Economic Development, Food Service & Agriculture, and Retail

Grand Rapids raises its barbecue profile

Restaurants are hustling to meet demand for immensely popular comfort food.

August 21, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Slows BBQ
Slows Bar BQ in Grand Rapids Downtown Market may be a “flagship” location for the barbecue scene, but there are plenty more options around town. Photo by Michael Buck

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Kansas City, Memphis … and Grand Rapids?

With Slows Bar BQ in town, the trend toward quality barbecue in West Michigan has hit a high note.

Since Slows announced its intentions of coming to the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, several barbecue restaurants have opened their doors and more are in the planning stage.

With the sudden surge in barbecue offerings, restaurants like Two Scotts Barbecue and Horseshoe Smokehouse might be getting a little nervous about business.

Scott Hartmann, one of the owners of Two Scotts Barbecue, said he thinks the ability to draw a flagship spot like Slows is good for the area’s barbecue scene. He said fans of the food are competitive and like to compare favorites, but there are so many styles of barbecue, everyone can play nicely together.

“It’s good for us and other places opening — it gets people talking,” Hartmann said. “It’s a comfort food and a lot of people enjoy it and argue about the right way, the wrong way. We’re not like that. Just try the different styles and enjoy it.”

Two Scotts came under some fire when it first opened because it often ran out of food and was forced to close early. The owners did their best to explain how proper barbecue takes time and can’t be rushed.

Slows took its time opening, originally slated for the spring and finally opening earlier this month.

“Now we’re opened and seeing the demand is a bit daunting, just because it’s been so busy,” said Adam Watts, chef. “Because there is a reputation around Slows for a product that has to be consistent, if we screw that up during the opening, we’ll lose fans, and we need to keep them happy.”

Watts said once the initial rush has calmed down, Slows will begin to look at fully utilizing the Downtown Market and expanding its menu for events such as beer- and wine-pairing dinners. He also hopes he might be able to teach some classes in the teaching kitchen on the second floor of the Downtown Market Hall.

Downtown Market was one of the major selling points of opening a location in Grand Rapids for one of Slows’ founders, chef Brian Perrone. As the company grew in Detroit at its Corktown location and opened Slows To-Go, Perrone said people from across the country were clamoring for more.

Fans from Chicago, Washington, D.C., and even actors from Los Angeles were asking for more Slows locations. Perrone laughed at the idea of jumping into those locations, but said Grand Rapids made sense. Now, Perrone said the company will focus on opening its new Pontiac restaurant and also on some retail products.

“Grand Rapids just made sense. It’s just a booming economy and relatively close,” he said, explaining that opening a Grand Rapids location had been tossed around for nearly five years.

“The Downtown Market was looking for an anchor tenant and once I got a look at the place, I was blown away by it.”

They looked at another location, but Perrone said the impression left on the Slows team by the Downtown Market made it too great to pass up. The market has influenced the way the food is served, as well. Much like barbecue in restaurants across the country — and unlike the original Slows in Detroit — the Downtown Market location is “market style.” Customers order at the counter and find their own seating within the restaurant.

“It’s how barbecue is done all over the country and seems to make more sense,” he said. “I was assured it would be familiar around here because that’s the way Founders (Brewing Co.) does things.”

Both Watts and Perrone pointed to the growing beer culture in Grand Rapids that fits with one of the themes of Detroit’s Slows location: a big beer list. Perrone said that feature dates back to a conversation with his brother at a barbecue place in Boston that had an excellent beer selection.

The Slows’ market location has 40 beers on tap and more than 20 in cans.

“We’re always going to try and curate a fine list and use it as a promotional tool to get people in,” Perrone said. “Food and environment is good, but we want people to hang out and drink some great beers.”

Watts, a Secchia Institute for Culinary Arts graduate, returned to Grand Rapids three years ago from Colorado to help open Grand Rapids Brewing Co. Most recently he was at Reds on the River, and has really embraced the region’s beer.

He said beer and wine both pair exquisitely with barbecue and will help raise the profile of cuisine in the eyes of consumers.

Watts also said while barbecue is trendier now, it’s actually a tried and true food. It’s also accessible: Despite some expensive items, a half-pound of pulled pork can be purchased for less than $5.

“Everybody can relate to it and associate pleasure and comfort and love of food with it,” he said. “It’s universal — there isn’t a certain demographic. We don’t exclude anyone; you can find all walks of life. It’s totally approachable and has stood the test of time.”

Watts said the relative void of barbecue places in Grand Rapids was noticed by many in the cooking world who follow trends. It was only a matter of time until restaurants opened up.

“Grand Rapids is just a couple of steps behind,” he said, “but we should be setting a tone. With the addition of a few new great restaurants, we can get more notoriety and get our name in media as a foodie destination. It’s not unheard of.”

Hartmann said Grand Rapids has a rich history in barbecue, when shops used to dot Wealthy Street. Now it’s just about refilling the niche. Two Scotts is as busy as ever at lunch, he said, and is slowly filling its recently extended hours as word spreads. He also said the catering business is booming despite not marketing it because of the restaurant’s early demand.

He said Two Scotts is pursuing options to increase catering possibilities and potentially retail products. Also, with barbecue known mostly as a summer food, the Scotts are looking at ways to pump up business in the winter, aside from an expected catering rush during Christmas.

“We honestly don’t know what winter is going to be like, probably not as many people on the deck when there’s snow on it,” he said. “Right now, a lot of business is takeout, so that might not change much.”

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