Sixty-two percent of nearly 1,600 chefs surveyed for the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast named barbecue a perennial favorite in 2016, making it one of the top three leading perennial favorites in restaurants.

“With barbecue a ubiquitous food and flavor, it’s interesting in itself that the platform is still seeing relevant growth in restaurants,” says Jennifer Aranas, project director at Datassential, Chicago.

While fire and meat have been together since caveman days, the barbecue trend has seen a big jump in interest, which is great for the meat industry in general, says Kent Rollins of Red River Ranch Chuck Wagon Catering and author of the book  “A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales from the Trail.” “Take for instance brisket, which used to be considered a cheaper cut of meat that wasn’t utilized as often,” he says. “Now with the rise in barbecue, brisket is one of the most popular meats to barbecue.”

Barbecue also has brought a bigger awareness toward meat in terms of the different cuts and methods of preparing it, such as smoking and grilling. “Americans in general have always had a palate for meat, but now we are able to get a bigger variety of flavor through different smoke, spices sauces, etc.,” Rollins says.

Linda Orrison, president of the National Barbecue Association (NBBQA), in Naperville, Ill., thinks one of the hottest trends today is the transparency consumers seek from farm to fork. “Building that bridge between the grower’s passion and the pit master’s expertise, I believe that’s one of the trends that’s making barbecue white hot today in America,” she says.

Tamala Fowler, vice president of purchasing, R&D and retail sales for Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc., in Dallas, agrees that guests have a lot of interest in sustainability and knowing where their food comes from, particularly with their proteins. “Guests want to know if we know where our protein came from and what kind of attributes we can claim about our proteins,” she says. 

The definition of barbecue also has greatly expanded during the past few years to go beyond what many people have thought about barbecue as being smoked in heat low and slow.

“What’s happened today is it’s being more inclusive as a terminology,” Orrison says. “One of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry today is the installation of open-fire cooking. And in terms of proteins prepared on them, they are considered barbecued. People’s palates are going for the rich smoky flavor and going for that open flame. It’s kind of taking a step back in time, and classically trained chefs are fascinated with barbecue today.”

Heating up restaurants

Consumers’ most loved barbecue proteins are in line with what restaurants are putting on their menus, primarily chicken and pork (ribs or pulled pork) and to a lesser degree beef in burgers, brisket and ribs, Datassential finds. Restaurants also are offering more seafood options in barbecue applications, including salmon and other fish, which show double-digit menu penetration growth over the past year. (Datassential’s growth figures reflect menu penetration growth of these items within restaurants that have barbecue menu items. It’s important to note that it doesn’t necessarily reflect preparation in the traditional American regional barbecue styles, such as slow-cooked over coals or smoked, but may include barbecue sauced foods.)

Beef is seeing strong growth, particularly in short ribs, which have grown in menu penetration by 83 percent since 2010, Datassential reports. “Beef ribs are a popular cut featured in trending global barbecue popularized by Korean and Chinese cuisines,” Aranas says. However, non-Asian restaurants are featuring the cut in dishes such as Short Rib Mac & Cheese at Café Dufrain, Sriracha Maple Barbecue Buffalo Short Ribs at Lodo’s Bar & Grill and Rum-Glazed Barbecue Spare Ribs at Sounds of Brazil.

Duck also is seeing growth. While Asian restaurants have traditionally been the primary vehicle for barbecue duck, the protein is appearing in non-Asian restaurants such as Moulard Duck Breast Barbecue at Aquitaine, Barbecued Duck Nachos at Black’s Bar & Kitchen and Duck Tenders in Raspberry Barbecue Sauce at Country House.

While pork is a barbecue cornerstone, operators are using “pig” as a menu descriptor to call out whole-roasted applications and unique offerings like the Pig Stix at Brubaker’s Pub, which features meaty pork “wings” covered in barbecue sauce and the smaller pig shank offering a unique cut for meaty finger-food, Aranas says. “With pork belly a cut growing in popularity within foodservice overall not just within barbecue, I can see it becoming more widely available within retail outlets,” she adds.

