Brent Swadley
Brent Swadley speaks during a Navigate Conference in March 2018. (Screenshot)

At a conference featuring Christian business leaders in 2018, Swadley’s Bar-B-Q founder Brent Swadley explained how he started his company by “bootlegging barbecue” in front of grocery stores, revealed that a former employee nearly bankrupted his restaurants by embezzling money and made multiple references to not following rules.

“My mom and dad taught me something years ago: Fake it ’til you make it. It’s OK,” Swadley told attendees of a Navigate Conference. “I bootlegged barbecue. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if I followed by the rules and satisfied all the permits and all the legalities and stuff out there. Sometimes you’ve just got to go out there and do it and don’t worry about it.”

Swadley’s remarks can be viewed in a Facebook video embedded below, and they shine light on his business philosophy at a time when his company has come under criminal investigation. The video has also caught the attention of the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

Prater recently requested that State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office assist with his investigation into the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department’s contract with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen, which was awarded under unusual circumstances in 2020. Prater and LOFT director Mike Jackson both confirmed to NonDoc that a whistleblower sent them a 46-second clip of the 2018 Brent Swadley video, which included the quote above.

“We were sent a number of different items from concerned citizens, and that happened to be one of them that was included,” Jackson said.

Embedded below from the Swadley’s Barb-B-Q Facebook page, the full 24-minute video of Swadley’s speech was recorded at the 2018 Navigate Conference at Discovery Church in Yukon, according to Rep. Brian Hill (R-Yukon) who organized the conference.

A call to Swadley’s attorney was not returned prior to the publication of this article. Earlier this month, however, Swadley told NonDoc that he is not concerned about the investigation into his company’s state contract and reimbursement requests.

“It’ll all come out. We didn’t do anything wrong. It will all come out with the investigation and all this stuff,” Swadley said. “We’re not worried or concerned.”

‘It’s what you do about the mistake’

In his 2018 speech, Swadley encouraged other business owners to be proud of their Christian faith and discussed how Swadley’s Bar-B-Q is “a Kingdom business.”

“We are closed on Sundays, and we have a sign up on our front door, and it says we are closed because we want to enable our employees to put God first, just like we do,” Swadley said. “Hey, don’t eat with me, don’t do business with me. It don’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to me. God is in the driver’s seat. He is going to take care of us.”

Swadley called his business “a ministry disguised as a restaurant.”

“We give away a lot of food. We help a lot of people out, and that’s not something that we brag about. That’s something we are proud of,” Swadley said. “Cause what did I actually do? Whose money, today, am I using to feed you guys? Your money. Every time you eat at our restaurant, we have a choice: Do we put that in the bank, do we put it in our pocket, do we put it toward building other things? More treasures? Or do we reinvest it back into our churches, back into our community and schools? And that’s the right answer. It’s a real simple chemistry.”

Swadley explained how he started selling food: He saw a Yukon church group in front of a Walmart selling a burger, a bag of chips and “a can of Sam’s generic cola” for $4. Swadley asked the store manager how he could do something similar, and the manager said all he had to do was donate money to a charity supported by the store: Children’s Miracle Network.

“And that’s how we started the company: in front of a Walmart,” Swadley said. “How about that?”

Swadley described his business’s origin as “totally unconventional.”

“Well, that’s Brent Swadley. That’s how that works. No rules,” Swadley said. “And notice, I didn’t get there the way the city wanted me to get there, the way the state wanted me to get there, the way a book would tell you to get there,” Swadley said. “The way school would tell you to get there. I didn’t care. I said, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to make it happen.'”

He attributed his success to going through a door he said God opened.

“We made good decisions, and when we made a bad decision, we tried to correct it. And sometimes we didn’t,” Swadley said. “And sometimes we still make some of the same mistakes. Cause it’s not about the mistake, it’s what you do about the mistake. We just try to make the mistakes less often, right? Isn’t that important? So you kind of wonder when you wake up, what’s the next mistake going to be? What’s today going to give me? It’s OK. No big deal.”

Swadley outlined how he grew the catering element of his restaurant business by asking existing customers — such as Hobby Lobby — if they could do cater even more lunches and events.

“Something that I think is real important too is not being afraid to ask for more business,” Swadley said.Go out there and get it. Don’t ever be satisfied. (…) The day you’re satisfied in business, you’re done, you’re flat. You’re selling out.”

Swadley also encouraged conference attendees to surround themselves with good people who bring different talents to the table.

“Do what you can do the best. Something you’re talented with. Maybe it’s crunching numbers. Oh my gosh, that’s the worst thing in the world you could tell me we are doing today is tell me we’re going to go over paperwork, that we’re going to go over numbers,” Swadley said. “My dad knows that I’m going to get ADD, and it’s going to kick in, and they might as well just not even talk to me. Cause that’s not my gift. What is my gift? Go out and open up restaurants. What’s my gift? To find ways to connect our company with other organizations. What’s my gift? To come up with these crazy recipes: the ultimate sandwich, the firehouse sandwich. Whatever it is. OK, so I’m going to recognize my gift, and I’m going to try to do that more often, and I’m going to put people in place who can do things better than me.”

That led Swadley to discuss a past employee who he said nearly bankrupted his company.

