Barbecue is what Americans agree on
Your mid-week dose of Southern food news
Even in this time of Zoom fatigue, thousands of food professionals every other week eagerly tune into Datassential’s webinar covering current food and beverage trends: The research firm keeps a close eye on the industry, conducting consumer surveys and menu studies to reveal what Americans will be eating next. Datassential recently delved into barbecue, issuing a report titled “What’s New in Cue: Fire Up the Future of Barbecue.” I spoke with Datassential’s Mike “If it’s not backed by data, it’s not a trend” Kostyo about his company’s findings.
Hanna Raskin: Tell me how this barbecue research came about.
Mike Kostyo: What happens over the course of the year is we all send each other articles and Slack each other about things that we've been seeing on menus. And one of the things that we kept seeing was way more global barbecue on menus, way more chefs experimenting with regional barbecue flavors [and] new types of proteins. And we work with a lot of protein manufacturers and some of the commodity boards, so it just kind of felt like now was the right time to cover it.
HR: One of the big ideas in the report is Barbecue 3.0. Can you elaborate on that?
MK: Absolutely. That evolution from 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0 is something we see a lot throughout the food industry. We saw it in coffee. We saw it in sodas.
First, there’s that initial iteration, which tends to be a singular flavor, singular option that everyone knows. With coffee, we [had] Folgers and the options like that on retail shelves. Then we see some craft movement really impacting the category: Chefs who are really trying to put an artisan spin on those items, companies trying to take that category and make it a little bit more premium. And so that’s 2.0.
Then 3.0 is where it's like all bets are off, we can do anything. Now it's about experimentation, thinking to the future of the category.
That's really what we saw with barbecue. Those traditional places in the U.S. that have been around for years, developing what American barbecue was, were 1.0. Obviously, barbecue is regional, so it's not necessarily the same as the coffee category from that perspective. And then 2.0 was when the foodie movement was growing across the country. You saw consumers making brisket at home or purchasing their first smoker, [following] the Aaron Franklins and Myron Mixons.
Now we're seeing just a lot more experimentation. A lot of it has to do with demographics: Some of the chefs creating barbecue today, they come from a multicultural background where maybe their mom was Filipino and their dad was from the South, and they're mashing up those together.
It's a little bit like the Wild, Wild West now when it comes to barbecue, which is exciting. It's always fun when it gets to this point.
HR: Cool. So, right at the outset of the report, it says that 94 percent of Americans are pro-barbecue. In any context, 94 percent is a whopper of a number. How frequently do you see that kind of unanimity about food?
MK: Incredibly rarely. I almost can't overstate how rare it is. I mean, we'll test toast, and we won't even get that many people who love it. Barbecue really is one of the few categories that pretty much all consumers can agree on.
HR: Why is that?
MK: There's a few factors at play. One is that it tends to be regional, and consumers have a passion for their own regional barbecue. It's a connection to where they grew up or the restaurants that their parents took them to.
Two is that consumers love protein. I mean, I know things have changed a lot in recent years with plant-based cuisine and things like that, but consumers love meat. If put a big meaty piece of saucy brisket on the menu, that's just going to do well overall with U.S. consumers.
It's [also] a really wide and varied category. That 94 percent number is barbecue overall, but that might mean something different from consumer to consumer. One consumer is maybe thinking of pulled pork, another is maybe thinking of barbecue ribs. And so there's going to be something within that category that I think each consumer is latching onto.
HR: You alluded to plant-based cuisine: The report suggests that barbecue cauliflower has a future. Do you think that's really something we'll see more of?
MK: Cauliflower is kind of the default option now with a lot of the companies that we work with. If you're going to put a plant-based appetizer on the menu, it's probably going to be barbecue cauliflower or hot cauliflower or something like that.
We are seeing some plateauing of that whole meat analog category and there's a lot of reasons for that. Price is certainly one of them; health concerns are another. We're seeing a cohort of consumers trying to get back to some of those whole vegetables and whole fruits.
But jackfruit's been a great natural analog that you can use in a pulled application. I think we're going to continue to see that growing. I mean, anytime that you can take a category that consumers love, like barbecue, and make them feel a little bit better about making a healthy choice, that's a winning proposition.
HR: While everyone may agree on barbecue, I was really surprised to see Carolina Gold Sauce was of such interest to people because even here in South Carolina, not everybody likes it. What do you think is the appeal there?
