Varieties of barbecue are as varied as restaurants — we can’t even agree if it’s barbecue or BBQ — but nearly every casual-dining chain features barbecue items. Purists might associate barbecue with grilling over a hot open flame — meat seared to lock in juices and quickly cooked. Others look for smoked meats slow-cooked in moist heat. Ribs are the acid test and just about everyone — while they may not cook them — has a favorite recipe. Chains like Applebee’s and other mainstream and barbecue casual chains promote their “fall off the bone” style of ribs. Relative newcomer Weber Grill Restaurants describes its pink-hued ribs as “tear off the bone.”
Lane Schmiesing, vice president of marketing for Famous Dave’s, a chain of BBQ restaurants, claims that barbecue is everywhere. “It is the original comfort food,” he says. But tastes run regionally, he adds. Famous Dave’s, likely the closest thing to a national chain, features different barbecue sauces to appeal to the diversity.
Rich ’N Sassy is the “mother sauce,” while “Devil’s Spit” is the hottest. There are five other sauces: Georgia Mustard, Hot ’N Sassy, Smokey Chipotle, Sweet & Zesty, and Texas Pit. All of the sauces, rubs and seasonings are proprietary and available for sale on the company’s Web site.
Schmiesing claims that the Midwest is a Rich ‘N Sassy market that’s big on ribs. Chopped pork is very popular in Georgia and the Carolinas. Chicken is popular everywhere. The company anticipates that planned West Coast and Florida units will want more seafood. The Minneapolis-based chain has 38 company-owned and 83 franchised units in 33 states. The company has plans for an additional 205 franchise units.
Since there are so many styles of barbecue and so many regional preferences, it is hard to have a national focus. To solve the problem, Famous Dave’s has an R&D Food Committee with several staff chefs who work closely with suppliers on new product development.
Smokey Bones, a division of Darden Restaurants, recently changed its name from Smokey Bones BBQ Sports Bar to Smokey Bones BBQ & Grill, hoping to appeal to diners keen on grilled foods. New items are focused on dishes with high-impact tastes and textures. One goal was to incorporate new ingredients, with new offerings including a Portobello burger and an Oregon pear and spinach salad, both of which include blue cheese.
Probably no other company is more authoritative when it comes to barbecue than Weber, but the company the world knows for grills has entered the restaurant business. The Weber Grill Restaurant operates on a small (four units) and localized area (Chicago), although Midwest expansion plans are in the works. Just as cooking classes help sell grills, the company’s newest restaurant offers cooking classes, which are proving very popular, says Bryan Gerrish, executive vice president of restaurants for Weber.
Gerrish says the company is positioned as the “American Grill.” He reports that barbecue is going upscale and becoming more authentic. The popularity of Blue Smoke in New York City is just one example of this trend.
Weber chefs conduct product development tests and hold focus groups with customers and employees. New items are introduced via “specials,” which may be added to the permanent menu based on sales. Large portions are synonymous with Weber.
Barbecue is, of course, popular in the Southwest, and a hot new concept in Phoenix that opened last fall is Bobby Q’s. This single-unit operation is owned by Bob Sikora, the founder of Bobby McGee’s. Sikora put the theme restaurant market on the map in the ’70s, along with Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You.
Sikora and his wife, Stephanie, decided to target barbecue and searched the country for the very best. They claim to have found it in Kansas City (Gates & Son), Houston (Gooden’s), Austin (The Salt Lick) and Ft. Worth (Anthony’s).
A lot of it is in the smoking and cooking, reports Sikora. “It used to be that Southern barbecue would be cooked by the same person for 20 or 30 years. It takes real skill to know how to smoke and cook the meats. We use a large brisket with lots of fat that goes into the meat (trimmed after cooking). Our pork shoulder is cut with a knife rather than pulled.”
“Our sauces — a sweet, and a spicy and hot sauce — are equally popular and are served at the table in thermal containers. You don’t want to pour cold or room-temperature sauces on warm meats,” he says.
Bobby Q’s menu is fairly limited because a broader menu would complicate the operation. “Simplicity is key,” he says.
Beyond simplicity, an emerging trend in barbecue is ethnic flavors. Asian barbecue is becoming popular with more affluent consumer groups. A soy-based Hoisin Plum sauce, for example, is popular in the Southeast.
“The public is educated. You are only unique in your execution,” says Sikora. “There is definitely a passion in barbecue. People believe in what they like. It’s not just the sauce, or the meat or the smoking. It is the whole experience. It is very personal.” NP