Between taking bites out of his political opponents, Frank Underwood, in the first two seasons of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” liked to visit a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint called Freddy’s. Freddy’s BBQ is fictional and the show used a shack in Baltimore for the set.
DC tourists may be disappointed to learn they cannot sample Frank’s favorite ribs, but the most disappointing fact is not that Freddy’s is fictional. The sad truth is that Freddy’s could simply not exist in DC or in most major cities today.
While researching barbecue restaurants for my recently released book, “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America,” I visited 365 barbecue restaurants across 48 states. Many owners shared with me that their businesses are hampered by local environmental, safety, and health regulations.
No Tasty Barbecue For You
In Houston, for example, Pizzitola’s Barbecue hangs its hat on being the only remaining Houston barbecue restaurant to cook with a traditional open pit. Pizzitola’s has been smoking barbecue this way for 50 years and was grandfathered into the local safety law banning their traditional method of smoking meat.
As newer barbecue restaurants popped up just outside city limits, Houston lost tax revenue and residents had to leave the city for great barbecue—everyone lost.
It might seem unfair for Pizzitola’s to have such an exemption and, thus, an advantage over their competition, but it’s actually a blessing and a curse. If Pizzitola’s were to make any major changes to the restaurant—like adding a patio or dining-room space—they would lose their grandfathered-in status.
Pizzitola’s cannot adapt to compete with other restaurants because this risks losing the way they have been preparing barbecue for 50 years. Eventually this handicap will catch up to them.
No More Opportunities For the Little Guys
Although local regulations have done the most damage, federal regulations are also to blame. From the 1940s until 2009, The White Swan smoked traditional North Carolina pork over smoldering oak. When they franchised in 2009 (and created a number of new jobs), The White Swan came under federal regulations and were required to use electric cookers rather than continuing to smoke as they had for generations. It was a shame to see a historic, small town, family-run barbecue joint forced to serve cooked pork rather than traditional smoked barbecue simply to comply with federal food regulations.
In “House of Cards,” Freddy pursued the American dream by opening his doors with not much more than a smoker and cash register. I heard stories like this all around the country, as many restaurants started 30 years ago with nothing more than a man, a smoker, and a cooler next to a highway.
Today, cities require restaurants to invest tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in safety hoods and equipment. The inspection and permit process take months. The rules and costs associated with opening a restaurant today would prohibit Freddy’s, and many of America’s favorite barbecue joints, from ever opening.
My favorite barbecue restaurant in Seattle is called The Boar’s Nest. Owner Gabe Gagliardi is a small-business owner and job creator. A native Tennessean, he attended culinary school in Chicago and worked in fine dining before opening his little barbecue restaurant in Seattle. Unfortunately, the city caught wind of his smoke and shut down his pit. He is making do with smokers the city has deemed acceptable and still manages to produce excellent barbecue, but it isn’t quite as good as it could be.
I get it. Cities want safer cooking methods to reduce fires. Neighbors do not want to be bothered by smoke smells. Some environmentalists target barbecue restaurants and try to push them out of business simply because they burn wood and smoke meat.
I believe what is happening to barbecue is a snapshot of what is happening in America. Overregulation is slowing job creation and business growth. Besides, if we do not respect the right of an individual to make a living selling barbecue, what individual rights do we still respect?