Barbecue poultry and pork are profiting from the rises in beef prices as well, according to Chicago-based Technomic Inc.’s 2015 Centre of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report. Leading restaurants — quick service restaurants in particular — are turning out innovative, ethnic and barbecued pork and chicken dishes as a replacement to beef, for which prices are at an all-time high, it reports. Brian Hipsher, vice president of marketing for City Barbeque Inc., in Dublin, Ohio, agrees that increases in beef costs have many restaurants promoting more pork and poultry products to offset beef cost increases. 

Flavorful barbecued pork preparations, ethnic barbecue fare and cured pork, particularly bacon and prosciutto, are trending in restaurants, Technomic reports. The research firm projects as operators replace beef dishes with pork for cost reasons, they will try to warm customers to pork dishes by using new names for pork cuts that are commonly used for beef cuts. Names including rib-eye chops, New York chops and pork porterhouse chop are currently being used for retail pork cuts, but Technomic expects them to appear on restaurant menus in the future.

With no relief expected in beef prices until 2017, Technomic’s 2015 Centre of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report projects that more operators will impart flavor to tougher, value beef cuts though preparation methods like slow roasting and through ethnically inspired rubs and sauces. Operators will include more value front-end beef cuts on the menu in the interim, including chuck, brisket and short ribs, along with shank, shin and cheek, the research firm says. Braises will range from smoked chipotle to coffee to chocolate, and new ethnically inspired dry tubs and paste rubs will also emerge.

City Barbeque’s Hipsher agrees that creative approaches to mix up the normal barbecue staples have grown in popularity. “The recent introduction of our More Cowbell sandwich — which consists of brisket, sautéed green peppers and onions, melted provolone, crispy onions, and horseradish between two pieces of Texas toast — blew our guests away and became a national award-winning sandwich,” he says as an example. “People are looking for new spins on the classics, but at the same time doing the classics right are what the hardcore fans of real barbecue seek.”

For City Barbeque, even with price increases, brisket has continued to grow. “Once you have had a great tasting brisket, it is hard to switch back to what you may have tried before,” Hipsher says. 

One of Dickey’s Barbecue’s fastest growing meats is sausage. Several years ago the company developed its own recipe for a spicy cheddar and jalapeño sausage. “We’ve seen the popularity of that dish grow so significantly in our restaurants over a number of years that we’re actually launching it in a retail product,” Fowler says.

Technomic also predicts that shredded slow-cooked meats will be used in egg rolls, quesadillas, poutine and barbecue sandwiches along with more items. Technomic says operators can differentiate slow-cooked beef cuts with signature, house-made barbecue sauces or dry rubs. Restaurants should also consider promoting the amount of time the meats were braised, smoked or otherwise cooked to enhance their quality perception and justify higher price points, the research firm says.

 “More Americans are being exposed to good, smoked on-site barbeque, and once you have had the good stuff, you just can’t go back to something someone made in the crockpot or something that was reheated from a central commissary,” City Barbeque’s Hipsher says. “Americans are picking up on the lingo. Low and slow means something to them, and they know that bark on a brisket is not burnt meat — it’s delicious.”

Technomic’s 2015 Centre of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report also projects that barbecued and smoked turkey will gain momentum. Turkey will become a better-for you protein alternative to barbecued beef and pork on restaurant menus — available during the holiday season and summer barbecue season alike, it says. Consumers’ preference for barbecued turkey is largely driven by women, likely due to its healthful positioning; 47 percent of women verses 34 percent of men say they would be likely to order barbecued turkey for lunch or dinner, the research firms says. Further, more consumers now (35 percent) than in 2013 (23 percent) say they prefer smoked turkey preparations for lunch. While most turkey offerings are menued in fall and winter, expect more smoked and barbecued turkey to differentiate spring and summer menus, Technomic says. The research firm expects barbecued turkey will feature bold, spicy rubs and seasonings from Cajun to adobo.

“Chicken and turkey are on the rise as people try to eat a little more healthily, particularly people who visit us a little more frequently and might not need to be so indulgent on their everyday meals really lean toward our chicken and turkey,” Dickey’s Barbecue’s Fowler says.

