The Whole Hog is a small (ish) barbecue chain in the US, which runs a licence and franchise business model. Its menu has broad similarities to Red’s in that they offer a celebration of regional barbecue, so we’d earmarked this early on in our planning to see just how a highly successful roll out is done in the motherland.
This particular outlet counts Bill Clinton as a regular (and he’s a BIG BBQ aficionado) and boasts a cabinet-full of BBQ competition awards, so we were confident we’d get to taste some good ‘cue. We placed our order of two barbecue platters: Pulled pork, beef brisket, baby backs, beans, potato salad, slaw and dinner roll, plus a few ‘rope’ Links, grabbed a Diamond Bear Pale Ale and sat at the table.
Again, just like Red’s this place offers free table BBQ sauces; 1: Sweet, mild molasses flavour; 2: Traditional tomato, vinegar, slightly tangy 3: A picker version of sauce #2; 4:Traditional Southern vinegar and spice; 5: Sweet, heavy molasses flavoured; 6: Rich mustard and vinegar and Old South favourite, along two additional specials, Shack Sauce and Volcano. No sooner had the food arrived, but word leaked to the owners that some BBQ dudes were in town, and so intrigued, they made a U-turn on their way home to swing by and say hello.
We instantly connected with both Rich and Nancy, kindred spirits who love their barbecue, but who acutely understand the dynamics of turning that passion and energy into a successful business. The food was excellent, although as ever, barbecue splits opinion:
Brisket: Thinly sliced, with a fairly prominent smoke ring, this had been heated up in au jus so was moist.
Pulled chicken: Nice and smoky pulled chicken breast with a light dusting of rub, which gave a lovely salt/savoury hit. Some found it dry but Clint and myself loved it.
Baby backs: Really chunky loin with a deep smoky flavour and finished with a sticky glaze. We know just hard it is to source this cut, but in the US it’s the norm.
The sides were some of the best we had so far, in particular the potato salad which they had used sour cream, softening the overall taste.
The stand out from the meal though was the Links. A Kielbasa-type sausage with an incredible snap, it was well-seasoned and just the right amount of garlic and herbs. While in there, we met the lady responsible for developing this, so….let’s see what happens at Red’s.
We spent a good hour chatting food and business, before going back stage to see the heart of the operation and its two mighty Ole Hickory pits. These beasts sat flush to the wall in the kitchen, with the smoker itself extending outside, meaning all the mess, logs (Rich uses Pecan) and smoke remained outdoors (oh for the space!). As we met other members of the restaurant, it was encouraging to see what a close team Rich and Diane had fostered. Employee satisfaction and a ‘we can do’ mentality was as important as the food and customers.
As we set to leave the kitchen Rich shared in a rap with his Pitmaster B-Dog (specially written by his employee for Rich) before imparting some final words of wisdom about the BBQ game. The journey to success had been a tough one for him and his wife. Two years of losing money before any sign of a return. Endless late nights, stress, hard-work and let downs, and a continual requirement to keep learning, keep tweaking his Pitmaster skills to stay true to the cause. Setting up a barbecue restaurant was for the mad and insane. Would he change it?