When it comes to American food, barbecue is a notoriously controversial subject.

Regional variations clash with local points of pride, meaning that as barbecue concepts expand into small chains, moving from the regional to the national stage, they meet resistance from consumers who have different visions of what barbecue should be.

But in recent years, several concepts have sprouted in regions without strong traditions of barbecue, defined as cooking with smoke.

Nation’s Restaurant News takes a look at how these restaurants are breaking the mold as they attempt to establish their brands.

Mission Barbecue

Mission Barbecue's BBQ brisket with friers and baked beans

Bill Kraus and Steve Newton opened the first Mission Barbecue in the Baltimore area on Sept. 11, 2011, with a mission of honoring military members and first responders. 

“Ten years after the world changed, we decided in some small way we were going to try to change it back and make it a better place,” said Kraus. “We don’t think there’s anything more American than barbecue, and ultimately nobody more American than these folks who protect, serve and save us all, be they soldiers, firemen, policemen — we think it’s America’s food for America’s heroes.”

A hallmark of that mission is the American Heroes Cup, which the four-unit chain sells for $3.99, donating $2 to the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides aid to physically and emotionally injured veterans. Each unit also supports local police, fire and first responder charities, as well as the USO, Toys for Tots and the Honor Flight Network. At noon each day, the restaurant pauses and the staff salutes the American flag and sings the National Anthem. Additionally, all veterans eat for free on Veterans Day.

The menu, directed by Newton, is inspired by a variety of techniques from across the country. North Carolina inspires the pulled pork; the smoked turkey is derived from what Newton sampled at Roy Bean’s Bar-B-Que outside Nashville, Tenn.; and  the smoked brisket is cooked Texas-style.

Newton created the chain’s seven sauces, ranging from a Kansas City style to a mayonnaise-based horseradish sauce he sampled at Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Decatur, Ala. Others are derived from Newton’s imagination, such as Tupelo Honey Heat, made with honey and habanero and chipotle peppers — hot and sticky like a Mississippi summer — and Bay-B-Que, a Baltimore-inspired flavor made with Old Bay seasoning.

Smoked chicken, chopped brisket mixed with molasses-based Memphis Belle sauce, and two types of ribs are also available, along with a dinner “black plate special” that includes smoked prime rib, smoked meatloaf or smoked pork chops.

The service style is typical of the fast-casual format. Guests order and pay at a counter, and the meat is cut to order and served to guests on a metal tray with butcher paper. The average check is around $10 at lunch and $12 at dinner. Service time is around two minutes.

Baltimore is not a traditional hotbed for barbecue, and Mission doesn’t pay homage to any particular regional style, but business is good. Kraus said the first location, now two years old, is on track to have annual sales of around $3.5 million. 

Mission Barbecue recently opened a fourth location in Baltimore proper. Its older locations are in the Baltimore suburbs of Glen Burnie, Perry Hall and California, Md.

A fifth location is scheduled to open in November in York, Pa., and future restaurants are slated for Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Kraus and Newton plan to open 40 restaurants by 2018, all company-owned.

“There’s a lot of running room in this category,” Kraus said.