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.
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.
4 Rivers Smokehouse
John Rivers recently opened the fifth location of 4 Rivers Smokehouse, in Gainesville, Fla., to record sales. He projects total sales of $24 million systemwide this year.
“Nothing we do is fancy, but there’s a line out the door,” said Rivers, who opened the first location in Winter Park, Fla., in 2009, using recipes he developed in his garage over the past 20 years.
He now has a second restaurant in Winter Park, as well as one in Orlando, Fla., and another in Longwood, Fla. The restaurants don’t sell alcohol, are not open on Sunday, and close by 9 p.m.
Rivers said each restaurant does 700 tickets — mostly of multiple customers — on slow Mondays and Tuesdays, and 1,200-1,400 tickets on Friday and Saturday, with an average check of around $12. The concept sells mostly sandwiches, racks of ribs and brisket. Sales are also brisk at Sweet Shop, bakeries at the front of each restaurant.
He currently employs 512 people, including a culinary and operations team.
“We actually brought human resources on, finally,” he added.
Rivers, who lived in Texas and whose wife is from there, said he was met with skepticism when he opened the brisket-focused restaurant in Orlando at a time when Smokey Bones, another Orlando-based barbecue restaurant, was failing.
Introducing Texas-style brisket to Orlando was a mission for Rivers, but his barbecue has a mixed heritage. The burnt ends are done Kansas-City-style, and he learned to make pulled pork from Alabama-based barbecueChris Lilly. He also smokes tri-tip, the triangular cut at the bottom of the sirloin that’s popular in California.
“That’s fun, bringing different regional profile flavors onto a single menu,” he said.
Rivers has no plans to franchise, but he aims to eventually operate 24 restaurants.
“No rush,” he said. “I’ve already retired once; I’m just doing this for fun.”
SlowBones Modern BBQ
Steven Kolow, who co-founded Boston Chicken in 1985, is entering the barbecue fray with SlowBones Modern BBQ, which he plans to open in late October in Burlington, Mass.
The open-kitchen, fast-casual concept will offer pulled pork, smoked brisket and chicken, as well as char-grilled shrimp burgers. Sides will range from healthful to indulgent, including honey-lemon Greek yogurt with crumbled candied walnuts, maple quinoa, spoon cornbread and better-for-you black beans. Naan bread and lettuce will be available for customers to make wraps, letting guests “honor their diet or their values for the way they eat, without sacrificing their cravings,” Kolow said.
The chickens are cage-free, the brisket is certified black Angus, and the pork is all-natural. Twelve sauces, all free of high-fructose corn syrup, will be offered.
Kolow’s vision is ambitious. He plans to build eight- to 12-unit “pods” fed by central commissaries. The first, centered around metropolitan Boston, will be fed by a commissary in Eliot, Maine. Beans and some of the meat will be cooked there, then reheated at each location. Fresh, seasonal vegetables will be cooked on-premise, as well chicken, cooked in smokers visible to the public.
Kolow said the restaurant’s layout is similar to the original Boston Chicken, only with smokers instead of rotisseries. Three cutting areas will let customers see brisket and chickens being carved.
The first unit will have 28 seats and one smoker in 1,630 square feet. Subsequent units will have two smokers in 2,200-3,000 square feet.
“I think everyone loves barbecue, and although barbecue is notoriously regionalized in the way people expect it … right now, people are just looking for great food and familiar food, presented in a way that they can honor the way they like to eat,” he said.
Opening in Boston, an area without a strong barbecue heritage, lowers the barrier to entry, he said, because potential patrons aren’t “holding on so passionately to their area’s preference.”
Kolow said he plans to run the first location for six to nine months before expanding, but he said he has partners in southern California and southern Florida with whom he plans to work to open in those areas. The California locations would be company owned; in south Florida they would be company owned or a joint venture.
“I am not a fan of franchising until it’s completely ready — systematized and refined,” Kolow said.
Update: Oct. 24, 2013 A previous version of this story has been updated with an image of 4 Rivers Smokehouse's 18-hour smoked angus brisket.