worrying about how to get orders, I was now thinking of how to keep up [with orders].”

There were times when they had to run overnight shifts to match demands. It was this success that gave Nizar and his team the confidence to launch a brick-and-mortar store in Ara Damansara in 2023.

Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill

New spot, same smoke-y goodness

To align with the American BBQ culture, he decided to set it up in a warehouse-like space. It features an open concept where guests can see the smoking process and enjoy the smell of briskets being cooked.

If you’re new to Texan barbecue, Nizar recommends getting their Yellowstone Platter that serves two pax. He described it as the perfect introduction to the cuisine as you’ll get their Signature Smoked Brisket, Smoked Pulled Lamb, and a choice of three homemade sides and tortillas. 

There are also various burgers, quesadillas, and tacos filled with barbecued meat if you’re looking for lighter bites.

Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill

Most ingredients are sourced locally but the meat is imported, such as the Premium Angus from Argentina. “We use it because of its fat content and its huge size,” the ex-engineer shared. 

For the dry rub, he explained that real Texan BBQ uses just salt and pepper, and is smoked using mesquite wood. But he’s added more seasonings to concoct a more flavourful dry rub to suit Malaysian palates.

As it wouldn’t make economic sense to import American hardwood, he improvised and used fruit wood (specifically, rambutan) instead. This gives out a subtle and fragrant aroma that isn’t too overpowering. The wood burns really slowly as well which makes it perfect for barbecuing. 

Still a niche market

Currently, the brand hasn’t gotten JAKIM’s halal certification as it requires “a little bit more resources”. They’re hoping to look into it in the future once they have the means to do so. 

Nizar assured us that in the time being, all their ingredients are halal-certified and that good hygiene is maintained. 

Image Credit: Benjamin T P Tan

The sole owner of the business now is focusing on growing his restaurant and catering arm. He’s also seeking a business partner to take Cowboys Barbecue & Grill to the next level. “Managing the business as a one-man show is tough,” he confided.

Looking at the landscape now, Nizar shared that there’s still much to educate the public on when it comes to American BBQ. But the scene has taken off in the last three years with more brands offering the cuisine, including SmokePapa BBQ in Penang

“I think COVID-19 helped in a way cause everyone was stuck at home and had lots of time on their hands. And in BBQ, having the time and patience to monitor the smoking process is key,” he explained.

That said, he believes it’s still very niche and isn’t worried about market competition. After all, how many local brands can you name that serve briskets cooked for 10 hours?

Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill
  • Learn more about Cowboys Barbecue & Grill here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Cowboys Barbecue & Grill

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© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)