With 34 locations, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill is no stranger to the expansion game. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, the upscale restaurant opened its first unit in 2000 and won over diners with its wood-grilled steaks and fish. Three years later, however, when Firebirds wanted to open posts outside of North Carolina, it ran into an unlikely problem: It couldn’t transport North Carolina wood to neighboring states.
Many states have laws prohibiting the movement of firewood across state lines, including the wood used in wood-fired grills. The major concern is not the type of wood, but what may be living in it. This affects many restaurants, as they cannot necessarily create a consistent flavor profile across locations.
Firewood acts as a Trojan horse for invasive pests, as they settle invisibly into the wood and then travel with it wherever it goes, says Brian Haines, public information officer for the North Carolina Forest Service. If firewood crosses into new borders, the insect can infest forests in the new area, spawning more infestations and even lumber shortages. Firmly limiting the movement of certain wood, Haines says, is a way to contain the insects’ damage.
Even in the same state, laws may prohibit people from moving firewood outside a certain region or forest, he says. Regulations vary between states based on the type of pests. In more than 20 states, including North Carolina, moving wood is restricted because the emerald ash borer has infested trees across several states, and can ultimately kill them.
Restaurants that rely on wood know the headache. At Tahoe Joe’s, a chain themed like a ski lodge with locations across California, almond wood is the star. It distinguishes Tahoe Joe’s from competitors, as all of its steaks are grilled over the almond wood fire, imparting a nutty and sweet smoked flavor.
When the company began opening locations in Northern California, it had to consider different types of wood that could be used with the grill. The almond wood that the company is known for is local to the central valley of California and was not as widely planted in northern regions of the state. Oak wood was substituted—and customers could immediately tell the difference.