Smoke signals

Innovative barbecue dishes hit the mark with busy consumers

hormel austin blues barbecue

From Hormel Foodservice.

Once a feast reserved for backyards and back roads, barbecue now knows no bounds. Today, tender, smoky meats fill burritos and sandwiches in all segments, from national chains to sports stadiums to college campuses.

While barbecue purists might debate points such as grilling versus smoking, low heat or hot flame, and rubs, sauces or soaks, most consumers want to try it all. And as the nation’s love affair with barbecue grows, consumers are looking beyond barbecue’s traditional flavors and formats to dishes with innovative, portable carriers and authentic American regional flavor influences such as vinegary North Carolina sauces or Texas dry rubs.

The takeaway: Barbecue’s versatility makes it a natural fit for menu items of all kinds, and operators who focus on adding innovative barbecue dishes to their menus will not only find a way to make barbecue their own—they’ll set themselves apart from their competition.

A barbecue democracy

Defining barbecue broadly allows operators—and customers—to incorporate a variety of culinary influences and take a mix-and-match approach to creating unique dishes. For example, at NC State University, students who dine in campus dining halls can choose from one of two barbecue sauces—a traditional sweet-and-spicy sauce and a Lexington-style vinegar-based sauce—to accompany smoked pulled pork.

In fact, barbecue is a big hit all over the nation’s campuses: Pulled pork serves as a deli option at the University of New Hampshire, Mongolian barbecue is featured at the University of California, Davis and Baby Berk 2, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s second food truck, serves a specialty sandwich melt made with barbecue pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, caramelized onions and melted cheddar cheese—a perennial hit with UMass students, according to Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at UMass Dining.

Today’s college diners are both savvy and demanding, says Toong, and they crave authenticity and continue to seek out more information about their food. To that end, he hosts a highly regarded annual conference that brings international culinary talent to UMass so that college & university chefs can learn about authentic foods—barbecue included—from around the world.

Barbecue on-the-go

Smoked and pulled meats also suit the “slow-cook, fast-serve” approach that helps satisfy a busy lifestyle. Dining is less about sit-down meals and more about grab-and-go, and portable options such as barbecue sandwiches continue to grow in popularity across all meal occasions.

Menuing fresh, flavorful food that travels well—such as a pulled pork wrap with kimchi or a brisket sandwich on a whole-grain bun— are ways barbecue can hit the mark with today’s busy consumers, whose eating styles and flavor preferences are moving targets. For example, Michigan State University offers a chopped barbecue chicken salad on its Union Deli menu as well as a barbecue pork pizza at Bread Box, a specialty pasta, pizza and sandwich concept.

These portable options appeal to students at UMass Dining as well. “Students are snacking six or seven times a day as a new way of eating,” says Toong. “We offer take-out containers, express, call-ahead service, and food trucks, so kids can eat in class or wherever they study.”

And this on-the-go style of eating isn’t only limited to college students. Ivorydale Café, one of the concepts in the Fabric & Home Care Innovation Center at Proctor & Gamble’s Cincinnati headquarters, regularly features a barbecue chicken burger on its menu.

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