No culinary preparation is better suited to summer holidays and gatherings than barbecue. It commands the spotlight in May, which is widely recognized as National Barbecue Month and (with Memorial Day weekend) the unofficial start of summer grilling season, but its appeal endures through all months and seasons.
Although American consumers can and do fire up their grills to enjoy barbecue at home, they also hunger for barbeque prepared by professional chefs. This became especially apparent during pandemic-related restaurant shutdowns last year, when half of consumers surveyed for Datassential’s November 2020 Food @ Home SNAP! Keynote Report said they were craving restaurant barbecue.
The finding is notable—and ironic. At the time of the survey, most restaurant food could only be enjoyed via takeout or delivery, but “delivery is dominated by restaurants offering options like burgers and pizza, and barbecue restaurants account for just 2% of the delivery landscape,” says Datassential Trendologist Mike Kostyo. As a result, it was difficult for barbecue-craving consumers to get their fix outside the home.
This scarcity of BBQ delivery options could help account for Americans’ increased interest in outdoor cooking appliances. According to recently released data from The NPD Group, consumers purchased more than 14 million grills and smokers from April 2020 through February 2021, resulting in a 39% year-over-year sales increase.
But with the nation now mostly open for business and COVID-19 vaccinations well underway, restaurant operators can recapture sales by emphasizing what makes their offerings stand out.
“The No. 1 reason why consumers choose foodservice is to get foods they can’t or don’t easily make at home,” Kostyo explains. To entice customers to order out rather than grill at home, he encourages operators who menu barbecue to “call out the fact that it was cooked for hours or smoked over real wood. Really drive home the chef-crafted care and knowledge that goes into making barbecue. Anything that makes them think ‘restaurant quality,’ that’s hard to accomplish at home” can influence their decision making, he adds.
Regional Starting Points
When it comes to barbecue, meat cuts, sauces, rubs and wood type preferences all provide various starting points from which to create, says Jenny Moyer Murphy, corporate executive chef for Clemens Food Group. She characterizes the most popular regional styles as follows:
- Texas barbecue emphasizes dry rubs consisting of salt and pepper, with most of the flavor derived from the type of wood used.
- Kansas City barbecue accentuates tomato-based sauces that often incorporate molasses.
- Memphis barbecue relies on dry rubs featuring up to 40 spices.
- Carolina barbecue is nuanced. Eastern Carolina barbecue uses a vinegar and spice mop or sauce, Western Carolina features a tangy combination of ketchup and vinegar, and South Carolina-style barbecue is known for its mustard-based sauces.
- Alabama barbecue highlights a white sauce incorporating mayonnaise, vinegar and pepper.
Some operators borrow from these traditions to create their own unique flavor combinations. Brooke Higgins, chef/owner of Philadelphia-based Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse, is one of them. For her Memphis Baby Back Ribs, Higgins starts with a characteristic Memphis dry rub. “But unlike Memphis, we finish them off with a sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce [similar to Kansas City-style],” she says. For pulled pork, she combines a North Carolina-like vinegar-based sauce with a Kansas City-like sweet tomato sauce to create a sauce that’s distinctly her own.
Still others are branching into global flavors. Korean barbecue, for example, now appears on 2.5% of restaurant menus—up 11% since 2019 and an astounding 414% since 2010, per the latest MenuTrends data from Datassential. “Korean barbecue is among the top 10 foods that consumers [consider] craveable and favor purchasing away from home,” Kostyo confirms.
Chains offering Korean barbecue pork dishes include California Tortilla, which serves up the protein in burrito, bowl and taco formats, and CoreLife Eatery, which sells a Korean barbecue pork bowl with purple rice, napa cabbage, cucumbers, kimchi, spicy sprouts, spicy broccoli, carrots and a fried egg.
A Cut Above
Given consumers’ affinity for barbecue pork—69% of them told Datassential they love or like it, Kostyo says—it’s wise for operators to experiment with different cuts.
At Fette Sau, a barbeque restaurant in Philadelphia described online as “one part Central Texas and one part New York deli,” Chef Gus Bellingham relies primarily on three cuts. “We keep our Boston butts for pulled pork and St. Louis-style ribs on the menu” at all times, he says. On weekends, Bellingham smokes pork belly for six hours in a house rub consisting mainly of ground espresso and sells it sliced by the half pound. He’s also begun experimenting with pork shank, which he smokes for seven hours before braising and glazing it with its own sauce.
When it comes to trending cuts, Moyer Murphy favors pork collar—a boneless long-cut pork butt that can be cooked whole or cut into steaks—for its versatility, lower price point, beautiful marbling and ability to hold flavor. She’s also seen more chefs experiment with sausage and with pork cheeks. “Pork cheeks become very tender” when smoked, she says, “and are definitely trending.”
Of course, behind every good smoked meat is a deliberate choice of wood. Mesquite and hickory are longtime favorites, but Moyer Murphy says apple and maple have become trendy. Some restaurants are also adding bourbon to the wood and soaking wood chips in other types of spirits to infuse the meat with unconventional flavor notes.
The Right Accompaniment
When including barbecue pork in your menu platters, pair the main protein with both traditional and unexpected sides that consumers may not think to do on their own.
To appeal to its region’s significant Polish population, Sweet Lucy’s offers smoked kielbasa sausage as a platter option. “We go to a neighbor to make it, and we smoke it ourselves,” Higgins says. And though baked macaroni and cheese remains the restaurant’s most popular side dish, Higgins likes to experiment with other ingredients in the smoker. Next on her try list: smoked cauliflower. “There’s been more demand for plant-based foods, so we’re trying to offer more veggie-friendly menu items,” she explains. (For help striking a balance between plant-based and animal proteins in your operation, download our Plant-Forward Thinking white paper.)
There’s also value in incorporating barbeque pork in unexpected ways—even if only for a limited time. Denver-based Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, for example, recently menued Backyard BBQ Pork Nachos—a hearty assortment of tortilla chips topped with fried shredded pork, black beans, roasted corn, queso, pineapple salsa, bacon crumbles, jalapeno ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, cilantro and green onions. Or consider following the lead of Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux, which recently added Hawaiian Pork Tacos featuring barbecue pulled pork, mango salsa, fried jalapeno peppers, and spicy mayonnaise to its permanent menu.
Summer’s just getting started, but barbecue is a year-round pleasure. With the trending cuts, sauce and rub flavor profiles, and even woods outlined here, you’re well-positioned to capture the dollars of consumers looking for a barbecue experience they simply can’t replicate at home.