The Rib Man has become something of a legend on the London street food scene with his off-the-bone baby back ribs. With the help of social media, his hot sauces are spanning the globe one bottle at a time
While world domination may the goal of many businesses, some mean it more literally than others. Usually to go global you need a network of contacts, infrastructure, big money and a foreign headquarters. For a one-man show operating out of a converted shipping container in east London it may be a little more difficult. But that is just what Mark Gevaux – aka the Rib Man – is doing, one bottle of his signature ‘Holy Fuck’ hot sauce at a time. And he is doing it with little more than a small space to cook and a Twitter feed.
Gevaux engages directly with his customers on Twitter – spanning Vancouver to Moscow, Australia to São Paulo and most of Europe – responding to every tweet. Social media is his linchpin. “When I used to work in the butchers, big companies like Tesco were putting us out of business but now small businesses are fighting back and Twitter is part of that,” he says. He has built up a following of around 14,000 followers, who more accurately could be called fans. “They all feel part of it and they are. I craic with them on there any time of day or night.” It was this personal touch that won him the ‘Best Use of Marketing’ prize at this year’s O2 Smarta 100 Awards. However, by most business standards, Gevaux’s use of Twitter is a little unusual; while other companies may have a PR guru making sure everything looks and sounds user-friendly before going live, the Rib Man doesn’t have much concern for what other people think. “If someone doesn’t like what I say, that’s fine – I don’t want to go through ten people before putting out a tweet,” he says. His priority is always going the extra mile for those that matter, and his rough-and-ready style has earned him an army of dedicated customers.
With the Smarta prize money, Gevaux wants to convert a golf buggy, complete with Rib Man insignia, and expand his range for selling his ribs and sauces. This is very much in line with his DIY-ethos of marketing, having raised £16,501 to fund the business through 765 Kickstarter backers. Funding in this manner means there are no bigwigs telling him what to do and that’s just the way he likes it. “With street food, it’s all about being on the streets with the customers so we’ll stay small, close to the customers and keep it real,” he says.
The Rib Man isn’t just crowdfunded but crowd-tested and designed too. “Me and a few customers started messing about with hot sauces because I couldn’t find one that I liked enough to use on my ribs. I’d make a batch and customers would tell me what they thought. I’d then go back and experiment some more.” The culmination of this effort was a sauce called ‘Holy Fuck’, named so because this is usually what people say when they’ve a mouthful of the stuff. His sauces are made with naga and scotch bonnet chillies – among other things. Gevaux’s Twitter followers have even had a hand in designing the labels.
‘Holy Mother of God’ is another favourite but ‘Christ on a Bike’ is a top-seller at the end of the year. “I’m bringing Christ into more homes this Christmas than the church,” he jokes as I meet him, just before kick off at The Boleyn Tavern outside West Ham’s home ground at Upton Park. He sets up shop here to sell ribs at every one of the home games. “It’s turning into a proper match day tradition but here it’s not about smashing it – it’s all about being part of West Ham.”
But smashing it he is, whether it’s at the Boleyn, Brick Lane or online. He even supplies his sauces to some of the most exciting restaurants in London including Tramshed, Hawksmoor and MEATliqour and counts among his fans Adam Richmam of Man v. Food fame.
While Gevaux isn’t a trained chef and wouldn’t know what to do if you gave him a carrot, he knows a thing or two about meat. A butcher by trade, he has been carving up carcasses since the age of 12 and, from 2007, has been serving up meaty delights in markets around the capital. “Ribs are what I do best. As a butcher it was always the cut nobody wanted so we took them home each night; that’s how I know how to do them really well.”
However, following a car accident in 1991 he had to give up the trade. “It mangled my leg and after a load of operations I couldn’t take it anymore so I asked them to take it off.” But sometimes you just have to stick to what you know. “I couldn’t sit about doing nothing; I’ve always worked. I thought: ‘I can’t be a butcher anymore but I can make ribs’.”
They are cooked overnight in their own juices with a concoction of spices and served up in a bun, wrap or as a rack with your choice of sauce. We can say firsthand that the Rib Man’s ribs certainly aren’t called ‘the best in London’ for nothing.
The meat, the sauce, the personality, the customer interaction – all of this adds up to make the Rib Man one of London’s most unique small businesses. Gevaux is single-handedly maintaining his base at home, racking up fans worldwide – and there are no signs of letting up.