Flavor forward

Dickey’s Barbecue also sees interest in spice growing, with a lot of variations in sauces, including trendy flavors such as sriracha.

“People’s taste buds are getting a little more accustomed to spicier food,” Fowler says. “That’s probably one of the reasons why they are looking to barbecue.”

As far as barbecue styles, Missouri-style barbecue, with its thick, sweet, tomato-and-molasses-based sauce, is the American barbecue standard and the style most loved by 32 percent of barbecue consumers, Datassential reports. Beef-centric Texas barbecue follows closely as being well-loved and is indicated more often as a restaurant menu call-out than other regional style.

“The growing popularity of Texas-style barbecue may help advance authentic Mexican barbacoa, an Eastern Texas specialty, through non-Mexican restaurants,” Datassential’s Aranas says.

Nationally, Americans are seeing more interesting chef-inspired sides and combinations coming out of parts of the country that may not have been as well known for barbecue, City Barbeque’s Hipsher says. 

“While Texas, Carolina, Kansas City and Memphis have been famous for years, there are many new places on the map that are very interesting, including California, New York and also Columbus, Ohio,” he says. “We are seeing more creative techniques coming from these newer areas. Barbecue is America’s food, so it makes sense that we are all experimenting with making some great smoked meats.”

As the country has embraced barbecue as a cooking technique, Fowler finds all of the styles gaining in popularity and the old myths that people in the Carolinas only like a mustard base or people in Kansas City only like vinegar aren’t true. “People like great food,” she says. “They like to enjoy more than one style of barbecue.”

While it used to be one would need to go to North Carolina to get North Carolina barbecue, that is not the case today. “What have exploded on the barbecue scene are all these regional barbecues, such as the Carolinas, Kansas City and Memphis, along with their regional spices, wood flavors, sauces and techniques are now transcending all boundaries,” NBBQA’s Orrison says. “The all-American regional flavor profiles are growing in popularity and being sought out specifically, so our regional barbecue has expanded throughout the country and throughout the world.”

Orrison adds that American barbecue has been moving overseas and embraced in ethnic cuisines, including Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, French and Italian. American barbecue also can now be found in Korea, Paris and London, she says. In addition, organizations such as the Kansas City Barbecue Society are now sanctioning and holding contests internationally.

In terms of international trends domestically, Korean barbecue has been trending highly in restaurants since 2010, Datassential finds. “It’s important to keep in mind, however, that menu penetration is still low at only 2 percent of restaurant entrée menus, and only 20 percent of familiar consumers indicated they love Korean barbecue,” Aranas says.

Consumer interest in other ethnic barbecue styles isn’t overwhelming either, she adds; however, Jamaican jerk, Hawaiian barbecue flavors and Latin varieties such as lechon, South American asado and churrasco show moderate consumer appeal.

Barbecuing at home

One of the biggest trends that Dickey’s Barbecue has noticed is how more people now are interested in barbecuing at home. “People are really embracing nice, almost professional quality smokers and having them built into their backyard kitchens,” Fowler says. She adds the development of using high-quality wood pellets verses wood chips also has helped increase popularity because they are cleaner and easier to maintain.

In the competition barbecue world, television is driving trends. “Shows like ‘BBQ Pitmasters’ has really created more awareness of barbecue and got more people to not only try it but to start making it themselves,” says Dan Hixon, pitmaster and president of 3 Eyz BBQ LLC, in Owings, Md.

He also sees less interest in the classic “low and slow” approach and more people cooking “hot and fast,” as in traditional barbecue cooked in a faster manner. In addition, the pitmaster notes a growing trend is for premium beef brisket.

“More and more, people are moving away from that choice grade brisket and cooking prime and Wagyu beef,” Hixon says. “As the price of beef rises, the gap for that premium cut isn’t rising at the same pace. So, barbecue competitors at least would rather pay $130 plus for a ‘quality’ cut of meat, than $70 for a commodity cut of beef. And let me tell you, the finished product is amazing.”

