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4 Rivers Smokehouse's 18-hour smoked angus brisket

John Rivers recently opened the fifth location of 4 Rivers Smokehouse, in Gainesville, Fla., to record sales. He projects total sales of $24 million systemwide this year.

“Nothing we do is fancy, but there’s a line out the door,” said Rivers, who opened the first location in Winter Park, Fla., in 2009, using recipes he developed in his garage over the past 20 years.

He now has a second restaurant in Winter Park, as well as one in Orlando, Fla., and another in Longwood, Fla. The restaurants don’t sell alcohol, are not open on Sunday, and close by 9 p.m.

Rivers said each restaurant does 700 tickets — mostly of multiple customers — on slow Mondays and Tuesdays, and 1,200-1,400 tickets on Friday and Saturday, with an average check of around $12. The concept sells mostly sandwiches, racks of ribs and brisket. Sales are also brisk at Sweet Shop, bakeries at the front of each restaurant.

He currently employs 512 people, including a culinary and operations team.

“We actually brought human resources on, finally,” he added.

Rivers, who lived in Texas and whose wife is from there, said he was met with skepticism when he opened the brisket-focused restaurant in Orlando at a time when Smokey Bones, another Orlando-based barbecue restaurant, was failing.

Introducing Texas-style brisket to Orlando was a mission for Rivers, but his barbecue has a mixed heritage. The burnt ends are done Kansas-City-style, and he learned to make pulled pork from Alabama-based barbecue chef Chris Lilly. He also smokes tri-tip, the triangular cut at the bottom of the sirloin that’s popular in California.

“That’s fun, bringing different regional profile flavors onto a single menu,” he said.

Rivers has no plans to franchise, but he aims to eventually operate 24 restaurants.

“No rush,” he said. “I’ve already retired once; I’m just doing this for fun.”