On my most recent trip to North Carolina, I had an hour and half long conversation with a mystery pitmaster at Stamey’s BBQ who turned out to be no less of an luminary than Charles Stamey himself. Charles Stamey is the grandson of the father of Lexington-style Carolina BBQ Warner Stamey and is the father of current Stamey empire head Charles (Chip) Stamey. I obviously didn’t record the conversation but we had but had some time to think through our conversation. So I’m focusing more on my reflections for the conversation rather than the conversation itself.
To see a retired gentleman shovel embers into the pits while there were much younger men surrounding us prompted the question – what are you doing here? The answer was that he was trying something new. Now it’s hard to imagine what new aspect he was working through after manning the pits for so long. Or as he puts it “took what he learned the first day and try not to screw it up for 38 years”.
I’m imagining that much of the innovation he was seeking has been the same as many of his generation have been seeking for a while. That is, how does one preserve the old tradition of cooking barbecue with embers while still maintaining or increasing margins. My clue to this was his interest in a pit I was working on inspired by my teacher Ed Mitchell. How does one create a way of cooking old school barbecue and be able to reduce labor costs?
This style of thinking is pretty common amongst the old generation pitmasters. Growing up in the shadow of World War II, the mark of true intelligence was to maximize efficiency. How can we streamline processes, reduce costs, eliminate redundancies. You see Private Equity financiers take this to it’s ultimate morphology in modern leveraged buyouts of mature industries. This was necessary because barbecue has been a cheap product for a long long time. To give you an idea, it costs me $6.19 for a LARGE barbecue plate with slaw and hush puppies. My meal for lunch today at McDonald’s will cost no less than $8. Think about that for moment. It will cost me MORE money to get a mass produced, frozen fried patty with fries than a plate of chopped pork shoulders slowly roasted over wood embers overnight. What is shocking is that when people will squawk at the price of BBQ if it rose to $8 and yet see no issue with spending that much at the McDonald’s drive through.
So much of the innovation to increase margins lie largely with people’s perception of BBQ. BBQ for many people is fast food, akin to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The innovations of efficiencies have lead many older pitmasters to head the way of the gas powered smoker. Ovens which roast the meats with a tiny branch of wood for flavor. Where once people BBQ’ed with logs, many have moved to chips.
The challenge for current generation is the sell the fact that barbecue is an artisanal product. Where on the artisanal product spectrum it should sit is extremely difficult to gauge. Smoked pig is woven deep in South Eastern American life, people in North Carolina eat it once or twice a week. So it isn’t in some upper crust spectrum like rare cheeses or fine wines. Somewhere long the craft beer industry is where I see modern BBQ going. For the longest time, barbecue seemed to have been competing with the Burger Kings and Applebees of the world and it’s a losing battle. These national firms are the best at what they do. To play in the market with gas smokers will forever be a losing proposition. They have stronger economies of scale, massive buying power, and global brand recognition. It would be akin to someone entering the beer market by offering bland generic fizzy yellow beer and competing with Budweiser.
The last generation of pitmasters were not only master cooks. They were exemplars of operational efficiencies. This way of thinking though will not save old school barbecue. To compete in this world on price will always be race to the bottom. The people of the world are seeking value over price. People easily pay over $4 for a coffee drink which is close to 70% of my lunch at Stamey’s. This generation of today’s pitmasters need to innovate, not to increase margins, but to sell the public on the value of meat cooked by hand over an evening’s worth of all wood embers.