The past two years have been remarkably unpredictable for long-time Sacramento chef Jacob Carriker. In 2012 he went from overseeing a kitchen to managing an entire sports bar and nightclub. He participated in the sale of that establishment to buyers with an entirely different vision for the property, and he suffered the shock and anguish of learning that the previous owner, his former boss, had taken his own life. And it all took place in one chapter of the story of an eatery formerly known as Bisla’s.
“That’s barely the half of it,” Carriker says. “Once I got to know the new owners, I began experimenting in the kitchen again. I got drawn into envisioning a whole new menu concept. I also got involved in interior design and a national hunt for an industrial-sized slow-cook smoker. In the course of a year, I went from absolutely dreading going to work to actually looking forward to it.”
The transformation is taking place at the original location of Bisla’s Sports Bar on Folsom Boulevard, tucked behind the Sacramento State campus. As of April, it has been doing business as Fahrenheit 250, a St. Louis-style barbecue joint.
Cousins Gino Sardo and Ray Lettini purchased Bisla’s from its late owner in January 2013. Sardo brought restaurant experience to the partnership, having owned and operated a sandwich shop at Capitol Towers in downtown Sacramento for several years. Lettini has long run an auto parts shop in East Sacramento. The original idea was to form a multi-location restaurant partnership with Bob Bisla. His death changed everything.
“That kind of set us back for about a year,” Sardo says. “We didn’t particularly enjoy the happy hour sports bar scene, but we felt a need to respect the tragic loss by continuing to operate as Bisla’s for a period of time. We used the time to get to know the facility, the neighborhood and our staff.”
During this learning period, two major points were driven home. First, there was very little profit margin on $1 and $2 happy-hour items. And secondly, they had inherited a very talented chef in Carriker.
After a couple of months getting to know each other, Carriker started an end-of-the-week ritual. He’d go to the store or farmers market to buy fresh produce and meats and would prepare creative dishes for the partners to sample.“It quickly became apparent that this guy knew how to cook and that he should be spending more time doing just that,” Lettini says. “But it was also rather obvious that the food he was preparing wasn’t going to work in the sports bar setting.”
For his part, Carriker knew a thing or two about kitchens and menus. He began his restaurant career at Club Pheasant in West Sacramento at the age of 15. He had stints as a cook and head chef at Fulton’s Prime Rib in Old Sacramento, the former Bridges on the River and Paesano’s in midtown. After several months of weekly menu presentations to Sardo and Lettini, Carriker made his recommendation.
“Since we had such a small kitchen and ultimately a very large restaurant, I suggested barbecue,” he says.
Carriker reasoned that a traditional barbecue approach would require fewer menu items. He also noted a majority of the preparation and smoking of meats would take place outside the kitchen.
“A day later, Ray and Gino came in and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Carriker says.
The threesome rode out the sports bar theme until the end of 2013 with the idea that they’d temporarily close the Bisla’s iteration while transforming into Fahrenheit 250.
“They thought we could close Bisla’s for a couple weeks, buy a small smoker at Home Depot, do some test runs and then reopen. I said, ‘You guys are crazy.’”
That projected 2-week closure lasted nearly three months. While the search was underway for a giant smoker, Sardo hooked up with Kelly Haase, an architect/designer from Borges Architecture in Roseville who had worked on the designs for Sardo’s sandwich shop. The first thing they tackled was the kitchen.
“We basically gutted it,” Sardo says. “We bought all new equipment, including a giant walk-in refrigeration system to handle the daily deliveries of fresh meats and produce.”
And at the insistence of Carriker, there is no freezer or microwave in the kitchen.
“In order to stand out from other barbecue shops in town I wanted to offer a fresh, quality product every day, served to customers at the table,” Carriker says. “This was not going to be another counter-service barbecue place.”
The full-service approach brought about the need to reconfigure the restaurant, which was divided by the bar. Haase and Sardo spent much time discussing the possible options.
“Gino takes a rather unconventional approach to designing and engineering a structural project,” Haase says. “He’s kind of like a cowboy shooting questions from the hip. He asks a series of ‘what if’ questions. I would solve what could be done and how we would do it. Then I would help him sell the idea to the rest of the crew.”
The idea was to convert the dark, neon-sign laden bar into a family-friendly roadside restaurant. To achieve this look, the team put in several new windows, knocked down walls and constructed open-air patios. Reclaimed barn siding now makes up the patchwork paneling in the dining area. There is also an eclectic collection of antique wall hangings from Fringe Antique Boutique in Sacramento.
Since reopening as Fahrenheit 250, Sardo says he has had a number of guests tell him that they’ve been driving by the place for 10 or 15 years without stopping.
“These are locals with families. What they heard about the place, dating back long before it was Bisla’s, they didn’t like or at least felt it didn’t fit their lifestyles,” he says. “When they saw the front patio taking shape and began to smell smoked meats, they say they decided to give it a shot.”
The source of the enticing scent is a story in itself. The 4,000-pound, 7-foot smoker resides on the back patio. It can hold up to 1,200 pounds of meat and was custom-built by a pitmaster in Texas for a Brooklyn client. Upon arrival in New York, city inspectors dubbed it out of code.
“We got a fire-sale deal at 25 to 30 percent of cost,” Sardo says. “Our biggest challenge was getting it shipped to California.” The 4,000-pound smoker, fondly called “the beast,” arrived three weeks before Fahrenheit 250 was scheduled to open. It’s been a learning experience ever since. For one, Sardo had never cooked in a smoker that big.
“It really took me about two months to get it down,” he says. “Every time the wind is blowing or the rain is falling we have to make adjustments to ensure we get to that perfect temperature for smoked meats: fahrenheit 250.”
The smoker is maintained around the clock, seven days a week by teams of cooks. It is constantly being fed wood and meats. When the restaurant closes, a team comes in to clean it and stoke it. Then the 12-hour smoking process starts anew.
The slowly smoked meats, seafood and vegetables have quickly caught on with the growing number of regulars, so much so that running out of ribs or briskets on a Friday or Saturday night is not uncommon.
“It’s hard to believe that with a smoker that can handle 1,200 pounds we can come up short, but it happens,” Sardo says. “We know we need another smoker, and we’re looking for one. But we were spoiled with the price of the first one. We’re on the hunt for another killer deal.”
While the first quarter of operation has more than exceeded expectations, the partners are also aware that a stellar opening performance doesn’t ensure a success.
“It’s too early to tell if we’re going to be able to sustain our current numbers. Lots of new places open to much initial fanfare,” Sardo says. “We believe we have a good full-service product that stands out from other local barbecue offerings. But only time will tell.”
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