Keeping the foodservice equipment marketplace up to date with the latest menu and concept trends.


Barbecue Wins

Generally deemed a good value for portion size from consumers, barbecue continues its successful run; new sauce flavors help, as does current protein cost.

Barbecue is back. Well, maybe it never left the game. The overwhelming majority of American diners surveyed by Datassential (84%) like or love barbecue, and the recent explosion of barbecue cooking shows has only helped enhance awareness about the craft.

Photo courtesy of Smokey BonesPhoto courtesy of Smokey BonesToday, Texas is the most-loved regional variety, favored by 65% of consumers. But research also shows consumers today are craving international barbecue. The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast” for 2024 listed it as the No. 3 top trend, and research from Datassential showed that Korean barbecue is the most-loved global variety (74% know it, 44% have tried it and 43% like it or love it). Korean barbecue is even loved slightly more than other U.S. regional styles like Memphis, St. Louis, South Carolina, North Carolina and Kansas City.

Barbecue chicken wings are having a moment, too. According to Datassential’s BBQ Menu Adoption Cycle, these wings are the fastest-growing single item on menus in the past 12 months. As of October 2023, they were up a whopping 328% in menu proliferation overall and 373% in just the past year. Moreover, restaurants are getting more specific with their wings, coating them with on-trend flavors and sauce variations to create Carolina gold barbecue wings and Korean barbecue wings, according to Datassential. Global chicken wings are listed as the No. 2 trend in NRA’s “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast.”

As testimony to Korean food’s fast-growing popularity in the U.S. restaurant scene, bb.q Chicken, a Korean chicken franchise, plans to launch restaurants in five new states — Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina and Utah, expanding the brand’s reach into 31 total U.S. states by the end of the first half of 2024.

In this time of inflation, “barbecue restaurants are in a unique position to do really well,” says Jay Bandy, president of Goliath Consulting Group. People seem to be going out to eat less right now because of the expense, but barbecue continues to be priced reasonably and it’s a convenient and easy option for pickup or delivery. “What has helped operators is the cost of proteins are not terrible right now, at least not like they were,” he says. “Beef prices have gone up, but pork and chicken remain relatively steady.” That’s certainly helpful for operators wanting to or currently menuing those popular chicken wings.

At the same time, barbecue remains a craft. “Everything is slow-cooked, so it’s not that easy to scale up; I don’t see barbecue restaurants opening 1,000 more new locations,” says Bandy. “[Barbecue] still takes skill; AI is not going to take over and cook a brisket for you.”

Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, which has 61 locations in 18 states throughout the Northeast and Southeast, reflects this notion. Peter Farrand, chief food and beverage innovation officer, says the company hasn’t focused on expanding locations, necessarily, but rather, has made more investments in technology and its four virtual brands launched during the height of the pandemic. Menu items from The Wing Experience, The Burger Experience, Tender Box and Bowl Market are available (and prepared) at all Smokey Bones locations throughout the U.S.

“With our barbecue concept, the prep is basically all on the front-end; because we’re retherming and serving, we’re able to do these additional concepts,” says Farrand, a former executive chef. All of the central barbecue menu items, including pork ribs and brisket, are smoked overnight in large smokers outfitted with Bluetooth-enabled thermometers.

Operations have become simplified, also, thanks to improvements in software solutions that integrate better with third-party delivery platforms, inventory management and menu development systems. “The consolidation and ability for [managers] to track all this data through one ‘fireboard’ has taken some of the initial angst off the operators since launching the virtual brands,” Farrand says. “What we’ve also seen with the integrations and the digital platforms getting better is that we’re able to do additional revenue with the same labor.”

Smokey Bones continues to build success through its four virtual brands launched during the  pandemic.Smokey Bones continues to build success through its four virtual brands launched during the pandemic.

Ventilation and Equipment

Barbecue equipment like smokers hasn’t changed much in years, making ventilation more imperative than ever. Eli Huff, FCSI, principal and owner, SFG Consulting, knows this firsthand. One of his clients, BurnCo Barbeque, which uses charcoal for smoking, saw its downtown Tulsa, Okla., location literally burn down in February 2022. “It burned in just two hours and the whole building collapsed,” he says, noting this was not a location he worked on.

The suburban Tulsa BurnCo Huff designed features state-of-the-art ventilation for a reason. “We used a special type of stainless-steel-wrapped ductwork, which is expensive, but it had to be done to prevent grease from building up,” he says. A series of what he describes as “massive, floating island hoods” measure 30 feet by 10 feet deep and take care of the smoke caused by the charcoal-fueled smokers lined up in the middle for customers to see from every part of the restaurant.

Fortunately for barbecue concepts, says Bandy, “hood technology has changed a lot in last 10 years. These updated hood systems are meant for use with solid fuel and do a better job preventing fires and creating a more comfortable, less smoky dining environment.”

