To listen to some diehard aficionados, the search for the perfect barbecue is more of a religious calling than a cooking style, it’s a quixotic journey into the discovery of the best rub, sauce, wood, smoke and techniques.
It inspires a zen-like pursuit of truth, beauty and the American way in a unique mash up of patriotism, down-home cooking and capitalist-inspired competition.
And that passion for barbecue is blazing, with sales of barbecue equipment, competition participation, organization membership and restaurant establishments growing rapidly. Authentic American barbecue involves more than just tossing a burger on a hot grill. It means cooking meat “low and slow” ---long hours over low, indirect heat and smoke produced by wood or coals.
According to a 2013 survey by the trade association, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, 80 percent of all U.S. households own a grill or smoker and 97 percent of them actually used their grill in the past year. About 14 million new grills were shipped in 2013 alone.
Membership in the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the nation’s oldest, has mushroomed from 400 27 years ago to more than 20,000 today, including members and new chapters in more than 20 countries. This year KCBS will sanction more than 450 barbecue competitions in the U.S. and overseas.
The BBQ Industry is exploding
Carolyn Wells, executive director and, with her late husband, Gary Wells and friend Rich Welch, a co-founder of KCBS, said barbecueing is exploding. Since KCBS launched in 1986, nearly one other dozen state and regional barbecue organizations have formed.
“It’s grown because of the passion for barbecue and the education groups like KCBS provide,” said Wells, who then worked for a regional barbecue products company. “Barbeque brings together the camaraderie of friends and family with the art of cooking and something primitive in our character: meat over a fire.”
Wells said the “so-called BBQ industry” is exploding.
And while the National Restaurant Association does not track the number of new barbecue restaurants, Wells said she’s witnessed growth around the country. “The numbers are undocumented because so many are mom and pop places, but I’m seeing new ones popping up everywhere I travel.”
She calls barbecue “the hot new old food. It’s everyman’s food and the quality of the products produced these days is absolutely incredible. A lot of credit goes to competitive barbecuing. It’s caught on. Now there are the cooking shows and barbecue reality shows like ‘BBQ Pitmasters’.’”
Amy Mills and her father, Mike Mills, are barbecue royalty. The two co-authored a book, “Peace, Love and Barbecue,” and operate a barbecue consulting business, On Que, as well as the well-regarded 17th St. Barbeque restaurants in Marion and Murphysboro, Ill. Mike Mills led a competitive team that won three Memphis in May competitions and the Jack Daniels Invitational. The Mills conduct barbecue classes that focus not just on cooking techniques, but business issues like branding, marketing and accounting.
While Amy Mills continues to judge and compete in barbecue events, she’s quick to note that success in the competitions does not always translate into success in the restaurant business.
“In competition you’re cooking four things: ribs, pork, chicken and brisket. You need much more than that to succeed in running a restaurant,” she said. “Luckily, my father already had a restaurant when he began competing more than 30 years ago. So we already had a rich tradition of barbecue.”
She said successful barbecue restaurateurs must know the business side of operating a restaurant in addition to cooking well.
“We feel that a barbecue restaurant is one of the most difficult to run. The meat your restaurant is based on is no longer cheap and is getting more expensive. And you need to know how to order, plan your menu and execute so you don’t run out. It’s not like pizza or spaghetti. Barbecue takes time. You can’t just make more. When you’re out, you’re out.”
Mills said while people around the world have grilled their meats on coals for centuries, barbecue is a uniquely American food.
“The flavors you taste in authentic Southern-American barbecue can’t be found anywhere else but here. Everything about barbecue is slow. It’s something that draws people together, a kind of a town hall, where people eat comfort food.”
She said that barbecue unites a very democratic group of food lovers.
“You’ll see blue collar workers in uniforms or retirees in bib overalls sitting next to bankers in three piece suits and everyone is comfortable,” she said. “Barbecue crosses lines of race, social and political class. We cater events for Republicans and Democrats. It’s very non-partisan. Everyone wants to come to a barbecue.”
Dave Anderson, the founder of the national barbecue restaurant chain, “Famous Dave’s,” said humans have always been fascinated with meat smoldering over glowing, smoky embers.
“It brings out the inner cave man,” Anderson observed.
