Smokin’ the Competition

Advice for mastering today’s bigger, bolder and younger BBQ catering scene

By Connie Jeske Crane

For the last few years, barbecue enthusiasts have been happily patting their bellies as a barbecue boom sweeps the nation. While the roots of American barbecue go long and deep in our nation’s history, the latest resurgence is changing things up in several ways. First there are the impressive numbers. In 2014, for example, Chicago-based market research firm Technomic reported that U.S. barbecue restaurant sales grew by 7.2 percent to $2.9 billion—double the overall industry rate—and the number of barbecue restaurants increased by 8 percent.

Beyond numbers, there’s spread. We’re seeing America’s iconic cuisine push well past the traditional Southern barbecue belt. Youthful pitmasters are opening rustic-chic outposts in places like Brooklyn, Denver and Chicago, not to mention Tokyo, London and Paris. Yes, Paris! In 2016, The Washington Post noted that “classic American barbecue” is the latest rage in the City of Lights.

Thanks to online influencers, celebrity pitmasters and (finally!) attentive food critics, low-and-slow wood-fired ’cue is getting the respect it deserves. And the trend just keeps on sizzling. What does all that love mean for catering professionals? Opportunity, for sure. Those heaping barbecue plates fit right in with today’s casual events vibe.

For advice on how to navigate this quickly evolving arena, we turned to three successful players across the country. All underline that, given the rush of millennial customers embracing barbecue, innovation is just as important as secret recipes and tradition. Want to make it as a pitmaster-slash-caterer? We uncovered five trends that will help you smoke the competition.

Trend 1

Elevated Food

Buzzwords: Artisanal, authentic, house-made, local, seasonal, humanely sourced

By the numbers:

•  Millennials spend 44% of their food dollars on eating out. [Food Institute]

•  More than 66% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable foods. [Maru/Matchbox]

In Hanover, N.H., Nigel and Elizabeth Leeming co-own Murphy’s on the Green, a local institution on the Dartmouth College campus, where the house specialty is a dry-rubbed, slow-smoked barbecue. Beyond the restaurant business, which Nigel Leeming says pulls in $2 million-plus annually, Murphy’s also caters everything from weddings to campus functions. Of his large millennial client base, he says, “They’re a group that understands they like good food, and because they’ve eaten out a lot more, they are more educated.”

Consequently, Leeming says, Murphy’s actively promotes its local, seasonal, scratch-made food. “On our menus we have ‘Locavore’ on them. We stress that; we tell them when we’re doing [catering] bids that it’s local produce, local cheeses, local meats….” As for his sauces and sides, Leeming says, “Everything is from scratch; we even make our jalapeños.”

Since meat is the star of the show, we turned to Benjamin Thorne of Southpaw BBQ in San Francisco for advice on what cooking techniques are required. Also a co-creator of famed Sneaky’s BBQ, a local South Carolina-style pop-up and catering service, Thorne says of barbecue, “It’s an easy food to make, but it’s not an easy food to make well.” With today’s discerning customers, he says cheekily, you’ve got to offer more than “here’s some pulled pork, and we braised it and threw it in a Crock-Pot or something.” Caterers need to hire or become pitmasters. If you want to sweat it out, Thorne’s experience is encouraging. After months of recipe development, and years at pop-up catering, he is an accomplished, respected pitmaster.

Trend 2

Dietary Restrictions

Buzzwords: Plant-based, vegetarian,
vegan, flexitarian, gluten-free

By the numbers:

•  26% of millennials are vegetarian/vegan. [Acosta]

•  34% of meat-eating millennials eat four or more vegetarian dinners weekly. [Acosta]

•  More than 3 million Americans follow a gluten-free diet. [Forbes]

Let’s admit today’s barbecue boom is paradoxical. “So it’s an unhealthy food to begin with, and it’s being smoked as well,” says Southpaw’s Thorne, laughing. “But people still love the idea of comfort food and they want that—but they also want to be healthy, and so it’s sort of at odds with itself.”

Today, caterers must please diverse clients, from meat-eaters, to vegans and flexitarians. “We do see a trend lately toward healthier, leaner options—people are really into pulled chicken,” says Thorne. “In terms of the vegan or vegetarian stuff, I’ve been doing smoked jackfruit for almost as long as I’ve had a catering company, so about eight years.”

