For decades across the South, barbecue was something served without frills, often out of roadside stands with little fanfare but great attention to the brisket, pulled pork, and other meats that were smoked for hours, sometimes days. And today, from Texas to Kansas City to the Carolinas, many barbecue joints that have been around for generations remain one-off operations, keeping up that no-frills attitude while doubling down on the regional styles that divide parts of the country more than even sports team loyalties.
But a new crop of operators is taking the barbecue experience to another level, leveraging modern-day fast-casual trends and customers’ culinary curiosity to scale high-quality concepts across the country. And not all of them are out of the South; from New York to Denver to Chicago, barbecue fast casuals from some of the most unexpected places are gaining steam as they expand into areas where people think barbecue is something you do in your backyard on a sunny day.
With summer in full swing and pit masters keeping their fires aflame, here are 10 up-and-coming fast-casual concepts with fewer than 75 units that are aiming to deliver great barbecue to the American masses.
Former Heisman Trophy winner and star NFL running back Billy Sims started his barbecue concept in 2004 with cofounder Jeff Jackson. The two met at Jackson’s sports memorabilia store during an autograph signing, and eventually, knowing Sims’ charisma and reputation would benefit a business, Jackson convinced the former football star to open the restaurant with him.
The two opened their first location in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew to six units by 2009. That year, they launched their franchise program, which has since taken Billy Sims BBQ to cities in six states.
The menu includes ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken, turkey, hot sausage links, and smoked bologna. The meats are smoked daily over pecan wood in every restaurant. Side options include baked potatoes smoked in the smoker, potato salad, freshly smoked corn on the cob, coleslaw, baked beans, green beans with bacon, and entrée-size salads with fresh vegetables.
Sims’ football legend plays out on the menu. The most popular sandwich is the Heisman, which features pulled pork or beef brisket with a slice of bologna and a hot link on a bun. The Triple 20, named for the fact that Sims wore the number 20 in high school, college, and in the NFL, is a pulled pork sandwich topped with Billy’s Secret Sauce, coleslaw, and Provolone cheese.
But Jackson says Sims is more than just a part of the concept’s name and a face on the menu. “He goes far beyond that,” Jackson told QSR last year. “He’s actively involved. He cares about how all the franchisees are serving the food. I let him know what’s going on, from problems to successes.”
Ohio isn’t exactly a barbecue capital, but that’s OK for City Barbeque founder Rick Malir and his wife and cofounder, Bonnie. Their fast casual has grown to 28 units in four states, including North Carolina, one of the bona fide barbecue holy lands.
City Barbeque features dine-in, carryout, catering, and party packs. The menu avoids any particular style, instead featuring everything from smoked brisket, pulled pork, turkey, and sausage to St. Louis ribs. Guests can get meats naked, on a bun, or by the pound, and can also get a sampler of multiple meats. There are healthier items, too—a salad menu, as well as sub-500-calorie options—but City Barbeque provides a host of indulgent Southern staples, like banana pudding, fried pickle chips, hush puppies, and sweet tea.
Nearly all of the menu is made from scratch at each location.
4 Rivers Smokehouse founder John Rivers was a healthcare industry executive with a passion for smoking meats in his garage before he founded his Texas-style barbecue fast casual in 2009. The brand—named for the four members of his family—has since expanded across the state of Florida, with plans for further growth, including into Atlanta in 2017.
4 Rivers’ meats include Angus brisket, pulled pork, sliced pork, pulled chicken, Texas sausage, St. Louis–style ribs, brontosaurus beef ribs, and burnt ends that combine chopped brisket with pulled pork. Guests can order a la carte, as a sandwich with two sides, or as a dinner plate with three sides and a biscuit. There are also the Signature Stackers, which offer a twist on the standard meat-with-sides-and-sauce barbecue approach. 4 Rivers’ Stackers include the Texas Destroyer, with brisket served on a bun and topped with onion rings, Provolone, jalapeños, and the house sauce, and the Six Shooter, which has cheese grits topped with pulled pork, slaw, pickles, jalapeños, and the house sauce.
The barbecue joint also now boasts two sister concepts in Winter Park, Florida: The COOP, which dishes Southern comfort foods, and The Sweet Shop, which sells… well, you know.
Micha Magid, cofounder of Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque with Christos Gourmos and Chef Hugh Mangum, believes their fast casual has worked well in New York City because the barbecue category was so underrepresented in the Big Apple.
The trio founded Mighty Quinn’s in 2012, testing it at the popular Brooklyn market Smorgasburg before opening their first brick-and-mortar location. Mangum is a graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute and a past champion on the Food Network’s “Chopped.” Now Mighty Quinn’s pit master, he learned the basics of barbecue as a child from his Texas-raised father.
Meat choices at Mighty Quinn’s include beef brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs (pork), brontosaurus ribs (beef), chicken, chicken wings, and smoked sausage. All non-bone meats are available naked or as a sandwich on a brioche bun with house-made pickles.
The three most popular sides are burnt-end baked beans, sweet potato casserole with maple and pecans, and buttermilk broccoli salad with bacon and almonds. Other choices include corn fritters with honey dipping sauce, house-made slaw, and fresh-cut fries.
“We’re not trying to do a lot of things OK,” Magid says. “We’d rather do a few things well. We want everything on the menu to be streamlined, and we want all of our meats and sides to really stand out.”
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