The Growth in Barbecue Equipment
Anderson said the types of barbecue equipment used today weren’t commonly available 30 or 40 years ago to allow the proliferation of barbecue restaurants.
“Back then you had to sit in front of an open pit,” he remembered. “When I started, the only national chains serving ribs would bake or boil their ribs and finish them off on a grill. So there weren’t a lot of authentic barbecue joints because the technology of smokers was still primitive. You literally had to stand and monitor the temperatures and make sure your meat didn’t flare up or burn. I was one of the first barbecue restaurants to use a pit that was computerized to monitor temperatures with a controlled smoke.”
Anderson said the growth of barbecue competitions also piqued national interest and TV cooking shows and reality series followed. He said that with YouTube, the availability of just about anything about barbecue is only a keyboard touch away.
“There are no more barbecue secrets.”
Lee Anne Whippen, owner of the upscale Chicago q barbecue restaurant, won several barbecue grand championships, but realized she couldn’t make a living. So, after working in the hotel industry for years, she purchased a barbecue rig and began catering, later starting and operating several Virginia barbecue restaurants before opening the popular Chicago q.
She said partly because of the long hours and often grueling work, there aren’t as many women who own restaurants and even fewer in the male-dominated competitive barbecue world.
“If a couple is raising a family, somebody has to stay home and usually that’s the woman. On the competition side, we’re seeing more women. But ultimately, the best way to gain respect is by winning.”
Another competitive cooker, Bunny “Nobody knows my real name and I intend to keep it that way” Tuttle, said her life revolves around barbecue. Tutttle is also a KCBS judge, judging class instructor, barbecue sauce producer and event organizer.
Tuttle and her husband, Rich Tuttle, compete with their K-Cass barbecue team in five or six events per year, noting that the cost of competing has risen in the years since she joined KCBS in the late-‘80s.
“Most events entry fees used to be under $50. Now they range between $150 and $350. The American Royal is $600. Then add the cost of your cooking equipment, transportation, lodging, meat and beer and by the time you add everything up, its costs me around $1,000 per event. But some teams spend over $5,000. So you have to really love it.”
Her team has enjoyed success in numerous events and her line of barbecue sauces has won its share of awards as well. She said people are starving for real barbecue.
“It brings you back to your roots, to the basics of cooking, to the roots of our country. We promote barbecue as the original American cuisine and I think we’re succeeding.”
Todd Johns, owner of Plowboy’s Barbeque in Blue Springs, Mo., and the 2009 American Royal International Grand Champion, said there is something mysterious about a piece of meat that takes 14 hours to cook.
“You start the process with brining and marinating or rubbing and start cooking and a day later your food is ready. There is real artistry to barbecue: anyone can put a piece of chicken on a grill. But cooking a perfect rack of ribs takes experience, time and a special skill set and just like any five-star meal, you expect to be wowed by the chef, in this case, the pitmaster.”
Johns said social media is also a big driver of the explosion in barbecue popularity.
“Being successful is more attainable when you have a lot of shared experience available to you. It shortens your learning curve. You can almost say it’s easier to be successful in barbecue today because you have so many people to learn from. From a customer relations standpoint, we’re on Facebook and Twitter every day. We can engage with one or many of our customers and have a real dialogue outside of the restaurant. We let them peek behind the curtain, post photos of us in kitchen, in the pit, giving them a richer experience, like they’re a part of the process.”
Rob Magee, a champion competitive barbecue cooker who displays a wallful of trophies in his popular, upscale Kansas City restaurant, Q39, has spent a lifetime becoming an overnight sensation. The Culinary Institute of America (the “Other CIA”) graduate spent more than 20 years working as an executive chef or food and beverage director for the Sheraton, Omni, Westin and Hilton hotels before coming to Kansas City in 2000.
He said that education, in addition to years of competitive cooking and catering, prepared him to open Q39.
Magee said Q39 is a small business, not a corporate chain.
“We are a single location restaurant. Our food isn’t manufactured for us,” he explained. “If you go to a fast food joint, a lot of products are engineered for quick cooking and consistency at thousands of locations across the world. I have a cow and it gives me a brisket. Nothing is pre-packaged. There are no short cuts. That’s what’s really different and special about barbecue. Most of us doing this are small grassroots businesses where the owners are still touching the food.”