Rob’s Ribs wants to become the next Auburn staple. They have all the tools to do so: A convenient location, close to downtown; an innovative and dedicated team and of course — great BBQ.
“I feel like we have a really special spot in town,” said Mark Coxwell, owner of Rob’s Ribs. “We’re going to do everything we can to make this the most inviting place that we can, so that everybody who comes feels at home and knows they belong here.”
The concept of Rob’s Ribs began in 2019. It is the brainchild of Coxwell, who also owns Butcher Paper BBQ in Opelika. The beginnings of Butcher Paper, then Rob’s Ribs, are deep-rooted, yet rapid. Before either restaurant existed, Coxwell had been dreaming of opening his own BBQ joint for years.
“So, I worked in my late teens, early 20s, at a barbecue place,” Coxwell said. “I really didn’t work there for very long, but it was something that just kind of stuck in me. It kind of got into my blood.”
A native of Opelika, Coxwell was living in Athens, Georgia, with his wife.
“Pretty much the whole time I was there, I was trying to figure out some way to open a restaurant,” he recalled. “I had a bunch of different ideas, but nothing ever really stuck enough for me to be able to pursue it.”
When he and his wife decided to move back to the Auburn-Opelika area in 2013, Coxwell got a job with a pool company. Two years later, Coxwell borrowed a smoker from his then-boss.
“I just asked him, I was like, ‘Hey, can I use that?’” Coxwell said. “He said, ‘You can take it and you can use it as long as you want.’”
As they say … the rest is history.
The next three years would spur Coxwell’s meteoric rise to BBQ prominence. From cooking for friends in his backyard; to pop-ups at parties, concerts or festivals; to opening a food truck; to opening his first brick-and-mortar location. Coxwell opened his first restaurant, Butcher Paper BBQ, in September 2018.
Quickly, Butcher Paper became an Opelika mainstay. At the time, Coxwell admitted he had no plans to expand, although he had thought about it.
“I like things small,” he said. “I like counter service. I like small areas that are manageable.”
However, when Mike & Ed’s Barbeque (307 N. College St., where Rob’s Ribs currently sits) closed after 30 years in Auburn, Coxwell spotted the perfect opportunity.
“I had the idea for Rob’s Ribs already,” he said. “With encouragement, with help from my wife, from my management team, from a lot of friends, I decided to take this leap.”
Fast forward to April 2021 – Rob’s Ribs opens in Auburn.
“We opened a large restaurant in six months, which is unheard of,” Coxwell said.
To help get Rob’s off the ground, Coxwell enlisted the help of Alex Bradfield and Rob Goodwin, Butcher Paper employees at the time. He named Bradfield his executive chef, and Goodwin the general manager.
“[Rob is] the day-to-day guy,” Coxwell said. “He’s the front-of-house guy. He deals directly with customers. But Alex is the creative engine. It’s important that he gets that recognition, and that people know that like, he’s the man behind the food here.”
Bradfield has an eclectic background in the food industry, having worked in the kitchen of Auburn’s Amsterdam Cafe, and as sous chef in restaurants in Atlanta and San Diego.
“There was no way I wasn’t going hire him as an executive chef because of the experience that he’s had,” Coxwell said. “And the passion that he has for southern cooking, and the passion that he has for barbecue … It only made sense.”
Goodwin, on the other hand, had little to no classical culinary training, but had thrived in his role at Butcher Paper and “earned it,” Coxwell said.
The ultimate decision to dub Coxwell’s new restaurant after Goodwin’s first name was multi-pronged.
“There are several reasons why I chose to do that … actually, Rob was not one of the reasons,” Coxwell said, as he chuckled at the thought. “I had the idea before I even decided that I wanted Rob to being the GM. But I like the alliteration of the name. The Rob’s Ribs kind of rolls off the tongue really easily. And also, I didn’t want to keep the Butcher Paper name because the things that we do here are different from the things we do with Butcher Paper.”
Some of the key differences between the restaurants are: the cooking method, the market they want to appeal to, the menu options and the sheer size of Rob’s Ribs compared to Butcher Paper. Butcher Paper is a quaint, homey atmosphere, that produces a typical southern BBQ menu with a traditional smoking method. Rob’s Ribs is bigger and more modern, with an intentional appeal to a younger audience, a broader menu and entirely different smoking method.
That method is called “the pit.” It’s where the magic of Rob’s Ribs happens. Instead of cooking meats in a traditional, closed-top smoker, Rob’s Ribs smokes its meats with a wood-burning, open-air fire pit. It’s a more tedious method, but Coxwell said the final product is worth it.
Jody Davis, who worked the pit for Mike & Ed’s before Rob’s, mans the cooking station with constant devotion, like a lighthouse guiding sailors to land.
