How to Start a Barbecue Restaurant

Open a BBQ Shop

While arguments about which type of barbecue is the best have gone on as long as meat has been slow-cooked over heat, every foodservice business owner can agree on one thing: starting a barbecue restaurant won't be a walk in the park. There are a thousand decisions to make, from finding the right location and getting the necessary permits to choosing the best equipment and perfecting a recipe to get the flavor you want. This guide will walk you through the basics of how to start a barbecue restaurant, so you can add your own professional opinion to the debate on which style is actually best.

Table of Contents

  1. Menu Development
  2. Location is Key
  3. Licensing and Insurance
  4. Equipment
  5. Marketing

Menu Development

Menu development for a barbecue restaurant can be tricky. People have a lot of opinions about what constitutes good barbecue, and those opinions vary widely by region. People from the Carolinas think pork when they hear barbecue, but someone from Texas is more likely to want beef brisket or sausage. Meanwhile, plenty of folks think barbecue is anything prepared on an outdoor grill, but here we're specifically talking about food cooked low and slow - at low temperatures for a long time - over hot flames and/or coals.

The sauces vary as well: thick or thin; tomato-, vinegar-, or mustard-based; cooked on the meat or served on the side. When deciding which to focus on in your restaurant, consider where you're located, and whether you want to offer your customers something familiar or if you want to convince them to try something new. Below is a breakdown of the basic types of barbecue from each region:1

  • North Carolina boasts two barbecue types. Eastern North Carolina serves chopped whole hog, typically cooked in a pit with wood, topped with a vinegar and pepper sauce. The western end of the state often prefers 'Lexington Style' barbecue, pork shoulder with a red sauce.
  • South Carolina is the home of 'Carolina Gold', a mustard-based barbecue sauce served over chopped whole hog.
  • Tennessee is known for Memphis barbecue, where pork ribs are served either with a dry rub or basted and served with a tomato-based sauce.
  • Kentucky makes its barbecue out of mutton, which is served with a Worcestershire-based sauce called 'dip.' Pork shoulder is also popular in Eastern Kentucky.
  • Missouri also has two barbecue styles. St. Louis barbecue is pork steak with a vinegar tomato sauce, while Kansas City uses pork, beef, chicken, and even fish with a molasses-and-tomato sauce. Kansas City is also the home of burnt ends, which are double-smoked pieces of brisket.
  • Texas is home to several barbecue styles, but the most popular meats are beef brisket and sausage, which are generally served without any sauce at all.
  • Alabama serves mainly pork barbecue with a tomato-based sauce, but chicken with a white mayonnaise-base sauce is also popular, particularly around Birmingham and in the northern part of the state.

A major consideration when developing your menu is how the barbecue is cooked. The most traditional method involves smoking the meat in a 'pit,' cooking it for long periods of time over low heat. Most local health departments cannot allow a restaurant to cook outside, but in most cases you can build a separate building to smoke the meat in.2 There is some debate among barbecue experts about how the type of wood used to smoke meat will affect its flavor; some claim the species of wood determines the flavor, while others say the region it was grown in has a much more profound effect. Generally, mesquite wood is considered to have the strongest flavor, while fruit-tree woods are the mildest, but nearly any non-resinous wood type can work.3 If you decide to cook in a pit, you will need to estimate your sales volume ahead of time, and may need a method of rethermalizing food before serving it or keeping it warm without drying it out.

Some barbecue restaurants forego traditional cooking methods, instead choosing to steam their meat before throwing it on a grill or griddle to sear the outside or smoke the meat in a commercial smoker. However, some barbecue aficionados don't appreciate these shortcuts, so if you live in an area where people have strong opinions about barbecue, you may find more success cooking in a more traditional manner.

While some regions prefer to serve their barbecue with a dry rub, in most cases you will need to develop a barbecue sauce. Food and Wine suggests starting with the sauce type you want to focus on, whether that's tomato-, mustard-, vinegar-, or mayonnaise-based, and varying the sweetener, spices, and additional ingredients used until you find the perfect flavor. Some recipes can even include fruit to add an extra layer to the sauce.4

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Location is Key

Finding the perfect location for your restaurant will be a major determining factor in whether it will be successful. As you begin looking at locations, have a basic idea of the size you need for both the dining room and the kitchen. Too large of a space may have you paying more rent than you can afford, but not enough space may restrict your ability to grow your business. Make sure your kitchen holds enough equipment to cook for your customers in a timely manner and the dining room can comfortably accommodate the number of tables you need. Total Food Service gives the following guidelines for space required per seat:5

  • Full Service Restaurant: 12 to 15 square feet
  • Counter Service: 18 to 20 square feet
  • Fast Food: 11 to 14 square feet

What is happening outside the building is just as important as what's inside. Visit the location at different times of the day on weekends and weekdays to get a feel for traffic patterns for the days and times you plan to be open, which for some traditional barbecue joints will be weekends-only. Is the location visible to a large number of people? Is it near a large residential area or business park that might bring business? If the traffic is more vehicular than pedestrian, do you have adequate parking? If the location was not a restaurant previously, does the city's zoning allow you to open one there? Are there any other barbecue places nearby that you will be competing with? What will set you apart from the other restaurants in the area?

Last but certainly not least, keep your budget in mind. Be careful to not overreach, but don't be afraid to look at places a little out of your price range, as most property owners are open to some negotiation. The length and cost of the lease should be discussed, as well as whether the owner will handle lawn care or building maintenance. If the building is older, you may also be able to work out an agreement to get the electrical or plumbing systems upgraded, if that's needed.

