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.
Based In: Tulsa, Oklahoma
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.”
Based In: Columbus, Ohio
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.
Based In: Orlando, Florida
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.
Based In: New York City
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.”
Based In: Canton, Ohio
Brian Bailey, cofounder of Ichor Restaurant Group, toured North and South Carolina several times before opening the first Old Carolina location a decade ago with cofounder Tim Hug.
The star of the menu is Carolina-style pulled pork served as a sandwich, plate, or platter, but Old Carolina also features ribs, smoked chicken, sliders, wings, and brisket, among other options. Sides include coleslaw, mashed potatoes, Brunswick stew, mac ’n’ cheese, and fries.
“What we’re finding in the Midwest is that for these foods that are foreign to us, we just needed somebody to bring it in and do it well, not just throw it on the menu as a special,” Bailey told QSR in 2013.
Ichor, which franchises, has two other concepts in its portfolio: Baja West Coast Kitchen, a fast-casual pizza shop, and Smoke the Burger Joint.
Based In: Chicago
Chicagoans may love their deep-dish pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef, but Q-BBQ is proving they have a taste for great barbecue, too. The first Q-BBQ opened its doors in La Grange, Illinois, in 2009, and the concept has expanded to five locations in seven years while winning accolades like the People’s Choice Award at the Chicago Ribfest and boasting roughly $10 million in annual sales.
Founder Michael LaPidus traveled the country researching barbecue before opening Q-BBQ, and pulls several regional styles into the fast casual’s menu. Meats are slow-cooked for up to 22 hours, and include pork, turkey, chicken, wings, brisket, and sausage. There are also specialties like burnt ends and Memphis Baby Back Ribs. Meanwhile, sides include house-made cornbread, slaw, and Brussels sprouts, and the menu also features salads and kids’ options.
Based In: Jacksonville, Florida
A fast-casual spin-off of 60-year-old Florida barbecue staple Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q, Willie Jewel’s Old School Bar-B-Q has grown into Georgia and South Carolina through its franchise program. The brand—founded by Bono’s CEO Joe Adeeb and Josh Martino—is named after an old cook who was rescued off the streets of Jacksonville as a teenager by Adeeb’s grandfather and went on to cook for the family restaurant.
Willie Jewel’s smokes its meats for hours and then dishes them on platters, sandwiches, and stackers. On top of its smoke meats, the fast casual serves burgers; homemade desserts like banana pudding, bread pudding, peach cobbler, and pecan pie; and sides like collard greens, mac ’n’ cheese, and Brunswick stew. But Willie Jewel’s secret sauce might be, well, its sauce. The four varieties come from recipes that date back 65 years.
Based In: Chicago
Another Chicagoland favorite, Blackwood BBQ takes a page from other fast-casual concepts by serving premium sourced meats and other ingredients. That includes pasture-raised brisket, all-natural chicken that’s never frozen, and pork raised without hormones or antibiotics.
Blackwood BBQ keeps its menu simple, featuring pulled pork, pulled chicken, and beef brisket on a sandwich, salad, or platter. From there, customers can choose one of six regional sauce styles, including a signature Chicago-style option that blends sweet with heat and is simmered with Old Style lager. Drinks include sweet tea, lemonade, and vintage sodas, while sides include apple coleslaw, smokehouse beans, and honey Cheddar cornbread.
In a twist from the standard barbecue practices, Blackwood BBQ also features a breakfast menu. Customers can order Briskets N’ Gravy, a Biscuit Sandwich, or Breakfast Hash to go along with their coffee or orange juice. They can order for their coworkers, too; the Hash for a Bunch option serves up to 10 people.
Based In: Denver
Carve Barbecue is a relative newcomer to the fast-casual field, having just opened last fall. But the concept has some serious credibility to its name; it’s a sister concept to Southern Hospitality Restaurant and Bar, which counts Justin Timberlake among its cofounders.
In the true spirit of fast casual, Carve Barbecue’s meats are carved to order and guests build their meals from an assembly line, choosing either a street taco, salad, or sandwich and adding toppings, sauces, and sides from there. Meats are ethically raised and include Duroc pork and Black Angus beef, while other ingredients are often locally sourced.
Based In: Richardson, Texas
There’s a lot of barbecue in Texas. But that hasn’t stopped Ten50 BBQ from offering its own unique take on Central Texas–style ’que.
Ten50’s meats—available as a plate, sandwich, or by the pound—are smoked for 12–16 hours using charcoal made from hickory, oak, pecan, and mesquite woods. Sides include fried okra, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, and the restaurant’s famous yeast rolls. For dessert, guests can get banana pudding or the pie of the day.
William Weisiger, pitmaster at Ten50 BBQ, told QSR in April that while some regional barbecue styles focus on the sauce, in Texas it’s all about the brisket. “It’s less sauce, and it’s really about the rub and the meat,” he says. “The sauce is just a complement to it.”
On top of the brisket, Ten50 serves pulled pork and smoked sausages. “We have someone who makes sausage for us with our proprietary blend of pork and spices,” Weisiger says.