Rocklands Barbeque Turns 25 Today!

2416 Wisconsin Ave, NW

From a press release:

“December 1 marks 25 years since ROCKLANDS Barbeque and Grilling Company opened its doors in Glover Park. In 1990, the city had a few homegrown barbeque pits, but not many, and none served the distinctive “Washington barbeque” that founder John Snedden defined. The restaurant’s original barbeque sauce—still its house sauce today—marries a tomato base with plenty of onions and vinegar, still Snedden’s favorite not-sweet complement to chopped pork.
Phyllis Richman, then-restaurant reviewer for The Washington Post, came to visit after a few months. As she put it, ROCKLANDS has “some of the best barbequed meat and accompaniments north of the Carolinas and east of Texas” – a great review that nearly swamped the new restaurant. ROCKLANDS still cooks in the same manner she praised, including smoking only over wood (no gas), offering a limited and barbeque-true menu, and serving the original vinegary barbeque sauce to accompany its smoked meats.

Over the years, the original restaurant has been joined by three siblings—Arlington, Alexandria, and Rockville—and a robust catering operation that is known for throwing spirited weddings and livening up office lunches. The latest members of the family are four red trucks, circulating through downtown and the suburbs, offering the best of ROCKLANDS curbside and at special events.

In a city where few restaurants survive for 10 years, let alone 25, how the longevity? In part, the long service of Snedden’s team. He is quick to throw his arms wide to embrace the staff in any 25th-anniversary hug. “We did some math last year and realized that with all
the longtime employees we have, ROCKLANDS has a collective 656 years of experience smoking and serving barbeque in and around the Nation’s Capital,” grins Snedden.

Others point to Snedden’s effectiveness in both economy and detail, which he ruefully acknowledges. “I think of things in terms of how many individual servings of baked beans I’d have to sell to pay for something. We don’t spend money unless it will give our customers better food, value or a better experience.”

The menu at ROCKLANDS has changed slightly over the years, including the addition of grilled salmon, more vegetarian options and creation of two “sister” sauces to the original barbeque sauce. The company has been ahead of the clean-food curve as well: In part as a response to the Snedden family’s own dietary changes, everything ROCKLANDS serves is free of artificial dyes. By making the salads and sides in-house, the restaurant can also ensure that only wholesome ingredients go into the dishes.

A cheerleader for the Washington restaurant scene since 1990, Snedden has served on the board of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and he and his general managers are involved in business associations and philanthropy in each ROCKLANDS community. The organization supported upwards of 154 different local organizations in 2014, serving food, donating time and providing gift certificates for fundraisers.

As more and more restaurants have opened in DC, Snedden has seen a benefit for ROCKLANDS. “The whole restaurant scene in DC has changed in the last 25 years. We have more specialized cuisines, and many more options at the high and low end. This means that for the past few years, we’ve be able to buy reliably from local growers and meat purveyors, so that I can offer truly regional foods, which is how barbeque should be. Everybody wins from the fact that Washington has become a true food town.”