A long-time regional favorite of the rural South, barbecue is crossing cultural boundaries to become mainstream and mighty sophisticated.
So a Canadian moves “south” to Minnesota and decides to open a Texas-style barbecue restaurant during a major recession.
It may sound like the start of a joke, but Dickey's Barbecue Pit in Maple Grove, MN, is defying the odds and the economy, and that's no laughing matter.
As the air fills with the smoky aroma of beef and pork cooking on a wood fire, noses often lead people into this fast-casual restaurant, located in a bustling suburban shopping area.
Despite opening in 2009 — a year when restaurant businesses were failing left and right — business is going well for franchise owners Jason and Jessica Stewart. Jason says sales have trended upward since the start of 2010, and he expects the line of customers to trail out the door this summer.
“People have grasped the fast-casual barbecue concept here, and they absolutely love it,” Stewart says.
With 110 stores in 27 states, the Dickey's barbecue chain is rapidly expanding to new territories. The Twin Cities is one of the fastest-growing markets for the Texas-based chain. Six additional stores are scheduled to open soon in that market.
Bigger than Texas
Barbecue has long been a regional comfort food south of the Mason-Dixon Line. For decades, folks in the South have been frequenting barbecue joints, smoking meats in their backyards, and concocting secret recipes for dry rubs and barbecue sauces. The barbecue flavors and techniques are quite varied, and folks love to argue about them.
Basted with a sauce, barbecue is an especially sticky, umami-rich, crave-creating comfort food that most folks are willing to wear on their shirts. Plus, it works conveniently as a carryout meal. So it's no surprise that barbecue's appeal has grown bigger than Texas itself.
During the last 10 years, many folks living outside the traditional “barbecue belt” have become better educated on how to barbecue and even how to adapt smoking techniques to their local climate. Credit for this goes to the promotional efforts of various barbecue associations, cooking and grilling TV shows, grilling guru Steve Raichlen's cookbooks, travel to the South and West, and online recipe sites.
And Dickey's Barbecue Pit is further proof that the culinary method is crossing cultural boundaries to become firmly established nationwide.
Chopped brisket is the most popular beef item on Dickey's menu. National and Swift supply the briskets, and Sysco Foods distributes them to the franchises.
The food is affordable, and like traditional barbecue joints, restaurants smoke the meat low and slow on site. The food is served in a sleek, family-friendly setting, and it's served fast. Customers typically receive their food within four minutes of placing an order.
But, the fast-casual, suburban market isn't the only good spot for smoke and meat to rendezvous. On both coasts and in the Midwest, barbecue is becoming a sophisticated urban trend with a rustic twist. It is infiltrating menus everywhere, according to Flavor & The Menu, which named “sophisticated barbecue” as one of its top 10 flavor trends for 2009.
Likewise, in its top 20 menu trends for 2010, Restaurants & Institutions magazine lists homey favorites — like beef brisket, pot roast and stew — as the number-one menu trend because they spotlight affordable cuts for comfort-minded and value-minded diners.
Restaurants & Institutions' number-16 menu trend is smoking with fruitwoods, mesquite and hickory. Chefs are attracted to the culinary method because it adds flavor without adding fat or sodium.
“America's palate is more defined,” says Dave Zino, Executive Chef of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and director of the checkoff-funded Beef and Veal Culinary Center. “Just because it's a regional treat in Texas, doesn't mean you can't have barbecue in New York City, too.”
And sure enough, in the middle of Manhattan between 6th Avenue and Broadway, a Texas-style restaurant with paper towels on the tables and dinner served on butcher paper is what you'll find. Hill Country Barbecue Market even has the brisket shipped in from a meat market in Lockhart, TX.
And Hill Country isn't the only one. Sophisticated barbecue restaurants like Wildwood Barbeque in New York City and Fatty 'Cue in Brooklyn also serve up smoked meat to urban diners on the East Coast.
In Chicago, barbecue is the star of the show at Smoque, a “fine barbecue establishment.” There's also Smoke Daddy in a popular Chicago neighborhood. And according to Zino, the best barbecue beef back ribs he's ever eaten are served at Bandera on Michigan Avenue, near his office.
On the West Coast, BarBersQ in Napa, CA, serves brisket from Oregon's Painted Hills Natural Beef, and Armadillo Willy's Barbecue has nine locations serving “18-hour Texas brisket” across California.
Unlike traditional barbecue joints down South, many of these upscale restaurants add urban amenities — like cocktails, wine lists and dessert menus. They offer polished service, stylish decor and a diner-friendly atmosphere.
Man vs. fire
For chefs, smoking meat on a wood-fire smoker for 18 hours creates some inherent challenges. They need to pair the right smoking equipment with the right balance of time, labor and quality ingredients.
“The whole nature of barbecue is that the guys who are doing it know how to do it,” Zino says. And to do it right, it's a long, slow cooking process.
However, he says new technology is the chef's friend. Smokers that use minimal wood and emit minimal smoke are now available. Another option is cold smoking, which gives the meat the smoked flavor but doesn't cook the meat. Chefs can combine that with grilling to achieve tasty results.
Another option is to select a food manufacturer to handle the cooking and smoking process and then send the product to the restaurant to be finished.
“For some folks, doing it the low and slow way is great,” Zino says. “But other folks don't have the labor or the capital investment to put into smoking equipment. Working with a food manufacturer could save them labor and food costs, and it still allows them to be competitive in the barbecue marketplace.”
Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.
Did you know?
Just so you know, not just any meat you cook in the backyard or baste with barbecue sauce qualifies as real barbecue.
According to the National Barbecue Association and the Code of Federal Regulations, meat that qualifies as barbecued is cooked with indirect heat and smoke resulting from the burning of hardwood or the hot coals of burning wood for a sufficient period. The characteristics of a barbecued article include the formation of a brown crust on the surface as well as the rendering of surface fat. Basting the meat with a sauce is optional — at least for some folks — and the weight of the barbecued meat can't exceed 70% of the weight of the fresh uncooked meat.
Grilling, by the way, is cooking food hot and fast, usually on a gas or charcoal grill.
Sauce is “hot”
Another leading indicator of barbecue's widespread appeal is sales of barbecue sauce, which beef consumers rank second only to cheese as a beef flavor booster.
One award-winning regional favorite is Head Country Barbecue Sauce. Every day, 5,500 gals. of the sauce are manufactured in Ponca City, OK, and it accounts for 65% of the retail barbecue sauce market in Oklahoma. Head Country has more than 20,000 customers nationwide through www.headcountry.com.
Last year, Head Country's sales were up 8% over the previous year, and food trends indicate sales of barbecue sauce should continue to increase.
Paul Schatte, co-owner and general manager, who has 20 years of experience in the competition barbecue circuit, reinforces his company's Internet sales with online recipes and an interactive “Ask the Expert” feature. Consumers can submit specific how-to questions at www.headcountry.com, and Schatte responds, sharing his barbecuing expertise.
According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), online resources for cooking expertise are becoming increasingly valuable as most consumers lack the skills to select and prepare meat well.
And Schatte has a heart for helping backyard chefs in particular.
“I want them to be successful and to enjoy what they are putting on the plate for their family and friends,” he says.
Entertaining family and friends by barbecuing or grilling in the backyard is growing more prevalent as consumers choose to stay home more and eat fewer meals at restaurants.
And with home cooking as a top trend, the market for barbecue sauces and rubs is enlarging. According to IFT, the most “culinary-aware and restaurant-spoiled” generation of consumers is searching for sauces, rubs and other convenience products to help them prepare restaurant-quality meals at home.