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Numerous burger, pizza and taco restaurant chains dominate the U.S. landscape. But barbecue chains have been hard-pressed to duplicate that same success because they are so regional in taste.
What BBQ food works in Texas, doesn’t fit for Kansas City or New Orleans; hence, nationwide barbecue chains such as Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurant with close to 500 outlets are rare, and not well known outside of its region.
City Barbeque, which now operates 66 locations across eight states, is growing at a steady rate and trying to defy the nationwide BBQ void. All are company-owned.
It is partially owned by private equity-firm Freeman Spogli & co, which provides access to capital and leverage. Hence it hasn’t had to turn to franchising as many other restaurant chains do.
A growing chain, City Barbeque, is trying to make inroads into becoming a nationwide player, not just a regional barbecue chain.
Founder Rick Malir inaugurated City Barbeque in 1999 in Columbus, Ohio. He served as CEO until 2021 and was named executive chairman of the board in 2022 when president and COO Mike Muldoon was promoted to president and CEO.
Growing at a steady pace
In 2023 it has already opened six new locations and is on track to add 11 more by the year’s end. It expects to augment that number by 10 to 15 more eateries in 2024, enabling it to reach 100 locations by the end of 2025, if all goes according to plan. It’s expanding to South Carolina end of the year, but prefers to keep its emerging states private.
About the lack of large national BBQ chains, Annica Conrad, its chief brand officer, said, “We all believe that City Barbeque owns the barbecue lane. The space is there for the taking.”
Preparing barbecue food is complex
Even she acknowledged that running a barbecue restaurant is “hard. You’re smoking at different times, but they run 24 hours a day.” Smoking a brisket entails different sauces and sizes, making it more complicated than grilling an 8-ounce burger.
Asked what regional BBQ it specializes in, a spokeswoman Elizabeth Grunewald said, “We don’t limit ourselves to any particular region or style, but instead try to showcase the breadth and depth of barbeque found across the country.” Hence it has run promotions about its menu being inspired by BBQ styles from South Carolina, Missouri or Texas.
For the most part, its menu stays the same, no matter what region it’s located in, except for two menu items. Fried okra and three-cheese baked mac are only offered in their Georgia and North Carolina locations based on regional tastes.
Conrad, the branding maven, said, “We offer the flavors of Americas. We pulled the best preparation methods, whether it’s KC bbq or Texas bbq”
Its menu is streamlined and focuses on meat sandwiches such as pulled pork, brisket or turkey, Nashville hot chicken breast, or chipotle BBQ on Texas toast.
Keeping prices affordable
It keeps its prices down to make it affordable to a large audience. For example, its pulled pork sandwich costs $7.49 and lemonade goes for $2.49, so that’s a $10 lunch before tax and tip. Family packs with one-pound of pulled pork to accommodate four diners cost $27.
The fact that Freeman Spogli, the private equity firm, is a major investor has led to its owning all locations, with no franchising. “You have more operational control,” Conrad noted, and it can lead to more profitability than drawing royalty fees from franchising. Though there’s no plan for franchising in the near future, it can’t be ruled out, she added.
Freeman Spogli has worked closely with the management team, Conrad noted, but even she acknowledged that she didn’t know “if they wanted to own the brand in perpetuity.” Most private equity firms set a growth rate and look to sell out.
It’s also been boosting revenue in two different ways: catering constitutes 15% of its revenue, and so does off premises sales via third party deliverers at 15%.
As it grows, Conrad pointed out that it will get “more sophisticated with marketing and developing a differentiated loyalty program.”
Asked the keys to its sustained success, Conrad replied: 1) Choosing great site locations where people love barbecue, 2) Maintaining the quality of its food, 3) Reducing any friction with guests, making sure it provides best in class online ordering and making its customer touch points the best. 4) Making sure its employees are satisfied, since its guest experience depends on them.