Once a feast reserved for backyards and back roads, barbecue now knows no bounds. Today, tender, smoky meats fill burritos and sandwiches in all segments, from national chains to sports stadiums to college campuses.
While barbecue purists might debate points such as grilling versus smoking, low heat or hot flame, and rubs, sauces or soaks, most consumers want to try it all. And as the nation’s love affair with barbecue grows, consumers are looking beyond barbecue’s traditional flavors and formats to dishes with innovative, portable carriers and authentic American regional flavor influences such as vinegary North Carolina sauces or Texas dry rubs.
The takeaway: Barbecue’s versatility makes it a natural fit for menu items of all kinds, and operators who focus on adding innovative barbecue dishes to their menus will not only find a way to make barbecue their own—they’ll set themselves apart from their competition.
A barbecue democracy
Linda Orrison, owner of The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint in Ocean Springs, Miss., and president of The National Barbecue Association (NBBQA), has an inclusive philosophy when it comes to defining barbecue. “When I hear people say that one region or one cooking method is best, I just shake my head,” she says. “There’s no best, or best is in the mouth of the beholder.”
As the leader of the only trade group dedicated to the business of barbecue, part of Orrison’s role is to spread the word of inclusiveness. Orrison points out that barbecue is the original form of cooking, and it evolved based on easily sourced, local ingredients. Regionality dictated the types of wood used for smoking, the proteins used and even barbecue’s seasoning. For example, the spices in a Jamaican jerk rub help keep the meat from spoiling in the area’s warm, tropical climate, she explains.
The last five years have brought tremendous consumer interest in barbecue, spurring even more evolving ingredients and applications and bringing barbecue to new places and into new uses. In one way or another, most restaurants have jumped on board with barbecue—and they’re now reaping the benefits.
For example, in February, fast-casual sandwich chain Jason’s Deli added a smoked pork sandwich, featuring cashew butter, pecan-smoked pork, marinated red onions and red pepper jelly.
Variations on a theme
Pulled pork remains a menu standard for consumers with traditional barbecue tastes, but twists on the classic are popping up on restaurant menus as well. The burger chain Carl’s Jr. tops a double burger with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and crispy onion strings on a seeded bun. Likewise, Four Rivers Smokehouse serves a spin on the traditional Cuban sandwich with smoked pork and ham, mustard, pickles, onion rings and provolone.
But for operators, barbecue doesn’t just mean pork; beef brisket and pulled chicken prove just as versatile. Casual Mexican chain On the Border uses the tender shredded meat in quesadillas with sautéed onions, pickled jalapeños, mixed cheeses, sour cream, pico de gallo, guacamole and jalapeño-barbecue sauce. Likewise, Torchy’s Tacos, a Texas-based chain, features a taco with smoked beef brisket, grilled onions, jalapeños, cilantro, Jack cheese, a slice of avocado, tomatillo sauce on a fresh corn tortilla. And Subway’s Fritos Chicken Enchilada Melt piles Fritos and cheese on pulled chicken doused with enchilada sauce.
Other innovators are looking far beyond pulled meats for inspiration. Orrison has seen smoked lamb belly at a fine-dining restaurants, grape-based barbecue glazes on the competition circuit and even smoked elements in cocktails.
“Nothing surprises me anymore. The future is white hot; everyone is on the bandwagon, and the interest keeps growing. I like to just sit back and see what sticks for the long term,” Orrison says.
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This post is sponsored by Hormel Foodservice