While some full-service restaurants are trying out fast-casual formats to save on costs, Rodney Scott is doing the opposite—proving that casual dining isn’t dying yet. The James Beard Award-winning pitmaster is transitioning his Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ restaurants from counter service to full table service, starting with his three locations in Birmingham, Alabama.
When asked what drove his decision to hit go on a plan he’s been ideating about for months, Scott tells FSR it came down to giving guests a true culture of Southern hospitality—and the nature of his menu.
“When you think of barbecue, you think of sitting down and lingering a while with friends and family while enjoying great food,” Scott says. “This is the best way to serve guests with our food. We want people to feel catered to and feel like it’s a more complete experience.”
The barbecue concept serves up pit-cooked meats, cocktails, and traditional Southern sides like cornbread, collard greens, mac & cheese, and coleslaw. Scott has been cooking meats over wood coals since he was 11 years old, and worked with his family in their restaurants in Hemingway, South Carolina, for the next 25 years until he opened his own concept in Charleston. Together with his friend Nick Pihakis of the Pihakis Restaurant Group, Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ expanded to five locations, including two in Birmingham and one in Atlanta.
“With my business partner Nick Pihaki’s past experience and with me loving the element of catering to guests, it just worked,” Scott adds about flipping the concept’s service format.
“People appreciate being catered to, so the ROI will be driven by our guests who will go to our restaurants and have their expectations fully exceeded from what you typically expect at a BBQ restaurant.”
While the idea stemmed from Scott’s and his team’s desire to connect with guests more personally and give them an elevated experience, the logistics to make the switch work required heavy involvement in both time and money.
Scott’s existing staff will be trained on the basics of serving, from table manners and processing payments from handheld devices at tables to time management skills. He’ll also hire a host to greet guests at the door and an additional bartender at each restaurant, plus change up the uniforms for team members. He previously required jeans, t-shirts, and short aprons around the waist, but staff members will now wear dark jeans with a bib apron, which Scott says “provides more of a cleaner look; we thought that elevated service called for a more elevated look and uniform.”
“We had to get everyone adapted to the full-service model to make this transition work,” Scott says. “While there has been training investment and uniform investment up front, the ROI (return on investment) should be high. People appreciate being catered to, so the ROI will be driven by our guests who will go to our restaurants and have their expectations fully exceeded from what you typically expect at a BBQ restaurant.”
Merchandise such as cookbooks, proprietary sauces, and apparel will now be sold at the front greeting table versus the register, and guests will also be able to dine at what was once the to-go counter.
Scott and his team shifted to full service at the Birmingham’s Homewood location on 18th Street on March 20, and will be transitioning his other restaurants—with the exception of his original store in Charleston—in the near future. Next up are his two other Alabama locations in Birmingham and Trussville.
So far, Scott has received positive responses to the change from both staff members and customers.
“The experience of shifting to full-service has just been so much more personal for the team—they love the element of catering to the guests instead of just bringing food to the table,” he says.
Meanwhile, guests feel attended to “from the minute they walk in the door to when they leave,” versus a fast-casual format where typically the only interaction guests have with staff is at the counter.
“It all really came down to the type of experience we wanted our guests to have at the restaurants, so we wanted to go back to the true culture of hospitality and provide guests with a more personalized experience,” he adds. “It really gives us the opportunity to connect with them and fulfill that meaning of Southern hospitality.”