Industry News | May 8, 2015 | QSR Exclusive Brief

Barbecue Sees a 'Healthy' Makeover in Fast Casual

image used with permission.

Barbecue brisket and pulled pork may be unlikely candidates for healthy, on-the-go fare, but Southern Concepts Restaurant Group plans to change that with its upcoming fast-casual concept, Southern Hospitality.

Borrowing inspiration from both its full-service counterpart Southern Hospitality Restaurant & Bar and Chipotle, the new concept will feature a customizable, Southern-style barbecue. The first location is scheduled to open by early September just south of downtown Denver in Glendale, Colorado, with two more coming to Colorado Springs and Boulder before the end of the year.

“One of the biggest differentiating factors between the fast-casual segment of the industry and traditional [quick serve] is a generally a bend toward being slightly healthier, and that means something different to everyone.” says Mitch Roth, president of Southern Concepts Restaurant Group. “Chipotle has created a consumer perception that it’s a little bit healthier than Taco Bell, for example.”

While Chipotle’s meals might carry a heavy calorie count, the brand’s commitment to natural, sustainable meats garners a health halo. Roth hopes Southern Hospitality will be held in a similar regard. The meats—including beef brisket and pulled pork—are smoked and trimmed in house and within full view of the customers. After being carved to order, meats are placed in a sandwich, on top of salad greens, or naked on a plate. Garnishments include pickled vegetables and barbecue pico de gallo among others; classic sides like potato salad, baked beans, and creamed corn round out the menu. Gluten-free dishes like the paleo slaw accommodate guests with special diets, and Roth says they are testing a smoked tofu option that would be rubbed and prepared like the other proteins.

Many Colorado residents are vegetarian, vegan, or even paleo, Roth says, and having special-diet options broadens Southern Hospitality’s potential consumer base. At the same time, barbecue staples are at the core of the menu.

 “But at the end of the day, we are a barbecue restaurant. And I think that’s probably the most important thing for us to communicate,” Roth says. “We don’t want to become a Modmarket.”

The fast-casual space has seen little innovation in terms of barbecue, and Roth thinks Southern Hospitality could be one of the first to introduce a new take on a well-known cuisine, much the same way Chipotle did with Mexican food. Roth is also counting on what he calls “Millennial values” to drive demand for higher quality within limited service.

“Today Millennials—close to 92 million people—have a different set of values than the generations before them. They have a very strong emphasis on where their food is coming from,” Roth says. “I think that they have a higher standard of restaurant that they’ll go to.”

And while Roth maintains that Southern Hospitality competing with Chipotle is more of an apples-to-oranges situation—the Boulder location is going next door to one of the highest volume Chipotle in the system—he sees the two brands as existing in the same space.

“We want to be a competitor in the broader fast-casual category rather than just competing with other barbecue restaurants,” Roth says. “That will allow our potential market to be much larger.”


By Nicole Duncan

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