Bobby Egan strides across Cubby's like he owns the place. And guess what? He does. A big, burly guy with a barrel chest, a more-than-passing resemblance to Robert De Niro and one hell of a history as a self-appointed ambassador to North Korea, Egan surveys the weekday lunchtime crowd in his Hackensack barbecue joint and smiles at what he sees around him: nearly every table filled and people of all ages and races chowing down on ribs, fries and burgers.
"It's a great feeling," Egan says as he settles into a booth to chat. "It's been a lot of hard work. We're talking 30 years of working in the same place. In between my overseas work, this was my bread and butter. I've always said that I've depended on Cubby's to provide my livelihood. The nature of what I did overseas was troubling at times, but it certainly afforded me the opportunity to make money in other ways. And I decided against that. I felt it was best to earn an honest living. This way I could be more free-minded as to what direction I took overseas."
"Certainly, this was the harder way to go," he says. "Trust me, it'd be a lot easier for me selling weapons overseas with the contacts that I had than flipping burgers. I could sell one rocket launcher and make a lot more money. It takes a lot of burgers to make up for what I could make doing that. But I decided to stay out of that."
What Egan did was spend nearly 14 years, starting in the early '90s, advising the North Korean government in its effort to establish better relations with the United States. Egan – a Jersey kid of Irish-Italian descent – also operated as an unofficial ambassador for the United States government and other interests, including, occasionally, his own.
Of course, he didn't plan any of it.
After some dalliances with drugs and a few run-ins with the law, the self-described "knock-around guy" headed overseas, to Vietnam and North Korea, hoping to locate and gain the freedom of POWs. Then, as he puts it, "it became more than that."
He spent time in North Korea, forged bonds with the secretive, distrusting regime and, back in Hackensack, operated Cubby's, often inviting North Korean officials – including Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Han Song Ryol – to break bread with him there. Photos of Egan with Han and other North Korean figures adorn the walls of Cubby's.
Egan explains that he came to understand the North Koreans, that he humanized the enemy, and that in the end they becameÉpeople. His work, he asserts, resulted in millions of dollars worth of food aid and medicine reaching those in need in the region and paved the way for further humanitarian endeavors. Further, he says, even with the complications (and opportunities) resulting from the death of Kim Jong-Il, he believes his work paid dividends in a "much better understanding" between North Korea and the United States.
"For 14 years, I was the houseboy at the North Korean mission," Egan says. "I took care of their daily needs in the mission to the U.N. They didn't know how to run their mission in the West, so I ran their mission for them. It opened them up and it opened us up to them. Because it's such a secretive regime and they had so little contact with the West, not just the United States, there were a lot of misconceptions about what we were about and what our intentions were toward them, and likewise. They were so secretive that we had no idea what their intentions were toward us. I opened that up.
"That's what I believe my greatest work was," he says. "That I developed a dialogue between the United States government and their government."
How is that dialogue and those relations today?
"They're better than what they were," insists Egan, who, with Kurt Pitzer, chronicled his adventures in the 2010 bookEating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack.
"Certainly we know that there's no conflict," he adds. "You've got two of the largest armies in the world, the United States and the North Koreans, in a region where China and Russia border the North Koreans. South Korea buffers the Pacific Rim, Japan and our other allies in that Rim from North Korea. China and Russia are our two largest economic rivals, which you could say would be on the North Korean side, and since the 1970s, we've had no U.S. GIs lost on the most fortified border in the world.
"It's a tense situation, obviously, but I think it's blown out to be a lot more than it is," he says. "But, certainly, there are mechanisms in place, diplomatic mechanisms, that when there is a crisis, they start the wheels turning and these issues have been resolved. Everyone knows that the answer is not war, because that would serve nobody."
Egan no longer advises anyone. That, he says, is in the past. However, he won't deny that he misses it.
"But I'm getting older," Egan says. "I'm 55 now. I just had a new baby. She's my new passion, along with my other daughters that I raise. I have all girls. I have three, and the woman that I'm with, she has two from a previous marriage. So that's five. I have my plate full. I don't have the energy I had when I was younger.
"Do I miss it?" he says. "Sure. I miss the people. I miss the action. But, more important, I miss the relationships that I had with Ambassador Han and Ambassador Ho Jong. These guys became buddies of mine. But like with the mob, if you have no interest with them, it's better to stay away from them. It's similar with the North Koreans. These are very, very dangerous people. These aren't your everyday, average people who aren't involved with some kind of shady thing. This is a military regime. It's a dictatorship, and it's very, very repressive, from the inside out."
Egan chats for a while longer about his exploits of yore and the state of the world today. He reveals that he recently read a rewrite of the script for a proposed HBO movie – to be produced by Robert De Niro, with Westwood native James Gandolfini still attached to play Egan – based onEating with the Enemy.
When asked what he'd recommend as the conversation draws to a close, Egan leans forward and, in his capacity as the official ambassador of Cubby's, heartily replies, "We specialize in ribs, barbecue.
"We're not a smokehouse," he says. "We don't smoke. The only thing I do smoke is the pork. We slow cook the ribs. Baby back ribs are imported from Denmark. I believe in the Free Trade Agreement. There are certain products that are worth getting from other countries and bringing into this country. Nobody does ribs like the Danish. All of our beef is from the Midwest, certified Black Angus beef. Pulled pork is our biggest sandwich. We've got a butcher in-house who trims everything for us. All of my cooks, I've trained them myself over the years. Really, please come back with the family. They'll love it."