The ability to grow a restaurant concept into a multiple-unit enterprise is tough enough, but when the art, science, and craft of barbecue are added in, the degree of difficulty rises a couple notches.

Issues such as establishing operating protocols, supply chains, and hiring plans are certainly important to scaling any chain. However, teaching future pitmasters to create great barbecue—preparing, smoking, and even slicing or chopping meats—is a complexity most other concepts just don’t have.

In many cases, smokers at these restaurants are running nearly around the clock, with cooking times based on the type and size of the protein. While brisket is ubiquitous, most of these units also offer smoked items like chicken, ribs, turkey, pork, and sausage, along with some specials. 

That’s one reason—along with regional preferences—few barbecue joints a quarter century ago were more than a single unit. These days, however, the segment features statewide, regional, multi-regional, and national players. And leaders of these aspire to be “the best barbecue” wherever they are. 

“We want to be the best neighborhood barbecue in Texas,” says Craig Haley, chief executive of Smokey Mo’s, which has 19 units in the Lone Star State. Larry Ryback, chief executive of Jim ‘N Nick’s, which has 47 restaurants in six Southeast states, notes that despite definite regional differences in barbecue styles and sauces, “We focus on making the barbecue great.”

For the most part, none of these entities began with any thought of expansion.

“I just wanted to start a great barbecue joint and be a member of the community,” states Rick Malir, founder of Columbus, Ohio-born City Barbeque, which has 70 stores in nine states. “I could have never fathomed where we are today.”

Even Dallas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, which has grown to be the segment’s leader in size with more than 400 stores in 41 states and eight countries, had humble beginnings in 1941. “We didn’t start growing until the 1960s,” says chief executive Laura Dickey, adding that the expansion was “very organic” with “no great brand design” until ramping up this century.

Most of these brands, as with many other restaurant companies, faced early growth difficulties. For City Barbeque, it was opening the second store. “I almost lost the company,” Malir says, noting operations weren’t in place and costs of opening a new unit siphoned profits from the original. For Dickey’s, the struggle was with the third store and a weight of growth issues.

“We have truly learned from the difficulties,” Dickey notes. “If necessity is the mother of invention, then challenges are the parent of creativity.”

As these companies began scaling, a decision eventually had to be made: whether to accomplish this by the company alone or via a franchise route. Dickey’s and suburban Austin’s Smokey Mo’s chose the latter, while City Barbeque and Jim ‘N Nick’s retain company ownership of all units.

“I think the biggest decision was to franchise,” Haley explains. “We made the decision that in order to grow outside Austin, you need to partner”—and select the right business relationship.

City Barbeque actually franchised a few units early on, but Malir and his partners bought them back. “It was an experiment and didn’t fit who we are,” he says.

Dickey’s—with mostly franchised units—has had acquisition offers but remains a family-owned parent company. Growth for others is being aided by private investment capital: Birmingham-based Jim ‘N Nick’s was acquired by Atlanta restaurant giant Roark Capital Group, and Smokey’s Mo’s was bought by Austin’s Switchback Capital LLC. City Barbeque received an investment from Freeman, Spogli & Co., which is headquartered in Los Angeles.

Barbecue restaurants faced a particular impediment to growth years ago due to the historical regional nature of the business. It was a common belief that ‘cue had to be one style, and that Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Memphis, or any other type couldn’t thrive in another region.

That’s not necessarily a determining factor now, although Dickey’s and Smokey Mo’s still hew closely to their Texas roots.

“There are a lot of similarities across the country these days,” says Malir, pointing out that City Barbeque features different regional styles among its proteins and sides. American consumers move from one place to another regularly, and “If the barbecue is great, they’re going to buy it.”

At Jim ‘N Nick’s, “we like to look at broad appeal,” Ryback notes, “so it doesn’t just appeal in Memphis or Birmingham. Today, “People are really accepting of different types of barbecue.”

As the companies grew, there were plusses and minuses. Menus tended to expand as well, and like other restaurant enterprises, those had to be trimmed during the pandemic. At the same time, some chains launched new regional side items or even better side versions than the originals.

Key to any growth plan is having systems in place to foster the expansion, including operations, real estate, marketing, and labor, among others. The fact that a barbecue joint needs to have long lead times and smokers running long hours with workers manning them requires unique systems.

“Whether it’s one or two or, like us, trying to grow to 90 [stores], you have to be ready, and have the right people in place” who are aligned with the company’s core values, Ryback says. “And it is equally important to have the right systems in place, day in and day out.”

The inherent intricacies and difficulties in barbecue cooking and preparation are logical reasons behind these companies’ focus on their employees as engines for their growth. Training in all the particulars of barbecue generally takes weeks of long days.

“I think barbecue is a skill,” Haley says. “It’s a trade, and so the cooking of the meat is so important. It’s not something you can teach in a week.” Dickey says that her company’s training involves three weeks of “intensive” instruction, and that franchise restaurant operators, as well as their pitmasters, must go through this course.

That focus on people, the companies say, goes beyond the pit to the entire crew and is key to their expansion. “We want all of our staff to grow with us,” Malir says. “One thing that inspires us to grow as a company is that growth provides opportunities. It’s the only way to scale up.” 

Fast Casual, Food, Growth, Menu Innovations, Story, City Barbeque, Dickey's Barbecue Pit, Jim 'N Nick's, Smokey Mo's