Because eating barbecue is my job, I am often asked if I fear running out of new joints to review. The answer is no. Texas is a big place with a big appetite for barbecue, a demand that draws new pitmasters to open new restaurants all the time. In fact, my problem is almost the opposite of what people expect. Keeping track of just how many new places have cropped up and trying to get to them all is the real challenge. But a new report released just last month by CHD Expert, a food service market research company, could help me (and anyone else interested in eating barbecue) figure out just how many new barbecue restaurants there are.
In terms of total barbecue places, Texas leads the nation, with 2,238 total restaurant locations and 1,931 independent locations. California came in second (1,162 joints) and Florida is third (856). If California and Florida’s top billing seems off, bear in mind that the top three states have the highest population totals in the country. A figure that’s more indicative of barbecue fever is the number of barbecue restaurants per capita; Texas has one for roughly every 12,000 people, and only Alabama beats us (one for every 10,000 people).
CHD Expert created an entire barbecue joint infographic to help explain the data. They also sent me a few tables to show data more specific to Texas.
Let me help you parse this information. CHD separates joints into independent locations and chains, or any franchise with ten or more locations nationwide. Given this definition, Rudy’s BBQ (37 locations) would be considered a chain, but Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse (7 locations) would not. The biggest barbecue chain in the country is Dallas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit with more than 500 locations. (That’s more than the other top four chains combined!) Also in the top five is Bill Miller Bar-B-Q, headquartered in San Antonio with 72 locations. In the national scope, chains are 14 percent of total barbecue restaurants, and Texas is right in line with that at 13.7 percent.
As we’ve discussed so much on this site, the popularity of barbecue is growing. But it hasn’t yet peaked, just as CHD Expert forecasted back in 2011. Four years ago they wrote, “there is one group of restaurants in particular who seem to be thumbing their nose at the economic downturn . . . barbecue joints.” They also wrote that “the hip, new, trendy, thing to do is to go to an upscale barbecue restaurant,” a observation that has clearly proven to be on point. “Everyone should expect prime meats, barbecue sauces, grill products, smoker products, cornbread and other items associated with barbecue to thrive.” I’d even go so far as to credit the rise of barbecue with the current fascination with hearth kitchens and wood-fired cooking by chefs all over the country.
Something else their numbers reveal is that there’s heavy turnover in the barbecue business. Only 53 percent of joints have been open five or more years compared to 69 percent of all restaurant types.
As for the growth of barbecue specifically in Texas? It’s risen swiftly. We’ve added 373 barbecue joints in Texas since 2011, but for fans of the true barbecue joint, it’s disheartening to see where that growth is coming from. In the last four years we’ve added a substantial number of full service restaurants and chain restaurants, but we’re losing ground when it comes to the type of restaurants many of us, myself included, prefer: independent, limited-service restaurants. Those counter-service or cafeteria-style restaurants, like Snow’s BBQ or Louie Mueller Barbecue—what I like to refer to as the quintessential barbecue “joint”—are on the decline.
In the past five years we’ve lost 179 of those kinds of places. That number would be much more frightening if the state hadn’t added 112 “joints” since mid-2014.
So am I worried about running out of new places to eat? Again, nope. I’ve only been to about 850 of the 1,931 independent barbecue restaurants currently open in the state. But am I fearful that joints might be closing faster than I can get to them? Yeah, that worries me a bit more.