Nobody needs to point out opening a restaurant in the heart of a global pandemic is a strange circumstance. Pitmaster Sam Jones was planning a second location of his eponymous barbecue concept, Sam Jones BBQ, for some time. And he wasn’t going to let COVID-19 stop it.
But have unique challenges popped up? No question. Jones’ Raleigh, North Carolina, opening met hurdles from the outset. Materials and equipment had longer lead times due to supply chain issues, such as manufacturing shutdowns and limited staff. Even appliances carried an extra month.
He also worked to expand contactless pickup through app ordering. The restaurant upgraded to a different HVAC in the kitchen to help with air circulation.
Additionally, compared to the original spot in Winterville, North Carolina, Jones faced a very real challenge that didn’t need COVID to complicate things. How would big-city life differ from a town with roughly 9,900 or so residents (near Greenville and its 93,000 people)? Raleigh, for comparison, has nearly 470,000 and is surrounded by two other prominent markets—Chapel Hill with 61,000 residents and Durham, which has more than 274,000.
Yet now Jones had to consider a reality facing metros across the country. Are people living in cities less likely to dine out? Is there less foot traffic?
The positive news, though, is the Jones family name represents barbecue royalty in North Carolina. Jones is a third-generation pitmaster who began selling chopped pork at his family’s Skylight Inn—one of the barbecue world’s most famous venues. His grandfather, the late Pete Jones, opened Skylight Inn the summer of 1947 at age 17. It’s been praised by National Geographic, People, and GQ, among others. In 2013, Skylight Inn, located in Ayden, North Carolina, received the James Beard Award for America’s Classics, the first barbecue joint to ever earn an award from the organization.
Jones opened his restaurant in 2015 with friend and former Skylight employee Michael Letchworth. He was a semifinalist for James Beard: Best Chef Southeast and also authored “Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue.”
Jones shared his experience with COVID to date and what’s it’s been like opening a new restaurant.
First, tell us a little about Sam Jones BBQ and its history.
Sam Jones BBQ opened in November of 2015, and it spawned from some friends giving me some good advice and help, because I knew nothing about opening. A new restaurant. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a lot of great friends that are also very smart in business. It’s owned and operated by me and my Operating Partner, Michael Letchworth.
What has the COVID response been like at the Ayden landmark? What are some of the biggest changes you’ve had to make?
Well, we don’t have any seating in the front dining room now. Seating is at 50 percent and is in one of the side dining rooms only. We really haven’t changed a lot there as far as our way of doing business. Much different from how we’ve had to change at the Sam Jones BBQ in Greenville.
What were some wins?
Our sales have been really strong. I attribute that to always treating people nice and cooking good food, but we’ve also made it much more convenient for those not wanting to come in the restaurant. We started online ordering months ago when this first started, and that parlayed into us building an app that offers a new convenience to the guests. We’ll never do away with that. Our drive through, for instance, was never intended to be fast, it was more for the convenience to the guests. But when you have 25 cars in the drive through you’ve got to figure something out to make it move more quickly. So, we were able to make our drive through much more streamlined to move people through pretty fast. Right now, between curbside, drive through, and takeout, that’s making up almost 70 percent of our business.
How much of sales have come back?
Once we figured out our new norm, we’ve actually had some of the strongest periods that we’ve had since we opened.
What’s the reopening strategy been like? How have you kept employees and guests safe?
We require that all of the staff wear masks and are adhering to CDC guidelines to keep both staff and customers safe.
Moving on to the Raleigh opening and some of the unforeseen challenges of opening during a pandemic. Start with the materials and equipment, longer lead times, and appliance delays. The ground-level details. What’s the journey been like?
Initially, the main hold up was in permitting. Since the pandemic, we’re dealing with supply chain issues and shortages due to manufacturing having been shut down for a period of time. We got pretty lucky on our equipment package because we ordered it so far out anyway.
What were some other kitchen upgrades you needed to make to prepare for a COVID environment, such as thinking about the HVAC and air circulation?
We didn’t really make any upgrades because of COVID. It boils down to cleaning everything well, washing your hands, and wearing a mask.
How about technology, from contactless pickup to counter service? Are these new to the brand? What are some other solutions you’ve had to install?
Curbside, contactless pickup was obviously new—I think that’s new to everybody—and we’ll have that in Raleigh as well, but unfortunately won’t have the benefit of a drive through there because of the building. We could easily have a walk-up to-go window we’ve thought about; we won’t open with that, but we’ll wait to see how things shake out. The app will be available for Raleigh diners as well.
Share some of the additional challenges you’ve faced in just getting the concept open. Has anything really surprised you?
I had a lot of unexpected pushback on the smokehouse from city officials. But sure enough, here come the fiery hoops and alligator ponds you have to jump through which ended up costing us about $40,000 or $50,000—just for the smokehouse—more than we had anticipated to spend.
Given the difference between Ayden and Raleigh, just in terms of market size, what are some challenges you expect to face with getting customers out, and how do you plan to get past them?
I’m hoping that the craziness will subside in the coming months. All we can do is our part, which is all anybody can do, and follow CDC guidelines for how restaurants should function. We’ve always had a clean establishment and all we can do is assure the people that we’re going to do our best.
A lot of people have talked about comfort food finding a place during COVID. Where do you think barbecue fits in?
I say this all the time—barbecue is still a food that bridges any class and income gaps. Regardless of what part of the country you’re from, barbecue came from poor people. They figured out a way to feed a lot of people economically. I think that people still find comfort in barbecue because it is that food that offers an opportunity to sit at the same table and break bread together, no matte your background. Unlike some other types of dining, like fine dining, the price point might prohibit some folks from being able to enjoy.
Is there an opportunity in large orders and catering, especially as sports return?
Oh yeah. The new restaurant is only about three and a half blocks from the amphitheater and the convention center and we’re off the main drag of downtown, in a great location for folks when offices start to reopen and return to normal. There’s a lot of anticipation for us to come since it’s been in the works for a long time. We’ve got a lot of friends in that market in the food and hospitality industry we’ve met over the years. Ashley Christenson is a good friend of mine, and she does a lot of good will in the community that she’s looped me into over the years, like the Frankie Lemmon School and Development Center. We’ll continue to work with organizations like that in the area to be able to give back to the community. I always say that you’re automatically a thread in the community that you’re a part of. It’s just a matter of choosing whether you’re going to be a weak one or a strong one.
Just generally speaking, what are some changes you expect to last from the pandemic? And where do you think there will be opportunity on the other side?
For us, I think a lot of the things that restaurant owners and employees looked at as an inconvenience or something that caused extra steps in the process, now realize that that’s the new norm. Once you offer a new service to guests, they’ll expect it from then on out. Like with our app, you simply press a button on your phone and your food comes out to the car. Now that we’ve added those services, they’ll probably never go away. I figure we’re roughly eight months in, and I think the head doctors say if you do something for three months it becomes a habit. And if it works, it works.