With my barbecue cookers in storage for a few weeks I haven't been able to cook barbecue for awhile. To compensate for this, I've spent some time visiting and researching a few popular barbecue restaurants in the area. Both restaurants appear successful (in my personal view), but based on my experiences eating there, neither have especially "good" barbecue.
The "first" example is one of the first bbq chains that decided to expand on a nationwide basis. I'll not mention the name here because it's not really important to illustrate my point, but to barbecue enthusiasts it offers a valuable lesson. It's part of a restaurant conglomerate and in my opinion not a true representation of the "real barbecue" culture that most readers probably think of when they picture a "barbecue restaurant", but it's hard to argue with the success of the chain. From a strictly business standpoint, I'm sure it's successful. Their restaurants are nearly always busy, they're large and clean, and most have been constructed brand new from the ground-up within the past 5-years. The seating capacity is more than 150 people and they are lined with televisions on every wall. They even have a bar area. More and more of these restaurants are popping up on interstate exits across the eastern part of the country.
As someone who has dedicated a lot of time and effort studying barbecue these past few years something is missing from the dining experience when I've eaten there. It kind of reminds me of going to McDonald's for barbecue. The barbecue is kind of bland, but consistent; and it's served with a selection of sauces ranging from hot, to sweet, to mustard-based. The brisket is their best menu item, but it's not heavily promoted by the waitstaff. The quality of the barbecue compared to the best barbecue I've eaten is adequate, but it doesn't have the same knock-your-socks-off quality that I first experienced eating my first barbecue sandwich at a small roadside stand in Dickson, TN back in 1991. In a nutshell, it has no "wow-factor".
In contrast there is another family owned barbecue operation that my co-workers rave about from time-to-time located within a mile of the "barbecue factory" discussed above. It's been in operation for 11-years, according to their website, and is owned by two local gentlemen that saw a business need and filled it. This second example is smaller, older and not as clean as the other one, but both times I've eaten there the line of folks waiting to order stretched from the cash register to about 20 people deep inside the store. It was standing room only so that the line of customers waiting to order stretched out the door onto the sidewalk. They can't ring up the cash register fast enough. And people go on-and-on about how good the barbecue is.
While eating there with a group of friends last week one of them put me on the spot and asked if I thought it was good barbecue. I could have gone all day without having to answer that question because the group I was eating with sincerely thought it some of the best barbecue they've ever eaten. I responded that it wasn't as good as barbecue I make, or as good as barbecue I've eaten in Tennessee at various mom-and-pop locations, but for "restaurant" barbecue these days, it was simply o.k.
After thinking about it now for a couple of days I've come to realize that the second example was influenced by the first example and probably had to change it's methods of operation to compete with the "barbecue factory" down the street. Since I'm convinced that people don't purposely set out cook just "average" food, that's what I've chosen to believe anyway...and I'm fine with that.
You see the second restaurant has had to develop cost-saving and time-saving methods to compete head's-up with the 800 lb gorilla. Instead of cooking the food using "traditional" methods they sear the pork butts on direct flame for about 5-6 minutes and then wrap in foil immediately. They don't use a spice rub because it would burn on the meat. They appear to use the searing technique to create a simulated bark and they don't allow time for the smoke to penetrate the meat before wrapping it in aluminum foil.
After wrapping, the meat is taken to the kitchen, where I presume it is either cooked in a gas or electric oven to save time. Orders are filled from a steam table that stores what appear to be half-pound portions of pulled-pork wrapped in aluminum foil that is chopped using two meat cleavers as orders are placed by customers. When served the meat is slathered with so much barbecue sauce that it's impossible to eat the sandwich without sauce dripping all over everything; hands and clothes included.
The quaint little hometown mom-and-pop bbq joint has sacrificed it's charm and originality to survive. It not only competes, but thrives against a much bigger and better funded corporate-owned store. It's a barbecue and business reality. I don' t like it, but it is what it is.
I'm sure glad I have my own cookers back again. I think I'm going to have to fire them up again next weekend and cook my own barbecue from now on.