Brookwood Farms is one of the only meat processors in the country that measures its cooking capacity by the yard instead of by the pound. All total, the company has 900 yards worth of pit space in its Siler City, N.C. headquarters. Those pits are where beef, pork and chicken are turned into some of the most sought-after barbecue in the country.
Each afternoon, the company’s pitmasters light charcoal briquettes. After they have reached just the right temperature, the briquettes are loaded into specialty, stainless-steel clad ceramic pits, and the meat is placed onto the grills, where it will cook for the next 14 to 16 hours. The pitmasters will monitor the cooking process throughout, ensuring that a uniform temperature is being reached. The meat is chopped or pulled, sauced and packaged the next morning. It is painstaking and labor intensive work, but the Wood family, founders of Brookwood Farms, has never compromised on quality.
It took a few years to learn the secrets of producing quality barbecue. The Wood family had been involved in the meat industry since the 1940s, working on everything from frankfurters and bologna to country ham. Jerry “Bubba” Wood and his sons, Jerry “Twig” and Craig Wood, started the company in 1978, and for the first four years, they produced their barbecue products in much the same way that they had made their franks and bologna – with a smokehouse.
“My brother got out of school and went to Georgia to look at restaurants,” Twig explains. “A guy took him in down in Augusta and taught him how to pit cook. He came back, we built the first pits in 1982, and we’ve been doing it right ever since.”
Brookwood Farms has been reaping the rewards of its old-school processes. Wood says that the company has been growing by an average of 10 percent per year for the last 15 years. Its territory has expanded well beyond its North Carolina home, from California to Pennsylvania, and its facility has expanded twice within the last five years to add more cooking capacity.
“If we expand, we have to add more pits. We can’t add a shift,” Wood explains.
Brookwood Farms reaches the retail and the foodservice industry, selling both to barbecue-specific restaurants as well as those restaurants that are looking to add a barbecue entrée to their menus. While it is a nationwide processor, its North Carolina home is still its biggest market.
“Our biggest seller is the vinegar-based, which is really popular in our core market,” Wood says. The fastest-growing item that we have is our cooked brisket. We’re selling that all over the country.”
Barbecue is popular across the country, but it has its pockets where it’s more than just a food – it’s practically a way of life. Georgia, Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas and Texas are just a few areas where barbecue reigns supreme, and those devotees are passionate about their regional specialties. To break into those markets, Brookwood Farms has had to adapt its products to satisfy every taste profile. It now makes six different types of sauces in-house, Wood says.
“It would be hard to be a North Carolina company and sell nationwide and say, ‘You’re going to buy my North Carolina-style barbecue,’” he explains. “We have a vinegar-based sauce, a mustard-based sauce for the Piedmont/Columbia area of South Carolina that’s very popular there. We go west with a Texas-style sauce and a Memphis-based sauce.”
Everything that Brookwood Farms produces is fully cooked, so consumers and restaurant employees alike have an easy time to prepare it. The meat is delivered to foodservice customers in rollstock packages and can be boiled or steam-cooked in the package or cooked on a stovetop. The meat comes pre-sauced, and the company takes care to ensure that protein and sauce are well-mixed before getting to the packaging step. Pulled pork that, as an example, is placed into a package with a squirt of barbecue sauce on top leads to an inferior product, and one that’s not as safe.
“To me, you don’t get the marination, you don’t get the protection that sauce offers. The pH level in the sauce is what really protects the product and gives it shelf life,” Wood says.
Along with retail and foodservice, Brookwood Farms has also added airport kiosks to its distribution channels. Working with a third party, Brookwood supplies the signage and the meat for these kiosks, which can be found in airports in North Carolina, as well as a new location at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Wood credits the Food Network and the Cooking Channel for helping to spread the appeal of barbecue from its regional bases to the rest of the country. He also acknowledges the importance of restaurant chains like Arby’s, which has brought slow-cooked brisket to its menu.
“We just say keep featuring it and keep sharing, because it brings awareness to the BBQ category,” he says.
Images courtesy of Brookwood Farms.