The Fourth of July may be over and done with this year, but that doesn’t mean barbecue is slowing down for consumers—or restaurants.

In fact, according to newly released research by Technomic, 63 percent of the top 500 restaurant chains offer barbecue as a flavor, ingredient, or preparation style, proving that this trend is only continuing to grow.

Technomic’s “Category Close-up: Barbecue” report also shows that overall menu incidence of barbecue sauce is up more than 5 percent in the past year.

Although barbecue isn’t an “everyday flavor” and customers typically only eat it once a week at most, “through innovation, the barbecue flavor is appearing more frequently on the menu” as a dip, sauce, or part of the dish, says Technomic executive vice president Darren Tristano.

One reason barbecue is becoming increasingly popular is the experience surrounding it, says Andrew Atwell, regional executive chef for foodservice company Aramark. He says barbecue is family-oriented, passed down through generations, and often has good memories associated with it.

“It’s very social, and everybody likes to talk about their own style and how they do it,” says Atwell, who helped design the barbecue-heavy menu for the upcoming Major League Baseball All-Star Game that takes place July 10 in Kansas City, Missouri, one of the country’s biggest barbecue hubs.

For the All-Star Game, Atwell fashioned a menu of barbecue dishes that includes the KC Rib Eye Stack Sandwich, made with seasoned rib eye steak, Cheddar cheese, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, onion rings, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, and pickle on a bun; the All-Star BBQ Dog, a classic, all-beef hot dog piled high with pulled pork, coleslaw, pickle slices, and barbecue sauce; and the Cheesy Corn Brisket-achos, nachos topped with smoked brisket, baked beans, cheesy corn, coleslaw, and barbecue sauce.

Atwell says that during the days leading up to and including the All-Star Game, his crew plans to use 5,000 pounds of smoked meat, 600 racks of ribs, and 650,000 gallons of barbecue sauce.

Atwell says the simple fact that people have more time on their hands—and therefore, more time to grill and barbecue—in the summer is one reason this category is more popular in warm weather.

That’s likely the primary reason that during the last year, more operators featured barbecue LTOs in the summer than in the winter, according to the Technomic report. 

However, Atwell says that while barbecue is more of an outdoor food and often isn’t very popular in the cooler months, barbecue bases around the U.S.—including North Carolina, Texas, and Kansas City—have a huge barbecue demand year-round.

And although Tristano says the preparation motto of “cook it low and slow” allows full-service restaurants to more easily produce barbecue menu items, he says quick serves can get in on the action, too.

Which is exactly what Burger King did with the launch of its barbecue-inspired LTO menu that debuted last month. Featuring items like the Memphis Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwich, the Carolina BBQ Whopper, and the Texas BBQ Chicken Sandwich, the menu has so far been a hit with consumers.

In fact, demand has been so strong that Burger King will likely sell out of the Memphis Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwich—the first offering introduced during the LTO—in most of its restaurants.

To capitalize on the trend, Tristano says quick serves can use shredded or pre-cooked meats that are pre-marinated with barbecue flavors.

When it comes to barbecue sauces, the Technomic report shows that a large majority of barbecue sauce mentions on menus don’t have a flavor associated with them, giving restaurants room to offer more innovative barbecue sauce flavors that can act as the focal point for a new menu offering.

But if a restaurant plans to capitalize on this sauce potential, it needs to be aware of consumer preferences. Technomic’s research finds that sweet and honey-style barbecue sauces are declining in popularity, while spicy and pepper varieties are becoming more desirable.

“There’s likely a place on most menus to offer barbecue,” Tristano says, “and if it isn’t an opportunity, then using sauces or flavors on wings and sandwiches is an opportunity.”

By Mary Avant

Industry News, Aramark Corporation