Despite rabid followings and iconic branding, it has been difficult, if not impossible, for barbecue chains to expand nationally. Will that ever change?
By the end of 2016, McDonald’s had amassed 36,900 retail shops globally, Burger King 15,738 outlets, and Pizza Hut 11,000 eateries. While burger and pizza chains have expanded exponentially, consider some of the largest barbecue chains in the U.S.: Famous Dave’s of America had 170 locations in 34 states, mostly in Florida and the South, and Sonny’s BBQ had 112 eateries in nine states. But few barbecue eateries have blossomed into national chains. Why not?
Why can’t barbecue joints make the leap to national powerhouses the way that burger and pizza chains have? Is it that barbecue cooking requires so much intense preparation that it can’t replicate, like mass producing burgers?
READ MORE: These are five of the best barbecue joints in America.
Barbecue enthusiasts are comparable to fans of Bruce Springsteen or the Grateful Dead. They love their barbecue; they drive miles for it to wait on long lines; and they keep coming back for more. So aficionados gravitate toward Joe’s Kansas City Bar B-Que, Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue in Tyler, Texas, Eli’s BBQ in Cincinnati, Ohio, The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas, and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse, New York, to name a few.
These classic barbecue joints have expanded, but often modestly. There are three Joe’s Kansas City, six Eli’s BBQ, nine Dinosaur’s on the East Coast, and only one Stanley’s. Hence many barbecue joints stay independent or spawn several additions, but many owners don’t want to franchise or duplicate. Jim 'N Nick's, a full-service 37-unit chain with locations in seven states, was recently scooped up by prominent private-equity firm Roark Capital Group, the group that just purchased Buffalo Wild Wings and has stakes in CKE Restaurants and FOCUS Brands, among others. Will it be able to scale the chain, founded in 1985? Fast casual Dickey's Barbecue Pit, started in 1941 by Travis Dickey, is the largest barbecue brand in the nation with more than 550 locations in 44 states. Read more about CEO Laura Rea Dickey's plans for the brand here.
Brian Warrener, associate professor of Hospitality Management at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, characterized barbecue food as a “niche cuisine centered in the Midwest and South.” But he considers the food so regionalized that it will never attract the hordes of customers needed to turn into a national chain.
Warrener harbors a classic image of a pitmaster, “a guy who’s out with the pit, making it for the second generation, who can tell the temperature of the wood without taking it.” But that image of authenticity, which rings true with many millennials, won’t sustain a national chain.