Barbecue: An experience for all
Nearly every food under the sun has been given the fast-casual treatment, from poke to Peruvian and teriyaki to TexMex. Indeed, fast casual has become an opportunity for restaurant entrepreneurs to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in a counter-service setting.
Barbecue has likewise found new life in fast casual. Once a regional staple, barbecue was perhaps perfectly positioned to capitalize on fast casual, considering its authentic roots, its low-and-slow cooking preparations, and the broader experience it offers. And while barbecue frequency is low, plenty of American consumers simply don’t have access yet to the category.
“There are of course a lot of great mom-and-pop barbecue joints, but not many big emerging brands,” says Rick Malir, founder of Columbus, Ohio–based City Barbeque. “The opportunity for growth is tremendous.”
Aside from Texas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and Maryland-based Mission BBQ, City Barbeque is leading the pack in barbecue fast casual, with nearly 50 locations in seven states. The brand was founded in 1999 as a catering operation, and catering remains a strong business—and one of the brand’s best marketing tools, Malir says. Now with physical store footprints that offer details like a stack of firewood out back, a row of proprietary barbecue sauces at the condiment station, and rolls of paper towels at every table, City Barbeque is aiming to reach all demographics in some way, shape, or form.
“Often, our delivery customer is different than our in-store customer, who’s different from our catering customer, and so on,” Malir says. The brand is reaching all by “focusing relentlessly on craft barbecue and a great menu; we’re always looking at menu innovation to both bring in new guests and provide folks with different options on those repeat visits.” While barbecue staples like brisket, pulled pork, and smoked turkey sandwiches and plates adorn the menu—along with sides like hush puppies and mac ‘n’ cheese—the brand also changes things up from time to time, like it recently did with turkey “taqos” with pulled turkey, smoked green chile sauce, cilantro-lime slaw, and crispy jalapeños.
Mighty Quinn’s is a relative newcomer to the barbecue scene, having opened in New York City in 2012. It’s since expanded to 12 domestic locations and one in Dubai, and is looking to continue scaling through franchising. Cofounder Micha Magid doesn’t think barbecue will reach the same customer frequency as burgers and pizza, both because of its niche nature and because it’s “get-your-hands-dirty food” rather than portable.
Magid says fast-casual barbecue restaurants will have to diversify the menu beyond sandwiches and ribs if they want to reach more customers in more corners of the country. “It’s evolving the category into rice and salad bowls where, if you’re in a commercial business lunch district, you’re probably not going to be selling a lot of spare ribs at lunch,” he says. “But from our own experience, when we offer burnt ends on jasmine rice with some crispy Brussels and pickled Fresno chilies, that’s just a great lunch option.”
Barbecue restaurants can balance authenticity with the fast-natured trends of fast casual, Magid says. But he adds that the barbecue fast-casual space will thrive if it doubles down on the experience of barbecue. “Barbecue is all about coming together with a big group of friends, sitting around and enjoying a meal, as opposed to trying to get in and out of there in 5 minutes,” he says. “Our menu was deliberately created to cater to both that on-the-go, need-to-get-in-and-out customer, but also the groups of people who just want to sit in and relax and dine.”