“He knows that pit like the back of his hand,” Coxwell said. “He’s been incredible for us.”
Davis said the key to cooking on the pit is keeping a constant fire.
“But not too hot,” he said, as open-air smokers can lead to spontaneous and potentially dangerous flare-ups.
Thus the need for unwavering attention to be placed on the pit.
“I constantly flip the ribs about every 20 minutes,” Davis said. “The difference is, it’s different every day. It’s like a wind, rain, heat or dampness, just over time and being on it, you kind of learn. It’s just like going fishing. Every now and then you will use the yellow one [lure], other days, blue. One day it’s blue sky or the next gray … it’s kind of like that with these pits.”
Davis is just one crucial piece of the wheel that keeps Rob’s Ribs churning. Every member of the Rob’s team — from the bartender to cashier — is intentionally purposed to deliver the best customer experience possible.
“So far, I’ve pushed everybody, I’m sure I’ve pushed everybody to the limits of what they feel like they can do,” Coxwell said. “They can now see the fruits of their labor.”
Goodwin spends every day he can at the restaurant to ensure those fruits are harvested the correct way.
“My goal is to learn everything in the restaurant,” he said. “We’re still new and we still have a lot to improve.
There’s things that I haven’t really had my hands in too much that I know people in here are leaps and bounds better than me at, but I would like to get to where I’m decent at everything at the restaurant, that way I can try to figure out if we can do it more efficiently or to save some product or eliminate some waste – to get that perspective.”
Meanwhile, Bradfield stays busy planning the menu – for both restaurants.
“I’ve given Alex essentially free reign of the kitchen and the menu,” Coxwell said. “I think that great, great things are going to come from that.”
Everything customers can get at Butcher Paper can be found at Rob’s – all the “picnic sides”, as Coxwell described them, included. However, Bradfield specially tailors Rob’s Ribs’ menu to the younger crowd in Auburn. French fries, nachos, salads and a full bar are just a few of the unique additions only available at Rob’s.
“Here in this town, half the population — or over half the population — is younger people who may not have experienced a ton of fine dining, so you kind of keep it in the realm of like almost bar food — but it’s like elevated bar food,” Bradfield said.
But what makes Rob’s Ribs stand out from the rest of the BBQ pack?
“I’d say Mark’s processes,” Goodwin said. “It’s not a corporation or anything like that. We just want to keep it close to the community and provide something good for someone that is for sure quality. I’d like to think that we have the ability to provide better customer service and maybe a better experience than another place. I think that’s what sets us apart.”
Similarly, Bradfield believes attention to detail is what gives Rob’s a leg up.
“Barbeque is a business of execution, less of creativity — Who can do it the best, who can execute it in the best way,” he said. “There’s only so many things that you can smoke and taste good. So, we’re just very attentive and we do things the exact same way every time. It’s really just being more perfectionists.”
Coxwell believes there are many things that allow his restaurants to thrive.
“Every single civilization, every single community, every single region has their own kind of barbecue,” Coxwell said. “And everyone thinks theirs is the best. We like to do what I call eclectic barbecue. We just take … I take what I like, and I make my own.”
Furthermore, Rob’s Ribs and Butcher Paper only use the highest quality ingredients, Coxwell said.
“Our food is all homemade,” he added. “You know, we only buy the best quality ingredients, we only buy the best quality meats that we can afford. And we take those and we treat them the way that they should be treated. We do our best to elevate these ingredients to make them the best.”
Looking forward, Rob’s Ribs is excited to continue garnishing its footprint on The Plains.
“There’s multiple ways that we can grow… multiple things we can do,” Coxwell said. “I have lots of ideas.”
The restaurant just recently held its first special event called “Smoke ‘n Peaches”, a private dinner which allowed customers to reserve times, come to Rob’s and enjoy a three-course meal. Adding permanent breakfast hours, expanding the menu and establishing a collaborative restaurant community are just a few more ideas the Rob’s Ribs’ team is planning for the future.
At the forefront of all the plans, however, are the Auburn and Opelika people.
“I’m very excited to see how Rob’s Ribs is received by the community of students, by the university, by visitors, tourists,” Coxwell said. “We want to be like Butcher Paper is in Opelika. We want to be the community spot where everybody can come in and feel welcome and get a meal that they can afford to the best of our abilities, and sit down and feel at home, feel comfortable with where they are. And we’re going to keep growing and we’re going to keep being more and more a part of Auburn and Opelika as much as we can.”
Rob’s Ribs is located at 307 N. College St. in Auburn. Its hours are from 11 a.m to 9 p.m., every day, 7 to 10:30 a.m. for breakfast on Fridays. For more information, visit www. robsribsauburn.com/.