From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Against All Odds

Without a doubt, my life today is one of gratitude, and one of second chances.

Both of my parents are American Indians; my dad is a Choctaw Indian from Idabel, Oklahoma, and my mom is from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa reservation in Wisconsin. When they were young, both were victims of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ practice of taking American Indian children from their parents and sticking them in boarding schools for the purpose of mainstreaming them into the dominant society. While at the boarding school, my dad remembers being whipped by the teachers for speaking his Choctaw language.

Fortunately for me, my parents met at Haskell Institute for Indians in Lawrence, Kansas. My parents moved to Chicago and were married—being a good ol’ Southern boy, naturally my dad would drive my mom down South every weekend until she learned how to cook Southern-style! And what a cook she turned out to be!

Growing up on the west side of Chicago, things were difficult for our young family. My parents were hard-working, blue-collar workers, but in order to make ends meet, we depended on government food subsidies. When I had friends over, my mom would make us snacks; when she went to the pantry, I was embarrassed by the silver and gold cans and white bags of food labeled “USDA” in big, bold letters. When I went to my friends’ houses, their pantries had cans and jars with real company labels such as Campbell’s Soup and Jiffy Peanut Butter. Many of my friends’ parents owned small businesses. At a young age, I decided that one day I, too, would become a small-business owner, so I wouldn’t have to rely on the government for help.

During the summer, the city would get really hot, with temperatures well over one hundred degrees for weeks at a time. Our little apartment became unbearable, so my mom took us kids to her reservation; we stayed in my grandmother’s little four-room house, which had no running water or electricity. At night, I remember gazing into the heavens, thinking about the billions and billions of stars that sparkled in the northern sky. I wondered if my life would shine brilliantly like one of the bright stars above, or if my life would be like one of the billions of stars that just faded off into the vastness of space.

Determined to shine brilliantly, I followed my childhood dream of becoming a businessman. Starting at the age of eighteen, I owned several businesses, including a construction company, several resorts, a cabin furniture store, an Indian jewelry business and even a consulting business. While these first forays into the business world were successful at times, they were also challenging, and oftentimes failed. But I never gave up on my dreams, even when I thought the whole world was caving in on me.

There were times in my adult life when we were so broke that I dug through seat cushions looking for loose change to buy milk for our kids. There were agonizing times when I had to ask my wife for her jewelry, so I could take it to a pawnshop just to pay the rent. Banks shut down our checking accounts because we were badly overdrawn, followed by the raw embarrassment of having our neighbors watch as the repo man hauled off the family car.

Determined not to run away from my problems, but to accept these problems as opportunities for a new life, I decided to create the business of my dreams, one that would support my family, one that I would be proud to own. I went to numerous banks trying to raise money for my new enterprise, but not one would take a chance on me because I was a minority, I had no connections, I had no track record, I had no collateral and I had no one to cosign a loan. Finally, a bank president in Chicago believed in me and gave me a ten-thousand-dollar loan on my signature alone. This loan eventually allowed me to follow my dream of one day creating a one-of-a-kind, award-winning barbeque restaurant.

My passion for barbeque began in Chicago as a kid. Every Friday, my parents would get out the cookie jar, and we would sit at the kitchen table and count the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters they had collected during the week. Back then, I can remember how excited we were if we found a big silver dollar mixed in the coins! If we had enough money, we would go to my favorite restaurant—Eddie’s Ribs next to the Logan Square train station on the north side of Chicago.

Walking through the door, I was always intrigued by the glass-enclosed smoker that was full of ribs smoldering over hickory wood. The pit master would test each slab of ribs with a big fork for tenderness, and once done, he then placed the slab on a big butcher block where he slathered the ribs with tasty barbeque sauce. I never believed anything could taste so heavenly.

In 1994, on the edge of the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in the north woods of Hayward, Wisconsin, I opened the first Famous Dave’s Barbeque Shack. Everyone thought I was nuts to build a barbeque restaurant in a northern town of only 1,800 people. They said I should go to Memphis where they really understood barbeque. But I never let them get me down. I stayed true to my dreams.

By the end of that first summer, Famous Dave’s was serving nearly 6,000 people a week in a town of 1,800! People were driving hundreds of miles just to come and get some of my famous barbequed ribs. The amazing thing is that we never advertised—it was all word of mouth!

Today, we have thriving Famous Dave’s Barbeque restaurants all over the United States, stretching coast-to-coast with many more in the works. In the quest to be the best, I have eaten in over ten thousand barbeque joints all over America. I have visited the big pits in Texas, the roadside smoke shacks in the Carolinas and the black-owned storefront BBQ joints in Chicago, Kansas City and Memphis, and I have personally cooked over a million pounds of ribs and made over a million gallons of sauce in the pursuit of perfecting the best ribs and the best sauce. With pride, I can report that both our ribs and sauce have been awarded “Best in America” at national cook-off competitions. But I’m more proud to say that my restaurants have provided jobs and opportunities to so many people all over the nation; that’s worth more to me than any award.

Adversity has helped me become a stronger, wiser person, and getting sober after two decades of drinking has made my life even better. Today, I live my life in gratitude knowing that several times I should have been dead, but God had his protective hand over me. I believe that my success today isn’t about Dave Anderson, but my higher purpose is about being able to make a positive difference in the lives of others who need a second chance, or sometimes even a first chance. I am here to serve.

David Anderson

EPILOGUE: David W. Anderson is considered the nation’s foremost Native American entrepreneur. Besides his restaurants, Anderson helped found three publicly traded companies, thus creating over twenty thousand new jobs. He was also selected by President George W. Bush to be the Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Interior for Indian Affairs with a $2 billion budget, overseeing ten thousand employees. This position required a full Senate confirmation.

Anderson has since stepped down from his government position to concentrate on philanthropic efforts and has given over $8 million back to his community. He also serves on many boards, including the National Board of Governors for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Making a lifelong commitment to help at-risk Native American youth, Anderson created the LifeSkills Center for Leadership. Located in Minnesota, the center helps young people to believe in themselves and to dream big. The nonprofit has had such a profound impact helping Native American youth that Oprah Winfrey awarded Anderson her Angel Network Award in 2002.

To learn more about David Anderson, his restaurants and the LifeSkills Center, please visit the following Web sites: and

Dahlynn McKowen

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