It sounds crazy but Betsy McAtee of Dreamland Bar-B-Que may well be the only female CEO of a major BBQ business in the US. Barbecue and the barbecue business has long been dominated by men, “pit masters” who learned to perfect the magical balance between meat, fire, sauce and smoke from their fathers and grandfathers. A native of Jasper, AL, Betsy is quick to tell you she is not a pitmaster or a chef, but she does cook and she does love barbecue. Betsy developed her taste for barbecue from her dad, Bobby Underwood, who fell in love with Dreamland’s ribs when he was a student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa decades ago. Later, as a dentist in Jasper, he made regular trips to Tuscaloosa just to get his Dreamland “fix.” According to Betsy, “Ribs became the favorite food in our household. We’d even eat ribs with scrambled eggs on Christmas morning.” When Betsy followed in her father’s footsteps to the University of Alabama, she became a Dreamland Café regular, just like her dad.
Over the years, Underwood became friends with Dreamland’s owners, John “Big Daddy” Bishop and his wife Lily, and so did Betsy. Underwood and the Bishops talked about the business and its potential to grow, over ribs of course. Betsy listened. When the Bishops began thinking about their own future and retirement one day, Underwood was ready with a plan. “Don’t you want to keep this going when you’re gone?” he asked them. He proposed that they partner and open a second Dreamland location in Birmingham, so folks who learned to love Bishop’s food in college could keep on eating it without having to make the hour-long drive from the state’s largest city. Additional locations would follow, in Mobile, Pensacola, and beyond. Underwood was working on his own Plan B, a new career after dentistry, and teaming up with the Bishops seemed about the best idea anybody could ever have. They opened the iconic Southside location in Birmingham in 1993, opened the Mobile restaurant in 1995, and in 2000, the Bishop family decided to “get out of the day to day,” sold the company to Underwood outright.
Betsy, meanwhile, had been working at Parisian Department Store in Pensacola, selling pantyhose, “the 1st ‘p,’” as she calls it. She became an outstanding salesperson, so decided to pursue an MBA at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. After graduation, she snagged a big job at Frito-Lay, where she learned how to operate and manage at a corporate level. “Basically I was selling a lot of potato chips – that was the 2nd ‘p,’” she said, laughing. Underwood needed a partner to help him, and he knew exactly whose help to enlist. He talked to Betsy and she agreed to join him and the Dreamland Bar-B-Que crew. The former Dr. Underwood was now a happy man.
Betsy loved barbecue like her dad, but she didn’t know much about restaurants, so resolved to work every position so she could fully understand the business it from the ground up. She worked at “every job you could do – including learning the BBQ pit. I still leave that to the experts.” By 2010, when her dad was ready to retire, she felt ready to take over as CEO.
For the past 10 years, Betsy McAtee has been dedicated to Dreamland’s core purpose
: “preserving the tradition with food, fun and family memories.” “Quality is our #1 priority,” she says. “We don’t cut corners and we won’t. Old school barbeque is who we are, who we’ve always been – ribs cooked over an open pit. We’re going to stick with that. It may not be the most efficient way to operate, but long-term we aren’t looking for volume and lots of stores. We want to share our story, and educate consumers about what barbeque really is. (It’s not a flavor you can and just pour out of a bottle onto a piece of meat.) We want to be part of the lives of each of our guests, for generations to come.”
The ribs at Dreamland Bar-B-Que are cooked just the way “Big Daddy” Bishop cooked them. The Dreamland sauce recipe was his too. “We developed everything else,” Betsy says. “The baked beans, potato salad with no egg and cole slaw we make are intentionally not too sweet, to go better with our sauce, which is more vinegary. Our desserts, though, are sweet.” She continues, “People loved the pecan pie which we had on the menu in our Mobile and Atlanta locations. Then I started thinking practically about desserts in our Birmingham restaurant, which didn’t have a decent oven, so we couldn’t produce pies in-house on any scale. Pecan pie is expensive to make and the crust breaks easily, so you lose a lot when you’re slicing it up. I wanted to come up with an alternative, and landed on banana pudding. Banana pudding is forgiving, it’s simple and you can serve it cold. The version I came up with has cream topping instead of meringue (which I don’t like). It goes great with barbeque and we make it with Bud’s Best Cookies, which are baked right here in Birmingham, so we’re supporting a local business too. That’s the one contribution I’ve added to the menu and I’m proud of it. People seem to really love it.”
With over two decades of experience in the food industry, Betsy doesn’t have any plans to slow down. She admits that this year, between the hurricanes and COVID-19, has been tough. “All our restaurants have suffered during this pandemic, with restricted indoor dining, fewer football games and big events – which really keep us going, and just having no idea how to plan for what’s next.” She continues, “After the recent hurricane, our restaurant in Mobile was without power for 4 days. We lost everything in our freezer, we had trees down… it was awful. A lot of people’s homes were destroyed too. We’re ready or 2020 to be over!” She adds, “COVID has been hard on us, but we’re optimistic. People – our guests – are the heartbeat of our business. We’ll get back to normal eventually. I know we will.”
As Featured Restaurateur of the Week, Betsy McAtee will at a tent at the Market, Saturday October 3rd, 7am-Noon, sharing stories and showing off Dreamland Bar-B-Que’s sauces, rubs and her famous banana pudding. Betsy McAtee and Dreamland Bar-B-Que are part of the Market’s month-long spotlight on Top Women in Food, in partnership with the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, of which McAtee is a member.