For nearly 30 years, John Snedden and Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company have served hickory wood-grilled barbecue to the D.C. region. As the locally grown restaurant with three brick-and-mortar locations and a concession stand in the Capital One Arena approaches this major milestone, City Paper wanted to find out how a boy from a small town outside Philadelphia, who went to school in Virginia, ended up being one of the area’s most significant pitmasters?
“I was forced to learn how to grill at a very early age,” Snedden jokes. “Our house didn’t have air conditioning, so we did most of our cooking outside.” It was there where Snedden, one of six siblings, learned not only how to cook for himself, but also for large groups of people.
In 1978, Snedden left Pennsylvania to attend Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. There, he began to barbecue whole pigs for fraternity parties, sports tailgates, and even local farms. Snedden only used hickory and red oak woods to grill meat. “Everyone can taste and smell the difference in food cooked with specific woods,” he says.
“The name Rocklands comes from the name of the farm we lived on in college. That is how I came up with the name of my barbecue sauce,” Snedden says. He was unhappy with the store-bought sauces and the artificial ingredients they contained, so he created his own sauce and encountered instant success among friends and food lovers. “Students and locals alike would come to our farm whenever I hosted these massive barbecues,” he boasts.
When Snedden moved to D.C. in 1983 to attend medical school, he began to cater part time. His passion for barbecuing never let up. That same year, he entered a local barbecue competition, and his ribs won first place. “My parents weren’t happy with me leaving med school to barbecue full time,” he says.
“Lee Atwater, from the Reagan administration, tried my barbecue and insisted I enter his competition in Alexandria,” Snedden says. The ruthless Republican political tactician helped found barbecue chain Red Hot and Blue’s in 1988 with Don Sundquist. “The rest is history.” But this would not be Snedden’s last barbecue-infused encounter within politicos.
By 1987, Snedden was flooded with requests for his barbecue, so he launched his full-time catering business from his home. He catered everything from weddings and picnics to fundraisers and company parties.
In 1990, he opened up his first brick-and-mortar location of Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company at 2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
Business was strong for the first few years, but everything changed in 1993. “It was a regular day at the store,” Snedden recalls. “Then I got a call from someone claiming to work at the White House. I thought it was a prank call.”
It wasn’t. Word had gotten out about the food at Rocklands, so the White House called looking for ideas for the Clinton’s First State Dinner. Snedden says he provided a recipe for grilled shrimp with a horseradish mango chutney.
Over the years, the Rocklands brand continued to grow. In 1995 Snedden opened his second location in Northern Virginia and by 1997 Snedden was bottling his signature barbecue sauce and distributing it nationwide.
Flash forward to today. The Rocklands brand now consists of three restaurant locations, four food trucks, which can be rented for private functions, and a stand at Capital One Arena. Snedden’s barbecue sauce is sold at Whole Foods and Harris Teeter on the East Coast.
But with the increased success came obstacles, including one that almost derailed the entire operation before it even got started.
“When I won that first barbecue competition in D.C., everything kind of went to my head,” Snedden admits. “I might have been over my head in the beginning, because I had no formal training in how to run and operate a restaurant … There’s a huge difference in making a couple racks of ribs for a competition, then making hundreds of pounds on a daily basis and keeping it all with a certain level of consistency.”
“That was one of my biggest regrets in my education, never taking any business related classes,” he says. “That could have prevented a lot of headaches and hardships early on in my career.”
Another significant obstacle for Snedden over the past few years has been the amount of competition in D.C. area. “The quality of Rocklands food hasn’t changed, but it has been hard to compete with places that deliver or use Uber Eats,” Snedden admits. “We just started using DoorDash though, so that should change how our food will become more available.”
Snedden has only minimally changed Rocklands food menus over the decades. They still make everything on premise from scratch. “It has been hard to provide the same product year after year, as the ingredients we try to use for our sauces are becoming more and more processed and their natural components have become harder and more expensive to acquire,” he says.
“We also have had to change our menu options for the ever changing diet fads,” he admits. “You know how hard it is to come up with vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian options when I’ve been roasting whole pigs my entire life?”
Snedden supports community organizations whenever he can. “When I hear people saying that Rocklands is a staple of D.C. barbecue, I feel more honored than anything,” he says. “That’s why we choose to give so much back to the community that truly appreciates us.”
In 2018 alone, Rocklands supported more than 100 charities, schools, sports youth teams, and organizations by donating funds or food. Snedden says they contribute more than 1 percent of their sales to support local nonprofits every year.
Customers still amass outside the D.C. location during the lunch rush. Snedden is there, greeting customers, then moving to the kitchen to check on staff members and the meats, making sure the product is consistent.
“Just look around,” Snedden says. “It doesn’t matter what you do for a living or what you’re going through. Everyone is just happy to be here and eat my barbecue, and that is what it is all about.”