In warmer areas, smoker ovens can sit partially outside so there’s less venting needed indoors. That’s the case for Albert G’s Barbecue, another client of Huff’s, who he helped open a third location in the spring of 2022. “We designed a semi-outdoor shed housing the two smokers so we could do a lot of the venting outdoors through an open-top direct vent,” Huff says. “Sometimes we call it the ‘Chicken Coup’ because of the custom cages that are placed in the smokers to smoke the chicken wings.”

Alternative BBQ Equipment

While barbecue restaurant owners tend to be purists, meaning they enjoy using traditional smokers to achieve that smoky, slow-cooked effect, Huff has worked with his clients to introduce newer pieces to improve throughput and volume.

Warmers placed under the cutting board counter hold product at temperature until staff at Albert G’s are ready to pull and chop the meat right before service. The cook-chill-retherm method came into play with a new restaurant opening.Warmers placed under the cutting board counter hold product at temperature until staff at Albert G’s are ready to pull and chop the meat right before service. The cook-chill-retherm method came into play with a new restaurant opening.For Albert G’s newest $2.3 million location, which took over a former Texas Roadhouse, Huff’s team installed “a blast chiller for the ribs to stop the cook time, and this helps avoid too much shrinkage. They were losing 20% of product before we introduced the blast chiller; now they only lose 3% to 5% of the original weight.”

Albert G’s uses combi ovens to rethermalize the product. A series of sliding door warmers, positioned directly underneath giant cutting board counters, hold the product at temperature until staff are ready to pull and chop the meat just before service.

This cook-chill-retherm method — which Huff, a former chef, says works better with barbecue than other foods — also enhances throughput over time and saves on labor because the product can be cooked ahead of time. “They’re able to do three times the volume of the other locations because of this design,” he says.

Combi ovens also come in handy for non-barbecue and/or non-commercial operators to menu some barbecue-style options without the need for heavy-duty smokers and excess ventilation. “You can smoke in a combi oven and you have more control over the process,” says Bandy. This doesn’t necessarily work for barbecue purists, he adds, but it’s a great option for smaller spaces or kitchens with a more flexible setup.

Combi ovens are also great for slow-cooking product that can then be “burned with a blowtorch for a reverse sear and served with a good sauce” to mimic barbecue-like favorites, Huff says. “But I think wood and live fire will always be around; chefs like to play with fire and always will.”

Global Smoke

With the popularity of international barbecue on the rise, Bandy and Huff are seeing more use of tableside grills for Japanese yakitori and hibachi and Korean steakhouses. “We’re working with a restaurant that purchased a series of tabletop yakitori grills for a Japanese menu right now,” Bandy says.

Gas-fired  tableside grills take center stage at Mr. Kim’s.Gas-fired tableside grills take center stage at Mr. Kim’s.Two-year-old Mr. Kim’s in Tulsa has about 14 tables featuring gas-fired, Japanese-made tableside grills for a menu featuring blended Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and American dishes. “We installed a down draft system so the air is sucked down through the tables and goes underneath the ground,” says Ben Alexander, the head chef and vice president of culinary operations for Mr. Kim’s parent company, McNellie’s Group. “It’s a lot more expensive with the down draft exhaust system because you have to rip up the flooring and put the ductwork down below, but a lot more visually pleasing than having a ton of smoke in your face.” The installation required Alexander’s team to work closely with the local health department because this was not the norm in Tulsa, he says.

Servers assist in the cooking process using two sets of utensils, one for raw and one for cooked product, to avoid cross-contamination. A variety of marinated proteins, steaks, seafood and vegetables are offered to guests for self-cooking; on special hot pot nights, the grill plates are turned over to accommodate the large cast iron pots sitting over the open flame. “It’s definitely a more elevated experience for our guests,” Alexander says.

Expanding Revenue Streams

Similar to the investments Smokey Bones made into its virtual brands, Huff looked for ways to create additional revenue streams for BurnCo’s newest location. To that end, he designed and implemented a new retail marketplace positioned near the line where customers will wait for hours at a time to get their fix. “We had a lot of customers requesting to buy [BurnCo’s] meats and sausages, so for the second location we came up with the market idea, kind of a like a deli,” Huff says. “There is now a separate grab-and-go and takeout area and pickup window that also has some merchandising around it. All of the lines lead to that deli case.”

And, Huff adds, “Barbecue is a slower process; people aren’t scarfing it down, so we also needed to increase the seating capacity of the newer space with another 50 or 60 seats.”

The time is ripe for barbecue concepts nationwide. As inflation rates soar, consumers continue to flock to these restaurants for both dine-in and takeout needs while operators can enjoy expanded menu capabilities, improved ventilation and technology and the capacity for alternative revenue streams.