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Licensing and Insurance

To keep your restaurant on the right side of the law, you will need to apply for a number of licenses and permits. Every state and city varies in their requirements, so a good place to start is to contact your local chamber of commerce or city hall. You may wish to consider hiring a business lawyer to help you navigate all the paperwork and red tape the permits and licenses will require.

  • Building Permits: You likely need a building permit if you plan to do any renovating. These permits generally require your contractor to submit the plans for approval. Once your building is ready for business, you will need to get a building inspection and certificate of occupancy, which usually come from the fire commissioner.
  • Business License: You will need to register your business with several levels of government, usually including local, state, and federal. A business license registers you locally and in some cases goes together with the state's retail sales license, which allows you to charge sales tax. The federal government will issue you an Employer Identification Number (EIN) or Tax ID number to allow the IRS to start records on your business. Registering your business name is also important, as it both ensures that the name is not already taken and prevents any other local businesses from using that name.
  • Sign Permits: Most local governments have restrictions on where you can put signs and how tall they can be. Additionally, some may require you to submit plans for your signs to be approved before you can begin construction or installation.
  • Food Handling Permits: To obtain a food handling permit, you will generally need to take a course in safe food handling practices, such as those offered by ServSafe.6 Some states also offer government-sponsored courses, and some require an on-site inspection in addition to taking a class.
  • Liquor License: If you will be serving beer or mixed drinks at your restaurant, start researching how to get your liquor license as soon as possible, as that process can take a while. These permits and the requirements to acquire them will vary widely depending on your location and what you wish to serve.7

Insurance is a must-have for any business, but especially when starting a barbecue restaurant. Even with every safety measure possible in place, there is always the chance of sickness or theft, either of which could leave your business floundering if your insurance doesn't cover the catastrophe. General business liability insurance protects you from the costs of any litigation that may arise against your business as a result of sickness or if an accident or injury occurs on your property. Business crime insurance is also particularly important for a barbecue restaurant, as many commercial grills and smokers come on wheels and must be used outside, making those prime targets for thieves. This type of insurance also covers employee theft. Speak with an experienced insurance agent to make sure you get all the coverage you need to financially protect your restaurant.

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The equipment you purchase for the kitchen of your barbecue restaurant should be determined by a balance of what you need to cook your menu, what you have room for, and what you can afford. A reach-in refrigerator and reach-in freezer offer cold storage to help you keep food at safe temperatures until you are ready to cook it. These are available in one to three sections, but undercounter models are available to help you expand your storage further. You will also need either a commercial dishwasher or a three-compartment sink to meet dishwashing health codes.

Commercial smokers allow you to get the traditional smoky flavor some barbecue styles demand without having to cook outside. These are available with cook-and-hold capabilities and range in size from small countertop units to full-size smokers capable of smoking full sides of beef or pork. However, restaurant operators in places like Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas should be aware that people in those regions have very strong opinions about how barbecue should be cooked, and may not consider meat cooked in a smoker as 'real' barbecue. In these areas, you may wish to consider building a barbecue pit to meet customer expectations, though you will need to consult your local health codes to see how to do so within their regulations.

A commercial outdoor grill can help you cook your barbecue traditionally while also drawing in crowds with the smoke and smells it produces. These use gas or solid fuels like wood and charcoal to produce heat, may be covered or open, and often come on wheels to make transportation simple. For cooking side dishes, you may also need a commercial range, steamer, oven, or deep fryer.

In addition to equipping your kitchen, you must also consider the front of house. Restaurant tables can be bought as one piece or with bases and tops separate, and you can decide whether you want to offer chairs or booths for seating. You will also need to select the drinkware and dinnerware that best meets your needs and fits the theme of your restaurant.

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Now you're ready to open, but who knows about it? Marketing is one of the most important aspects of opening a barbecue restaurant; you can't feed customers who don't know you exist. If your location is a bit out of the way, you may have more of an uphill battle than a restaurant located on a busy thoroughfare, but there are many ways to get the word out before you open your doors.

  • Social media is invaluable when it comes to marketing. If you use social media sites wisely, they can connect you with thousands of potential customers, even on a shoestring advertising budget.
  • Newspapers are often willing to run a story about a new business opening. Prepare a press release for your local media to help spread the word. You may also want to consider running an ad with a coupon to entice people to try your food.
  • If your town allows them, consider using sidewalk signs to draw in new customers
  • Television and radio ads can be costly, but if you have the budget for them, they can be a great way to reach more customers.

Remember that getting new customers in the door is only half the battle; you also want to keep them coming back. A great way to do that is to collect email addresses or phone numbers and start an email list or text club to send customers information about new menu items or promotions.

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1. The American Barbecue Style Guide. Eater. Accessed April 2016.

2. The Myth of Health Departments, Wood Cooking, and Grandfathering". Free Times. Accessed April 2016.

3. What You Need to Know About Wood. Amazing Ribs. Accessed April 2016.

4. Creating Your Own Barbecue Sauce. Food & Wine. Accessed April 2016.

5. How to Create a Restaurant Floor Plan. Total Food Service. Accessed April 2016.

6. ServSafe. National Restaurant Association. Accessed March 2016.

7. Legal Libations in Your New Restaurant. KaTom Blog. Accessed March 2016.