WEIRTON — It's been more than 30 years since Weirton's Dewey Guida, concerned with a downturn in his building business, hit on the idea of converting an old car wash into a nightclub. It didn't last long, admittedly, but out of it grew the seeds of an idea for a business that's stood the test of time.
"After about a year I realized I wanted to enter into the food business, that was where the demand was," Guida said. "I could see demand."
So Guida and his wife, Karen, turned the nightclub into a small restaurant and lounge, Dee Jay's, with barbeque ribs as their niche product. Guida said he and his staff tested and fine-tuned sauces until they developed their own special recipe and 10-step process. He said it took about six months of "trial and error testing" before he had the right recipe.
"It was a process, about a six-month process," he said. "But nobody had ever done ribs. If I was going into the restaurant business, I wanted a niche of my own. That's why I chose ribs."
Guida said the building was "really small, it didn't allow me to do much," and his menu was equally small, featuring ribs, potato skins and a few other basics.
"The kitchen was 8-by-16, so I couldn't have a big variety," he said. "For 24 years we had a very limited menu, but demand was still so (strong) we couldn't produce enough."
In 2003 the Guidas decided to build a new, 7,000-square-foot restaurant in a high profile location on Weirton's Three Springs Drive, just off U.S. Route 22. Again sporting a tropical motif, the new Dee Jay's BBQ Ribs & Grille boasts 210 easily filled seats and an expanded menu that includes a range of appetizers, chicken, beef and seafood entrees, sandwiches and desserts.
"We went from 60 seats to 210," Guida says. "In this market, we probably could have gone to 250."
Over the years, Dee Jay's has developed a cult-following among the famous as well as the not-so-famous: Professional athletes from Pittsburgh have made the place one of their haunts, spreading the word as they moved from team-to-team. The Guidas have also fielded orders from nationally known music acts out on tour, as well as famous politicians, and have shipped rib orders across the country.
"I couldn't start to tell you all the famous people we've had," he said. "Star athletes from the Pirates, the Penguins, the Steelers; artists — we've fed Hank Williams Jr., a lot of the rock bands and country music bands — the cast of ‘The Soprano's'; … the Clintons, Bill and Hillary; the Gores, all the governors and senators. Dee Jay's has developed into a cornerstone of the community — anybody who comes in to Hancock or Brooke counties comes to Dee Jay's, it's a meeting place."
He said the secret is consistency.
"There are about eight or 10 steps we have to take to produce the kind of product we do," Guida said. "No one thing is secret. The only secret we have is to be consistent, make sure we do all 10 steps. You can't eliminate any one step — if you do, it changes the taste of the product. You have to be consistent. That's why it's so hard to duplicate — other restaurants can't do it. If you want the product, you have to come to Dee Jay's. You can't get it anywhere else."
He credits his approximately 90 employees and his management team with being committed to the process. He said he's toying with adding a second location, likely north of Pittsburgh.
"Chances are, it won't be for another year or so," said Guida. "I'd venture to say there's growth potential in years to come, but it has to be in a controlled way. I don't want to ruin an image it took me 32 years to build by putting out too many, too fast. As you do it, you want to make sure each one is self-sufficient."
He already has one son working with him at the Weirton location and another of his children is at culinary school learning the tricks of the trade.
His advice to anyone thinking of getting into the business?
"Make sure you have the passion, the dedication to work 60 or 70 hours a week, work seven days a week," he said.
"You have to want to please people and you've got to put the time in. It's a lot of hours, there are so many moving parts. Turn your back on it and let me tell you, it will get away from you. That's why people always say restaurants are an easy business to get into but the hardest to stay in."