Pulled pork sandwich from Dickey's Barbecue Pit.

By most accounts, Americans love barbecue, and restaurants are aiming to fulfill that desire.

Sixty-three percent of chains tracked by research firm Technomic’s MenuMonitor used the word “barbecue” on their menus. But what exactly is barbecue?

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A Kansas City man’s luscious plate of sauce-smothered beef served on a slice of white bread might strike a South Carolinian as a sickeningly sweet plate of barbarism. On the other hand, the mustard-and-vinegar-based smoked pork butt from South Carolina would be an affront to a Texan who, when invited to a barbecue, would expect slow-smoked beef brisket.

The often-quoted Australian exhortation to “throw a shrimp on the barbie,” would outrage American barbecue scholars — oh yes, they exist — who, despite regional differences, would insist that for something to be called barbecue it must be slowly cooked by the heat of smoke, not by the radiant heat of coals under a grill.

But others are fine calling anything with a somewhat sweet sauce on it “barbecue,” and millions of Americans will throw “barbecues” of their own over this long Independence Day weekend. Most of them, according to a recent Zagat survey of home barbecue habits, will grill hamburgers or steak. Chances are they will be cooked by flame rather than smoke, and not necessarily smothered in sauce of any kind.

The highly regional and idiosyncratic nature of barbecue might be why it remains a challenge for barbecue chains to succeed nationally, although Famous Dave’s may eventually show everyone else how it’s done. Or maybe Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, with its recent rapid expansion, has cracked the code.

Take a look at some of the nation’s leading barbecue chains and what makes them tick:

Famous Dave's

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Despite faltering sales this year, the Minneapolis-based, 188-unit casual-dining chain still lays claim as the nation’s most established barbecue chain. Founded by barbecue champion Dave Anderson, who built his reputation on ribs, Famous Dave’s offers a smattering of regional dishes, such as Georgia chopped pork, Texas beef brisket and burnt ends, St. Louis-style and baby-back ribs, and hot-link sausage, as well as cedar-plank salmon with pineapple barbecue glaze. Many of those meats are also available in tortilla shells as “urban tacos.”

Famous Dave’s chief executive John Gilbert stands in front of the brand’s BBQ Shack.

In 2011, Famous Dave’s started experimenting with Famous Dave’s BBQ Shack, a new fast-casual concept that the company hoped would appeal to consumers on the go. Its smaller footprint would also allow it to open in shopping malls and other locations unsuitable for the full-service restaurant.

The first Famous Dave’s BBQ Shack opened in Eden Prairie, Minn. Since then, units have opened in Oregon, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

This Dallas-based restaurant was founded in 1941 but didn’t start franchising until 1995. Moving slowly at first, Dickey’s opened 66 new restaurants in 2011, bringing it to 203 units. Today it operates 311 restaurants in 39 states.

The fast-casual concept’s signature menu items are brisket and pulled pork served with a sweet tomato paste-based sauce, which also accompanies its Virginia-style ham, marinated chicken breast, turkey breast, Polish sausage, spicy Cheddar sausage and pork ribs. It also offers 10 vegetables, three kinds of bread, two desserts and free ice cream.

Smokey Bones

Darden Restaurants Inc. founded this chain as Smokey Bones Barbeque in 1999 and struggled with it for eight years, even as it grew to 127 units. The company tweaked it into a more broadly defined casual-dining restaurant, but finally threw in the towel in 2007. It closed 54 restaurants and sold the rest to Sun Capital Partners Inc., which bought the chain for $80 million in 2008. Sun Capital closed seven more units, bringing Smokey Bones to 66 restaurants.

Smokey Bones' smoked prime rib.

Since then, the chain has returned to its roots somewhat, singling out its in-house smoker as a point of distinction. With the new name Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, it uses the smoker to cook ribs, brisket, pulled pork, turkey breast, smoked wings and slow-smoked spiced sausages, as well as such non-barbecue items as smoked prime rib, which it launched as a limited-time offer last year.

The chain is also working to beef up its bar program with more craft beers and made-to-order Margaritas.

Smokey Bones currently has restaurants in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Indiana, Illinois and Washington, D.C.

Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q

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Slow-smoked pork shoulder is this Birmingham, Ala.-based, 30-unit chain’s signature, although it has a broader dinner menu that includes prime rib, catfish and non-barbecue sandwiches.

The owners distinguish themselves with an uncompromising focus on freshness and community involvement, which includes working with Alabama farmers to develop their own signature breed of hog.

The company also has purchased a former emu-processing plant 30 miles outside of Birmingham and is working on re-opening it to process its own hogs.

Jim ’N Nick’s currently operates in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Colorado.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

This Syracuse, N.Y.-based chain of large-footprint restaurants with a sports-bar feel operates five locations in its home state. It most recently opened one in the up-and-coming Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood Gowanus. It also has one unit each in Stamford, Conn., and Newark, N.J.

The menu features brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork, wings, sausage and smoked chicken. The chain also non-barbecue items, such as drunken, spicy shrimp; churrasco chicken steak (called Mojito chicken steak in some upstate locations); and sweet-tea brined, smoked and grilled BBQ catfish.

Fried green tomatoes, a popular Southern side dish, are sprinkled with non-Southern Pecorino Romano cheese. The Quebecois dish poutine — French fries with cheese curds and gravy — is also on the menu.

Sauces include Creole honey mustard, garlic chipotle pepper and roasted garlic honey barbecue, as well as several varieties of hot sauce.

Old Carolina Barbecue Company

This North Canton, Ohio-based, seven-unit fast-casual chain operates on the premise that Northern Ohioans who enjoy vacationing in the Carolinas would appreciate the opportunity to have the food they enjoy in the South’s barbecue shacks closer to home.

Old Carolina Barbecue Company's signature sauce and pulled pork.

Beef brisket, chicken, pork and ribs are smoked for up to 14 hours and served with a variety of Carolina sauces, including a mild tomato-based blend of sweetness and smoke from western North Carolina; a sweet vinegar-pepper blend from eastern North Carolina; and Piedmont No. 5, which seeks to find a middle ground between the two styles. A mustard-based South Carolina-style sauce is also offered, as well as a spicy “Screamin’ Beaver” sauce and a spicier “Worst Case Scenario.”


Based in Knoxville, Tenn., this seven-unit chain, which only operates in Tennessee, says its hickory-smoked ribs are the best in the country. Its menu also includes hickory-smoked pork and chicken tenders, as well as Southern-fried catfish, chicken teriyaki, lemon chicken, barbecue-sauce basted “chicken Calhoun,” and char-grilled shrimp over rice, as well as steaks, chops and prime rib.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
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