Chain smoke: Barbecue restaurant chain tries to re-enter Deep South

Every region boasts its own meaty favorite

What is the best kind of barbecue?

Ask that question and you can expect a different answer almost every time.

“Fried chicken – no matter where you go – is fried chicken, and a hamburger is a hamburger,” said Larry Sconyers, the owner of Augusta’s Sconyers Bar-B-Que. “Barbecue is different. It is kind of a local or regional food; it changes every 50 miles.”

Barbecue styles vary widely from the Carolinas to Kansas City, and details such as cuts of meat, cooking techniques and whether your sauce is vinegar- or tomato-based can spawn heated debates in the company of other smoked-meat lovers.

“You’ve got to have the flavor of that particular area to be successful,” Sconyers said. “I heard a guy say once that the best barbecue is what he grew up on, and that makes a lot of sense.”

That’s why no one has created the McDonald’s of barbecue, Sconyers said. National “one-size-fits-all” chains can’t satisfy every local preference in barbecue.

But that doesn’t mean some haven’t tried.

There are several regional barbecue chains, but few with the reach of Famous Dave’s, a Minnesota-based barbecue brand with locations stretching from New York to California.

Famous Dave’s, a publicly traded company, has more than 190 restaurants in 35 states. There is a glaring gap, however, in its barbecue empire – no locations in a band that runs across the South from North Carolina to Louisiana, the heart of barbecue country.

Brett Larrabee, the director of Franchise Development for Famous Dave’s, wants to change that. He hopes to bring a restaurant to Au­gusta this year.

“We are looking for a franchisee,” Larrabee said. “That is a great market and all the indicators say that we would have great business there.”

But wasn’t Famous Dave’s already here? Some might recall a location on Washington Road that closed in 2009.

“Our franchise partner got into the wrong deal there,” Larrabee said, explaining the closure. “It should have been successful and would have except for the fact that the wrong business deal was made for that location.”

Although most of its restaurants are the sit-down, full-service type, Larrabee said the chain wants to open something different this go round, a Famous Dave’s BBQ Shack – its “fast casual” concept.

Larrabee said the “Shack” concept has a more limited menu but offers customers more options in how much they pay and how fast they get their food.

“Its going to be when you want it, the way you want it and how you want to pay for it,” he said.

Larrabee said the challenge is finding an operator who has a “passion for barbecue.” He said the company provides a high-quality product and dining experience that translates across regions.

Famous Dave’s also tries to customize some of what it serves to satisfy local tastes. In Texas, they serve more beef brisket, for example.

“You would get the same stuff as everywhere else, but you will have local additions,” he said. “We make an excellent Georgia mustard sauce.”

John Walker, the CEO of Sticky Fingers, a smaller barbecue chain, said regional differences are very important, but you can’t be everything to everyone. Sticky Fingers, founded in 1992 in Mount Pleasant, S.C., specializes in ribs.

“We serve the best ribs, bar none,” Walker said, explaining that its recipe is influenced by the style of ribs made popular in restaurants in Memphis, Tenn.

Although Sticky Fingers, which has 17 locations in five states, has a core menu, the company relies heavily on its operating partners to create deep connections with the local community, not just make a profit serving food.

“The term ‘chain’ is looked on as a negative when it relates to barbecue restaurants,” Walker said. “What we have tried to do is be an unchained chain. We have operating partners in each restaurant who operate it as their own business.”

Walker said being a smaller regional chain also helps to maintain quality control.

Sticky Fingers has its own “pit master” whose job is to visit each restaurant to make sure everything is just right.

Customers expect the same food and quality no matter which branch they might visit, he said.

Consistency is just as important as quality, said Sconyers, which is one reason his flirtation with franchising ended decades ago. He said franchisees were always trying to cut corners to make a little more profit, which hurt the product.

Sconyers said if you concentrate on quality and service, you don’t need to worry about making a profit.

“One is going to take care of the other,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for 56 years. We’ve got this down to a science.”

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