Full Moon Rising
David and Joe Maluff are deliberately slow cooking the franchise growth of their iconic Birmingham eatery.
ABOVE Brothers David (left) and Joe Maluff
From backyard patios to stadium tailgates, the succulent smell of barbeque fills the Alabama air. Mouth-watering smoked meat being prepared a thousand different ways on a thousand different grills. Next to college football, barbequing is probably the most popular recreational sport in the state.
It can be difficult in such a crowded environment for a barbeque restaurant to truly stand out, but a few manage to break through the smoky haze. Take Full Moon Bar-B-Que, for example. What began in 1986 as a small shack on the Southside of Birmingham has oh so slowly grown to the point that Full Moon is now shining brightly across the state.
Since brothers David and Joe Maluff purchased the original restaurant from founder Pat James in 1997, they have added a new location approximately every 12 to 18 months. It has taken two decades, but Full Moon now has 14 locations throughout Alabama with thoughts that it might expand outside the state in the coming years.
“We do it slowly and casually to make sure we do things right,” David Maluff says of the expansion plans. “You hear about these restaurants that want to add six or seven stores a year. We’re not interested in that. We’re in no rush. When it happens, it happens.”
For nearly 15 years, the only place that Full Moon could be found was in the tiny brick building off Sixth Avenue South in Birmingham, with its massive moon-face mural grinning widely at the passing cars. From this location, James — a former Kentucky football player and assistant coach at Alabama under Paul “Bear” Bryant — dished out tasty cue from a hickory-wood fire pit, topped with a spicy-sweet chow-chow relish using a recipe created by James’ wife, Eloise.
ABOVE A mouthwatering array of Full Moon fare, with the signature chow chow rising over all.
James began contemplating retirement as he neared his 70s, and his restaurant came to the attention of the Maluff brothers, Birmingham natives who had worked in various restaurants in Alabama and Florida. Joe says they ate at Full Moon one time and “fell in love with it.”
“I didn’t know what chow-chow was when I got it on my sandwich,” David recalls. “I opened it up and said, ‘What’s this?’ Then I bit into it and loved it. The chow-chow made it more than just a BBQ sandwich. It made it different.”
Once the Maluffs purchased the restaurant, David says the plan from the very beginning was to eventually begin adding stores and franchising — but not immediately.
“We saw the potential for growth. I knew if we were going to do this, we were going to have at least four or five of them,” David says. “But you have to get the first one right. So we worked behind the counter for about two years, greeting every customer and making sure the food was perfect.”
Sports photos covered the walls at the restaurant, with a heavy emphasis on Alabama and Auburn football. But Joe was a UAB graduate, and one of Full Moon’s staunchest early supporters was the late UAB athletic director and head basketball coach Gene Bartow. He was a lunch regular and often hired Full Moon to cater UAB athletic events.
“Coach Bartow used to always say that a perfect day was playing 18 holes of golf and then eating at Full Moon,” Joe says with a smile. “He was an ambassador for us. He was very vocal about Full Moon. We have a whole section of photos of him on the wall.”
ABOVE Pit Master Booker McCoy
With Full Moon’s reputation waxing, the Maluffs decided to start expanding in the early 2000s. The first new location was in Hoover, and three more restaurants followed, all in the Birmingham area. Then, in 2008, the Maluffs offered their first franchise for a new store being built in Fultondale.
“After we built four stores, we wanted to give something back,” David says. “So for our next store we wanted to sell a franchise and make him a 25 percent partner, where he could create wealth for himself. That’s giving back to people who work hard.”
So the Maluffs approached Fultondale resident Tony Teichmiller, who at the time was the general manager at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The brothers got to know Teichmiller from catering the Ruth’s Chris annual company picnic, and for several years they discussed with him the possibility of taking over a new Full Moon restaurant.
“I’d hang out with Joe at the picnics, and David would bring his family into Ruth’s Chris for dinner,” Teichmiller says. “I got a general feel of what kind of people they are. I got a spirit of hospitality from them, that they like to make people feel good.
“I’d never owned a business before, but I just had faith in them that it would work out. And it really has. I thank them all the time for the opportunity. It’s been the greatest thing.”
More franchises followed in the ensuing decade —in Auburn, Dothan and Jasper — but rarely more than one a year. David says that’s because the brothers are determined to find the right person to run each restaurant, a process that does not happen quickly.
ABOVE The Maluff brothers with Tony Teichmiller, their first franchisee.
“I get three or four calls every week from people who want to franchise,” David says. “By the time I’m done asking questions, I usually say no thank-you. You have to have people skills. If you’re asking me about the bottom line right away, then you’re asking the wrong questions. ‘How much am I going to make?’ That’s not the question you should be asking in our first conversation. You should be worried about the concept, the market and the people. If you’re not asking those questions, then I don’t need you.
“We hired a guy in Dothan who had no restaurant experience, but he was a hard worker with people skills. And he’s doing a great job for us. That’s what we look for. We want to find the right operator who wants to be hands-on, keep the high standard of our food and be involved in the community. We want to grow the business that way.”
Full Moon is in the process of adding a new store in Trussville, and David says they are looking to expand into Huntsville and Mobile. He says conversations also are under way to possibly move into Georgia, with Atlanta, Columbus and Newnan among potential locations.
“As long as we grow our business the right way, we’ll get there,” David says. “But there’s not a magic number of 20 stores or 30 stores. We’re going to do one at a time, and it happens when it happens. We’re looking for good people first. We’re not going to grow the business unless we have good, solid operators. That’s what our standards are.
“We’re not just in the barbeque business. We’re in the people business. We want to make people happy. If we make somebody happy, then we’ve done our job.”
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.