At home, more barbecue consumers use a barbecue sauce to flavor proteins versus cooking in a traditional, slow-smoked preparation method, Datassential’s Aranas says. “At home, barbecue sauces are an area for innovation,” she says. “From a retail standpoint, availability of value-added, traditionally prepared smoked cuts — brisket, butt, ribs, etc. — might appeal to consumers who want convenient, authentic barbecue at home without the prep time.”

Targeting consumers who are looking for a convenient and simple way to enjoy barbecue meals, Smithfield Foods, in Kansas City, Mo., offers several pre-seasoned products. The company recently launched a line of regionally inspired Dry Seasoned Ribs, available in four varieties.

“Smithfield Dry Seasoned Ribs deliver the essence of an authentic restaurant-quality meal with the convenience of making them right in your own home,” says Dedra Berg, senior director of marketing at Smithfield Foods. “These pit-master-perfected slabs come conveniently pre-seasoned with a Carolina, Memphis or Kansas City style barbecue seasoning or for consumers that enjoy a little more heat, we also offer a Southwest Style Peppercorn.”

Southern, Carolina, Memphis and Texas styles continue to gain ground, she says, but Kansas City style remains the most offered barbecue variety. “Kansas City style is characterized by pork as the primary protein, especially spare ribs or pulled pork, and a sauce that’s thick, clingy, sweet and smoky,” Berg says.

Pork also continues to be one of the most popular ingredients with barbecue flavor because of its ability to carry flavor and the fact it lends itself nicely to highlighting great sauces and seasonings, she says.

While pork products continue to drive the most volume, Eric. J. Jacobson, brand manager of meat products at Hormel Foods, in Austin, Minn., is seeing a lot of new poultry products in the retail market. “New consumers are coming into the category and are looking for products that are similar to what they can get at barbecue restaurants,” he says.

With chicken and poultry items growing, Hormel has several poultry-based items in its Lloyd’s Barbeque tubs offerings such as Lloyd’s Seasoned & Shredded Turkey in Original BBQ Sauce and Lloyd’s Seasoned & Shredded Chicken in Original BBQ Sauce. “Our goal is to ensure that if people are looking to go beyond the traditional pork and beef items, that we have a product for them,” Jacobson says.

Last year, Lloyd’s Barbeque launched three sauceless items: Flame-seared Baby Back Ribs with dry rub seasoning, Hardwood Smoked Pulled Pork and Hardwood Smoked Beef Brisket.

“These products target the passionate barbecue consumer who want the quality of authentic, competition-style barbecue products, but do not have the time or equipment to create at home,” Jacobson says. “Without sauce on these products, we enable the consumer to choose their preferred sauce and tailor the flavor to exactly what they like.”

From everyday pulled meats to the special-occasion ribs and meats, Hormel’s Jacobson sees consumers continuing to be very passionate about barbecue. “Consumers’ demand for products that are prepared with authentic barbecue methods will be leading the innovation in the category — wood-smoked and flame-seared methods,” he says.

Smithfield expects to see continued growth of consumer interest in not only barbecue consumption but also preparation. “Cooking shows in general continue to grow in popularity, specifically grilling focused shows like ‘BBQ Pitmasters’ as consumer interest in barbecue and grilling are at an all-time high,” Berg says. 

Moving forward within foodservice, unique sauces and rubs are certainly an area for ideation. “As ethnic barbecue becomes more popular, unique beef and pork cuts or non-beef meats, including lamb and goat, may be menu differentiators,” Datassential’s Aranas says.

In addition, while the low and slow method of barbecue doesn’t necessarily work best with seafood, smoky flavors are a consumer favorite and pair well with seafood, she adds. 

As barbecue becomes more popular, City Barbeque’s Hipsher projects the expense of some cuts of meat will continue to be an issue. “When you have companies like Arby’s and Wendy’s offering massive amounts of pork or brisket, it has some impact on meat costs,” he says.

At home or in restaurants, doing barbecue right takes a commitment to excellence. “The exciting thing is more folks are experiencing great barbecue, and as they do, they become raving fans of the craft,” Hipsher says.  NP