BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Alabama’s best export might be slathered with sauce. ‘Bama-based barbecue restaurants _ known for their variety of styles _ are spreading throughout the South and beyond, slowly gaining an out-of-state foothold in a highly regionalized business where diners can be pretty picky about what’s on their plate.
Any fan of Southeastern Conference football knows about Tuscaloosa’s Dreamland BBQ Ribs, which started in a smoky, dark building in 1958 a few miles from the University of Alabama. It now has six restaurants, including two in upscale parts of metro Atlanta, and each has the same motto: “Ain’t nothing like’ em nowhere.”
Golden Rule Bar-B-Q, which opened in 1891 near Birmingham, has 20 locations in Alabama and has expanded to one each in Georgia and Tennessee with plans to move into more states by the end of the year. And Jim N’ Nicks Bar-B-Q has grown beyond its Alabama roots into Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee.
With projected sales of $79 million this year, Jim N’ Nicks has plans to grow to two dozen locally owned restaurants by early next year, with one as far away as Denver.
The trick, according to Jim N’ Nicks marketing director Sam Burn, is translating the tradition, food and fun of a backyard cookout into a restaurant experience that sells across state lines.
“Barbecue is something people are really passionate about,” said Burn. “Barbecue is very personal and communal and local.”
Other Southern barbecue restaurants have spread _ the Florida-based Sonny’s Bar-B-Q calls itself the nation’s largest barbecue chain with more than 150 restaurants in nine Southeastern states. But the spread of so many restaurants from a single state is unusual in the barbecue world, according to Scott Jones, executive food editor at Southern Living magazine.
Areas like the Carolinas, Memphis, Tenn., Texas or Kansas City are known for certain styles of meat, he said. People who are used to a certain type of barbecue _ chopped pork covered with a watery, vinegar-based sauce, for example _ may turn up their noses at a spare rib coated in thick, tomato-based sauce.
But, Jones said, Alabama barbecue restaurants are hard to pigeonhole, serving everything from saucy chopped pork to spare ribs rubbed with dry spices to chicken coated in white sauce. Some even serve Texas-style beef, for heaven’s sake. That just doesn’t happen in most parts of the Deep South.
That gastronomic diversity might make it easier than normal for Alabama-based companies to cross geographic boundaries and catch on elsewhere, Jones said.
“They only requirement for them is to turn the rest of the country on to barbecue,” said Jones. “They’re not locked down to any particular style.”
Another food expert, John T. Edge, said the migration of barbecue restaurants has quickened in recent years. He called it a “curious phenomenon,” one that goes against generations of tradition of old Southern men, black and white, cooking meat by a pit for neighbors.
“Barbecue was once the most hyper-localized food in the South,” said Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “You built a tradition, you built a style that was honed by an old-line pit master. They didn’t move. They stayed in one place.”
At Jim N’ Nicks, Burn said managers have tried to craft a menu that both attracts everyday diners and recalls the roots of old-fashioned barbecue.
“Authentic Southern barbecue is the foundation of our business,” he said. “Ribs and white bread are the inspiration, but it’s evolved through the years.”
The family-owned Jim N’ Nicks has grown by finding local owners to open new restaurants. At Golden Rule, vice president Todd Becker said all the growth has been by franchising.
“We’re going to try to grow 30 percent a year for the next five years,” he said. “Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, the Carolinas: We’ve got plans to expand to all those areas, plus Mississippi and Florida.” They aren’t alone.
Full Moon Bar-B-Que started in metro Birmingham and has expanded to locations including Baltimore, where Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis operates a restaurant. And in the Tennessee Valley of north Alabama, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is planning to branch out.
Gibson’s, which has won numerous barbecue competitions and claims to have the world’s best sauce, already sells its sauces in eight states and more than 2,000 stores. It, too, is planning to fire up the smoker outside of Alabama.
“We’re working on a location up in North Carolina with a franchise there,” said Paul Collins, manager of one of the company’s two restaurants in Decatur.
Edge said he expects the growth to continue as people all over America look for down-home dining experiences.
“At the same time the country is discovering local foods, companies are learning how to export,” he said. “I think it can work. Hell, the South sold the world Coca-Cola.”