Thorne—who’s gotten good press for innovation with jackfruit, a nubby Asian fruit about the size of a rugby ball—is stoked about this plant-based option. “People are into it because it has a great taste and great texture, and it takes to the smoking process very well,” he says. “But also, presentationally, it looks just like pulled chicken or pulled pork.”

Finally, to accommodate gluten-free diets, caterers stress simplicity—keep gluten out of meat dishes and items that contain gluten separated from other foods. Thorne says, “As long as you avoid our mac ’n’ cheese, our buns, our corn bread…most of our menu is already gluten-free. You don’t even have to think about it.” [Keep in mind safety and sanitation when preparing food for gluten-intolerant guests; Beyond Celiac’s GREAT Kitchens program ( offers online resources on how to maintain gluten-free protocols in your business.]

A chicken plate from San Francisco-based Southpaw BBQ.

Trend 3

International Flavors

Buzzwords: Fusion, international cuisine,
novelty, experience

By the numbers:

•  Millennials like to feel they’re “exploring something new” when they eat out. [BCG]

•  40% of millennials are interested in dishes with new or innovative flavors and ingredients (compared to 29% of Boomers). [Technomic]

Even in the South, millennial tastes are demanding innovation. At Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn BBQ, siblings Howard and Anita Hsu are winning fans with their fusion of classic Southern ingredients and the flavors of their Chinese-Malaysian heritage. With items like pimento cheese wontons, bulgogi salad and wok-fried green beans (barbecued tofu is coming soon), the team now caters 1,000-plus events per year. “Food, in this day and age, where everybody is tuned into food culture, has become in a way an artistic expression,” says Howard Hsu. “I think it’s important for you to do what you know, or what you love, or what you envision.”

Trend 4


Buzzwords: Social media, digital, Instagrammable, photography

By the numbers:

•  7 in 10 millennials share their meals on social media. [Maru/Matchbox]

•  43% of millennials say they’d buy all of their food online if they could. [Maru/Matchbox]

While nothing beats talking face-to-face with customers, caterers like Hsu know reaching millennials means embracing technology. “People have more access to information about what restaurants are popular or what food is great and are constantly posting pictures of food on Instagram.” Like most players today, Sweet Auburn maintains social media channels and a well-designed website offering online ordering, online shopping (for branded T-shirts and house-made barbecue sauce), plus an event details form.

“Occasionally I might bring in a professional photographer and do stock photography and use those photos as needed,” says Hsu. “But lots of times it’s a simple iPhone with a trained artistic eye, understanding how to properly take the photo and how to maximize the social post.”

A BBQ sandwich from Atlanta-based Sweet Auburn Barbecue.

Trend 5


Buzzwords: Convenience, food trucks, food to go, drop-off catering, casual

By the numbers:

•  55 percent of millennials say convenience is a top consideration when buying food. [IFIC 2017 Food and Health Survey]

•  Millennials prefer fast, fast-casual and takeout formats. [BCG]

With laid-back dining now so popular, barbecue is conquering ever-more kinds of events. “We do ’em all,” says Hue. “We will do weddings, corporate meetings or functions, team-building events, private birthday parties…parties of any sort, really.”

Caterers say formal plated dinners are rare today, with customers preferring drop-off catering, onsite food trucks, buffets or restaurant buyouts. A big plus here, says Southpaw’s Thorne, is that barbecue really lends itself to batch cooking and casual catering. “Put it together, tray it up, and send it on its way,” he says. “It’s a relatively uncomplicated process.” Of course, since millennials enjoy food experiences, Thorne’s clients occasionally want a live smoker at an event. Because smoking meat can take up to 14 hours, Thorne says it’s hard to comply, but he might bring ribs up to temp in the smoker onsite instead.

In similar fashion, in Hanover, when Murphy’s has a big event, Leeming organizes an in-house production line around the smoker. He welcomes catering jobs as “bonus money,” but warns that, despite the casual feel, authentic barbecue is hard work. “Everybody thinks they can just do it quick…but real barbecue is obviously not that,” he notes. “Smoking takes time—the prep, the rubs, there’s a lot of work that goes in, you know. And that’s why it ends up tasting so darn good.”


Connie Jeske Crane is a Toronto-based freelance writer who writes frequently about event management, sport tourism, weddings and social media.