Boss Business: Pitmaster Derrick McCray Carries On Family’s Nearly 100-Year BBQ Legacy

CEO and pitmaster Derrick McCray of McCray’s Backyard BBQ and Seafood gave CNBC’s Make It a history lesson on the rich backstory of his family business on August 31. He also revealed his goal to take his mom-and-pop restaurant nationwide. 

McCray, 60, explained that his great-uncle Jay Harvey started the BBQ business in West Palm Beach, Florida, opening its doors in 1934.

“Uncle Jay brought my father up in the barbecue business and made him a barbecue extraordinaire. He was the barbecue man. And he was pretty much the only Black restaurant business in his area during that time,” he said.

Being located in South Florida at the height of the civil rights movement and segregation laws, McCray recalled meeting some of the biggest names in activism in his family restaurant as he grew up. 

“I can remember Jesse Jackson, James Brown, Isaac Hayes, all those people coming to my home and to the restaurant because my dad was one of the leading civil rights activists here in South Florida during that time,” he said. “We had a lot of bomb threats and death threats from the Klan and all kinds of stuff.”

When President Nixon’s War on Drugs was launched, it “tore the fabric of the community apart” and the family business took a brutal financial hit.

However, McCray said he knew he had to keep the family business going.

“It’s in my DNA to keep moving forward,” said McCray. “I don’t see a reason why the McCrays can’t be like the Rockefellers or the Posts or other big families that have secured generational wealth.”

These days, the pitmaster has taken to restoring the business through hard work and good food following a significant career change.

In the 1980s, McCray was a student and football player at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. In his CNBC interview he admitted that his educational years were cut short after the distractions of being an athlete led him to make bad decisions. 

“I was partying too much, drinking and doing stuff. I wasn’t being consistent. I was trying to be in the streets. And I didn’t pass the drug test out there, so they told me to go back where I came from,” McCray remembered. “It was a devastating blow to me because I knew I had the talent to play, but my off-the-field activities during that time caused me to not make it in something I love doing: playing football.”

The life-altering event caused McCray to head back home and take over McCray’s Backyard BBQ and Seafood. He made many business changes that were for the better, and he made sure to keep preparing the food the same way his family always has. 

“We cook the same way we’ve cooked for years … with open pit wood only,” said McCray. “That sets us apart because it’s this sort of science to what we do. It’s an old art form that’s still alive with us that now we’ve modified it to where we can produce 10,000 pounds of ribs a day. We take cooking ribs to a whole other level.”

In addition, he made sure to keep the signature barbecue sauce the same.

McCray’s decisions are paying off: He reported bringing in $1.58 million in revenue in 2022, serving politicians and musicians, and since 2007 has been a major vendor for the Super Bowl every year except for one.

McCray hopes his hard work sets an example for generations to come.

“I’m always trying to see how we can expand this 89-year history to another 100 years while I’m still here, and a major part of that involves the youth,” he said. ”[Young people of color] need to know that there are other ways to make money than drugs, rap music, and sports.”

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