Spring marks the start of competition barbecue season, and the trends wafting from the pits provide foodservice operators the chance to infuse their menus with unique ‘cue-centric spins on regional specialties, flavors, recipes and cooking techniques.

Jessica Bograd, senior director of Culinary at City Barbeque, Dublin, Ohio, has spent much of her career providing strategic culinary support and menu development for national brands and manufacturers including Popeye’s, Chick-fil-A, TGI Friday’s, Inspire Brands, Focus Brands, Dine Equity and others. She has focused on culinary research, development and innovation for the foodservice industry, and she speaks to the shifting inclinations of the barbecue foodservice space.

“We’re really seeing the dialing in on specific regionality,” Bograd said. “So, we’re also starting to see what others have already seen as consumers wanting more transparency and their own education piece. It’s no longer just barbecue chicken; it’s Hawaiian-style barbecue chicken or Kansas City style ribs. And, what makes it Kansas City? Tell me the story. Tell me why.”

Consumers’ willingness to try new things gives foodservice operators license to innovate and introduce unfamiliar flavors attached to familiar dishes. An example Bograd provided is City Barbeque’s Carolina Gold sauce.

“It’s a mustard-based sauce,” she said. “It’s a little polarizing, right? Mustard’s a little polarizing. But to start introducing it in new and approachable ways, on handhelds…it’s like an ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Flavor combinations that Bograd and City Barbeque are experimenting with include pickles and smoke.

“We’ve had a ton of fun around that,” she said. “So, we did an LTO last year — a pickle brine chicken wing. So, we would brine Amish chicken wings, fresh wings, then we would rub them down and smoke them and then fry them just to get crispy on the finish and serve them with pickles and ranch.

“It was just this really cool, funky combination of flavors that’s done really, really well for us,” Bograd said.

A more recent innovation from City Barbeque was the Texas Reuben featuring pastrami made from brined briskets rubbed with mustard and seasoning and then smoked leaving a cracked coriander crust and topped with pickles and a “Texas aioli” of pickled jalapenos and rub mixed with a little mayonnaise.

“That one was probably one of the (LTOs) that I’m most proud of, at least recently, that we’ve done,” she said. “We’ve got some cool things in the hopper that are going into tests later this year for 2025 and 2026. Luckily, we have permission from our guests to do some really cool things.”

Something for everyone

Convincing consumers to try new things requires pairing something new with something familiar, according to Bograd. Barbecue fits the bill for ‘something familiar.’

“Barbecue is so familiar in its core,” she said. “It’s ribs, it’s brisket, it’s chicken, and it’s just a really great ubiquitous base that I can add to it to make it something new and exciting, or even put it in a new form or function — tacos, bowls, sliders, bao buns even.”

Cuts of meat already in marinade or covered in rub can put consumers closer to the outdoor grilling experience faster. Merriam, Kan.-based Seaboard Foods offers pre-seasoned pork products under the company’s Prairie Fresh Signature line.

David Eaheart, senior director of communications and brand marketing for Seaboard Foods, said pre-seasoned products take the guess work, and the risk, out of the consumers’ hands.

“It’s mostly loin filets and tenderloins,” he said. “We do have some shoulder roasts, so you could do a low-and- slow cook on those, even in your smoker.”

Sure, a consumer can buy bottled seasonings at a cost of $10-$12 for well-known or premium brands. But consumers can be intimidated by the selection offered at their grocery store.

“So, this is also the easy, fast solution: take a tenderloin that’s pre-seasoned, throw it on the grill,” Eaheart said. “You have a meal that’s ready in 30 minutes or less from start to cook time.”

Eaheart added that pork is still a very affordable option for consumers compared to some other proteins, and Seaboard wants consumers to think about pork as an everyday meal.

“I mean, the flavor, you cannot replicate grilling flavor or smoke flavor inside the way you can out on the grill just from the char and all that delicious flavor that comes from that,” Eaheart said.