MK: Well, it's interesting. To see that be the number one growing item on menus was surprising to us. But it kind of speaks to just changing palates in the U.S.
For the longest time, U.S, consumers pretty much always gravitated toward sweet flavor. We were ketchup people instead of mustard people. And that's been changing a lot in recent years. Consumers are a lot more open to bitter flavors.
We see that on the cocktail side where they're drinking more Amaros and things like that. And we see it happening across the flavor landscape as well where consumers are more open to vinegar-based things and more bitter flavors, not necessarily everything being so sweet and in your face.
HR: That's really interesting. But I guess too, since you're just measuring menus mentions as opposed to consumption, it's plausible that some people don't even know what they're getting. I mean, South Carolina's a popular place to vacation, you know?
MK: That's the only thing we don't track. We don't track sales, but this is kind of a proxy for it…you do see mustard-style sauces at Trader Joe's.
HR: I also was interested how many people expressed interest in East Texas barbecue, because I got to tell you, I don't know what East Texas barbecue is. Central, Western, Southern, sure, but I was like, what is Eastern Texas?
MK: I couldn't agree more. Everybody has their own number of how many styles there are in the U.S. We used something like 21 styles of regional barbecue, and there would be so much argument about that. I learned so much about just how regional it all is.
HR: What else stood out to you as someone who deals with these kind of numbers and surveys all the time? What else should we be looking at?
MK: I think there was one stat right at the beginning of the report about wood…
HR: [Interrupting} Yes! That’s the other thing in my notes. Yes, yes, yes. Let’s talk about wood.
MK: It's so interesting, and it was an interesting to test, which is one, do consumers even care? Do they want to hear what type of wood was used when the barbecue was barbecued? And then two, we broke it down by all the different types. And more than 40 percent of consumers said, yeah, they want to know what type of wood was used. It's not 94 percent but it's still a large percentage of consumers who are like, ‘I really want to know.’
Applewood was the number one wood that consumers were interested in, which is probably just because they see that the in relation to bacon. But for someone who works in the food industry, whether it's a restaurant operator or a manufacturer, they're probably not calling that out as often as they should.
HR: You're absolutely right that ‘applewood bacon’ is something people are accustomed to hearing, but do we have any idea why someone would be pro-oak or pro-hickory?
MK: I don't know. I think the next step for us is informing a general audience what the differences are between the woods and why you would use one over the other.
HR: So, wood names would be a good addition to a menu. What else can an operator or producer take away from this research?
MK: The big thing is Korean barbecue, specifically, but also Asian barbecue flavors overall.
One thing that was really interesting is when you look at the various generations, Gen Z is the least likely generation to say that they like barbecue. Millennials really love it, Boomers really love it, and then Gen Z, you see this drop off.
But the area where you see them really interested is in Korean barbecue and Asian flavor. They love those. I mean they love those overall, in all the research we've been doing. That's the way things are moving, [toward] both Latin flavors and Asian flavors.
So, I think you're going to see a lot more of that. You're going to see a ton more sauces incorporating ginger and garlic and flavors like that, both on the retail side and in restaurants across the country.
HR: And what would you recommend to an operator of a Barbecue 1.0 restaurant? Obviously, here in the South, we've got lots of them. Would you tell them to put out a bottle of soy sauce? What do you do with this information if you're back in 1.0 land?
MK: Sure, sure. I mean one is that 94 percent number. Consumers love you, they love your products, and so it's not like you're in a bad place. Right now, if you work in the dairy industry, you might be a little scared. But even in 1.0, you're probably still in a good place.
The key right now really is telling your story. Consumers love barbecue, they know barbecue. So why should they choose you over maybe some of the 3.0 places that are opening up? Younger consumers love to support local; they love to support somebody in their community who's supporting the community. Tell that story. Tell the story of what wood are you using. That really, really resonates.
It's also a really visual category: That smoke coming out of the smoker, the big pieces of meat. As we move into the TikTok era and everybody wants videos of things like that, use what you have to market yourself.
Hungry for more barbecue? The Southern Foodways Alliance this weekend is hosting its third barbecue symposium, featuring talks on Latino backyard barbecue, Texas as a barbecue bully, and “Barbecue, Booze, and Biz.” (I’m giving that last presentation.) You can follow along in real time via SFA’s social media channels @southfoodways, or look for video footage online after the two-day event. “People can make a movie night of it!” Olivia Terenzio of SFA says.