It’s a rough time to be a North Carolina barbecue fan.
McCall’s Bar-B-Que in Clayton, Jack Cobb BBQ and Son in Farmville and legendary Chapel Hill establishment Allen & Son Barbecue all closed down in 2018, and now, Bill Ellis Barbecue in Wilson is shutting its doors as well.
Old-school barbecue barons have periodically described authentic, wood-cooked North Carolina barbecue as a dying art. A generation of artisans is reaching retirement age.
The reality probably isn’t quite so dire. There’s a new generation of pitmasters coming in behind them — but it’s smaller, and today’s chopped pork faces a slew of city inspectors who often make it harder to get an authentic-style restaurant off the ground.
Could the General Assembly step in to help North Carolina barbecue?
State barbecue laws have historically been swallowed up in debates over Eastern vs. Lexington style ‘cue.
But borrowing from the experience Kentucky has had with its bourbon, North Carolina could potentially use state law to define the standards for authentic barbecue, make new restaurants easier to open, and invest in barbecue tourism.
The roadmap is there. But would it actually help?
What is authentic North Carolina barbecue?
For our purposes, we’ll borrow the definition put forward by the good folks over at the Campaign for Real Barbecue, created by North Carolina barbecue experts Dan Levine and John Shelton Reed. Here’s what they consider the hallmarks of a true North Carolina barbecue restaurant:
- Be located in North Carolina
- Use wood coals or charcoal as the only heat source in cooking, avoiding electricity and gas
- Prepare the barbecue on-site
- Serve pork
- Provide a “regionally appropriate” suace or dip — meaning vinegar-based in eastern NOrth Carolina and tomato-based in western North Carolina.
The True ‘Cue count about 50-odd barbecue joints cooking this way across the state. That’s not nothing, but it’s a far cry from what there used to be — and a small percentage of the barbecue joints out there.
Barbecue laws are on the books
For a state with a rich barbecue heritage, there are surprisingly few state laws surrounding it.
In 2005, there was a bill that would name the Lexington Barbecue Festival the “official barbecue festival of the State of North Carolina.” Amid regional differences in Lexington vs.
In 2017, the General Assembly passed what was known as the “Grill Bill,” which allows restaurants to set up outdoor grills outside their establishments.
But the impact of this law is unclear. There isn’t a definition for what constitutes a grill, and lawmakers and restauranteurs disagree about what the intention of the bill is. Some of them say it’s about letting restaurants host special cook-out style events.
The owner of Asheville-based Foothills Meats, Casey McKissick, told Mountain Xpress that technically the law could allow new barbecue restaurants to park a smoker outside, but also said it’s unclear if the fire marshall would be OK with that.
Fire codes make it harder to open up an authentic barbecue restaurant
You’ll commonly hear complaints that city fire inspectors make it difficult or impossible to open an authentic barbecue restaurant that cooks over a wood fire.
It’s unclear, however, if the problem likes in the letter of the law, the enforcement of the law, or simply the perception.
The North Carolina Department of Insurance told Longleaf Politics that there is no prohibition on cooking with wood. The True ‘Cue folks have also issued a challenge asking people to cite the source of this common complaint — with no answer.
“Difficult? Maybe, in some places. Impossible? I don’t think so,” Reed said. “It stands to reason. If wood-burning pizza ovens get a pass, why not wood-burning barbecue pits?”
But in talking with barbecue restaurant owners, it appears that in practice, getting approval from local inspectors can be difficult.
The latest version of the North Carolina Fire Code makes no mention of wood in its chapter on industrial ovens. And it includes a lot of open-ended rules that leave a lot to the discretion of the inspector. Then there are numerous regulations about ventilation, sprinkler systems, and the buildings they must be in.
One example is in Charlotte, where restauranteur Jim Noble spent months going back and forth with fire inspectors over the barbecue smoker he wanted to use for Noble Smoke.
Other restaurants have had similar struggles. But there are still a handful of new locations have ultimiately had success. Sam Jones Barbecue (Greenville), Picnic (Durham), and Buxton Hall (Asheville), and Sweet Lew’s (Charlotte) have all managed to open authentic barbecue restaurants.
“No denying that fire and building codes can add costs to restaurant up fits for wood cookers, as can insurance requirements, but we’ve yet to hear of a place that downright hasn’t been approved due to cooking with wood for owners willing and financially able to meet the codes,” Levine said.
How other states have protected important food or beverages
Kentucky bourbon provides possibly the closest analogue to what North Carolina could do with barbecue.
The situation is a little different because alcohol is already so tightly controlled by the government. Federal regulations describe the ingredients that products sold as bourbon must have — more than 50% corn, for example — and designate that it be made in the United States.
State law takes it a step further, and creates a legal definition for “Kentucky bourbon.” The commonwealth of Kentucky wants bourbon bearing its name to have standards: to be cooked in Kentucky, barreled in charred white oak, and aged for at least a year.
Kentucky also has a famous “Bourbon Trail,” with millions in marketing funded by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, with members like Wild Turkey and Jim Beam.
N.C. oysters could also provide a model
North Carolina even has a roadmap of sorts here already created by the General Assembly. Over the past few years, the state has invested heavily in the shellfish industry, rolling back some regulations and putting money toward marketing N.C. oysters.
The 2018 budget bill puts $25,000 to the Seafood Marketing Office for “the promotion of North Carolina oysters, including branding, promotion, and outreach activities directed at consumers, restaurants, and food tourism providers.” Other legislation ponders the creation of a North Carolina Oyster Trail.
What an official “North Carolina barbecue” law could look like
So why not something like these for barbecue?
Based on the Kentucky bourbon and N.C. oyster framework, a North Carolina barbecue law would likely involve three components: a definition, regulation exemption, and marketing.
A legal definition for something like “historic North Carolina barbecue” would likely adhere closely to the definition set out by the True ‘Cue organization.
A regulation roll-back would provide safe harbors for artisans practicing the ancient art of old-school barbecuing. The state would create a framework for how barbecue restaurants specifically could get approval.
Then there would be money for marketing.
The all-volunteer North Carolina Barbecue Society has put together a “Historic North Carolina Barbecue Trail,” but it’s poorly funded. The state-sponsored Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina has a page dedicated to barbecue restaurants, but that appears to be about it.
North Carolina’s barbecue industry doesn’t have giant companies like Jim Beam to privately fund marketing, so the state would likely have to step in.
Will a North Carolina barbecue law happen?
It feels like a long shot. And on its face, it seems a little bit of over-kill to have the state government wade into smoked meat.
But barbecue is important to North Carolina’s culture. Maybe a little nudge could help ease the pain.