Consumers with dietary restrictions can expect to enjoy the lighter side of barbecue. Grilling also can enhance the flavor of vegetables and make it the star of the plate. Requests for vegetarian and vegan options are increasingly common, especially in catering. The industry in general is responding to demand for alternatives to animal proteins in barbecue that go beyond coleslaw, Bograd said.

“We understand that they’re there, and we respect that, and we respect what they’re doing,” she said, “but you can make vegetables delicious.”

“We’re finding new ways to make things taste really good — smoked mushrooms, or smoked and charred, grilled carrots, right?” Bograd said. “There are so many really cool ways that you can make the vegetable the star, but still do the same techniques of low and slow, adding different flavors of wood and char and smoke, barbecue sauce, you know, what have you. So, I think it’s been a lot of fun to see what some folks are doing.”

City Barbeque is testing two salads. One is called the Competition Cobb and features double-smoked bacon, pickled red onions, grape tomatoes, and smoked turkey breast on a crunchy romaine that is a hydroponic blend, Bograd said.

Current cooking techniques

The 46th Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest drew 129 competition cooking teams from four foreign countries, and 22 US states. While strolling the competition grounds at Liberty Park in Memphis, Tenn., Eaheart noted that more teams are experimenting with a “hot-and-fast cook” of meat cuts that traditionally require a low-and-slow cooking process.

“It’s interesting to see, even in the rib category now, I’ve noticed that I’m seeing more drums for hot and fast when I walked around,” he said. “You always think ‘low and slow,’ and that’s traditional, especially when you get to ribs and pork butts.”

Instead of cooking these items at 225°F or 250°F, pitmasters might be running the smoker at 350°F or 375°F. At those temperatures, Eaheart explained, the heat still is able to render down the fat and break it down, which is what happens in a traditional low-and-slow cook. Maintaining control of air circulation in the cooker leaves little room for error.

Eaheart said, “… it just doesn’t match what you think it should be.”

And the taste?

“I would say there’s a little bit of a texture difference,” Eaheart said.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve had low-and-slow cooked pork and hot-and-fast in competitions,” he added. “And if I didn’t know where it came from, I don’t know that I could actually tell the difference.”

But even the difficulty of cooking techniques is mitigated for consumers by technology. Consumers can cook smaller cuts of meat faster with different types of grills on the market.

“People are more aware of Japanese hibachi grills that still smoke, but they’re super high heat and so it’s just opening up [the segment] beyond old school barbecue,” he said.

Sustainability and the BBQ scene

Consumers also are more aware of how their purchasing decisions have the potential to impact the environment. More than half (55%) of shoppers surveyed for the Power of Meat 2024 report said they try to do their part for the environment through conscious purchase decisions, recycling and other actions. Four in 10 (38%) said they weigh better-for-the-planet in their meat and poultry purchasing decisions.

Foodservice operators in the barbecue space also keep sustainable practices in mind as they serve their customers. It also helps that in some ways barbecue is an inherently sustainable cuisine.

“While most people don’t necessarily talk about sustainability, it’s a consideration,” Bograd said. “We all use off cuts, right? Those are the cuts that need to be cooked for so long, and we turn them into something beautiful and that’s where we can still provide that sustainability.”

She said City Barbeque constantly looks toward how the brand can be more sustainable in day-to-day practices. One way City Barbeque achieves sustainability is by researching and finding the right partners to help them.

“We evaluate the suppliers and the partners that we work with and what they’re doing,” she said. “But we also make sure that if there is excess or waste or trim on anything that we use, it finds itself a home. For example, our brisket manufacturers — previously we used to bring the whole brisket, the pack of briskets in, and we would trim them by hand and then all that would go to waste.

“We actually found somebody that would trim it and then take that waste and use the trim to make tallow and further refine it,” she said.

Bograd noted there’s a lot of room for sustainable practices in barbecue.

“It’s just set up to use some of those pieces and parts that aren’t as pretty as a filet, but we make it as pretty as a filet at the end,” she said.