“We had a guy in our company (who) embezzled half a million dollars and more from us, stealing from us. Doing things that our company shouldn’t have been doing. God enabled — opened our eyes. We removed the cancer from our company just a few years ago,” Swadley said in 2018. “About took the company under at one point in time. What did we do? We replaced him with people that were better. People that could do those things and had safety nets and had things crossing over. People managing managers that managed managers and checked things. Dot your ‘I’s, cross your ‘T’s. So I had to figure out what part of the ‘I’ am I and what part of the ‘T’ am I, but I’m not going to be the one that does both. I’m not going to be the one who has to micromanage it, cause that doesn’t work. Get that out of your head.”

Stitt on Brent Swadley: ‘I don’t know him’

Panasonic battery plant
Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a press conference Monday, April 18, 2022, asking the Oklahoma Legislature to pass expanded business incentives. (Tres Savage)

As details about the Tourism and Recreation Department’s controversial contract with Swadley’s have been revealed, state lawmakers have questioned how the company was awarded the deal to renovate and operate restaurants — with guaranteed coverage of operating losses — in state parks.

Stories from The Frontier and The Oklahoman have looked into how Swadley’s applied for allegedly inflated reimbursements from the tourism agency, as well as how Swadley himself spoke to people about his company’s lucrative state contract. On April 15, Dave Cathey of The Oklahoman published quotes from an anonymous “whistleblower” who wrote emails to the state auditor and inspector saying that Swadley told an employee to “find him more money from the OTRD because they were low on money and needed to get ours first.”

“Swadley explained that it would be fine and that ‘no one would ever know,'” The Oklahoman quoted the whistleblower as having written about an allegedly inflated equipment invoice.

A former operator of the Beavers Bend State Park restaurant, Cindy Stovall, recalled an encounter with Swadley in January 2020 where his construction crew was making big renovation decisions.

“He said, ‘I want a grand entrance here, and I want this and that there,’ and if anybody said anything about how much something cost, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I have a direct line to the governor!’” Stovall told The Oklahoman.

Asked Monday if he knows Swadley personally or has the restauranteur’s phone number, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he does not.

“I feel like I’ve met all 4 million Oklahomans at some point or another, so I have no idea if I’ve shaken his hand somewhere. But no, I don’t know him, have no idea who he is,” Stitt said. “Don’t have his phone number. Never talked to him about the deal.”

Stitt said he only learned of the Tourism and Recreation Department’s deal with Swadley’s last summer.

“When we took our traveling cabinet meeting down to Quartz Mountain and I ate at the restaurant there,” Stitt said.

A Stitt spokesman later confirmed July 14, 2021, as the date of that visit.

During a Monday press conference regarding a proposed incentive for a major manufacturing facility, Stitt said he is “looking forward to seeing exactly what happens and looking at all of the invoices and making sure that we have transparency for the taxpayer.”

“If there is a vendor out there or there is a contract that this contract or this vendor is not performing correctly or overcharging the state, we will find that out. We will terminate that, we will sue that vendor, and we will get the taxpayer’s money back. So we will always, always protect the taxpayer in my administration,” Stitt said. “If there is somebody in state government who is not doing things the right way, I will want to shine a light on any kind of corruption or anything that is going on in state government. So we will get to the bottom of it, and we will find out if there is a bad vendor.”

Stitt, however, said it was “kind of peculiar that all of this stuff happens on an election year.”

“I tell all of my state agencies, we always want top-10. And our parks are becoming top-10,” Stitt said. “We are doing a fantastic job redoing the bathrooms in those state parks and getting tourism dollars up in the state. But we will absolutely hold any vendor accountable.”

Follow @NonDocMedia on:

Facebook | Twitter | Newsletter

Hill: Brent Swadley has ‘a great story’

Swadley's Bar-B-Q
Oklahoma legislators were fed Swadley’s Bar-B-Q during a 4-H event at the State Capitol on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. (Tres Savage)

Hill, who is now a state representative from Yukon, said he believes people are losing sight of how the renovated restaurants are benefiting Oklahoma’s state parks and tourism industry.

“When we look back to before I got elected, the condition of our state park restaurants was horrid, at best,” Hill said. “Many of them were shuttered and shut down, boarded up even. Some of them had to be torn down. And to see now where you’ve got restaurants that are destination locations, I think that’s a big accomplishment.”

As a lawmaker, however, Hill recognizes the need to examine the Swadley’s contract.

“I don’t know about the specifics of the contract. I do think that’s where we need LOFT to be able to look through that. I think we as legislators have a fiduciary responsibility to look and make sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent at the absolute best. But I do see the value of where we were as Oklahomans, especially seeing the growth of tourism in our state now,” Hill said. “Hopefully once everything is looked at in the contract we will see that all is well, but that’s our responsibility — to look into it.”

Hill described how he met Swadley and why he invited him to speak at the 2018 Navigate Conference.

“I knew Brent as an entrepreneur and building up Swadley’s in the Bethany area where I did a lot of the ministry for Youth For Christ. I got to know him through that, specifically the Bethany campus. He did a lot to help kids through it,” Hill said. “When we were setting up the conference and I was thinking of entrepreneurs that kind of pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, Brent’s story came to mind, how he had started pretty much homeless at that point, living with his parents, and had worked really hard selling burgers in front of a Walmart and how inspirational that was to entrepreneurs.”

Hill called Swadley “a perfect fit” for his Navigate Conference series, which Hill said he stopped during the pandemic but may try to relaunch next year.

“He really was a perfect fit, so I asked him to come and speak. I’ve always appreciated his hard work ethic and what he’s done for the communities that Swadley’s is in and also what he has done for Oklahoma overall,” Hill said. “I just think it’s a great story of how someone triumphed from really rough, adverse odds to being the largest caterer in the state.”