Barbecue in the United States is usually defined by its geography. Countless debates have ensued about the regional differences in wood-smoked meat. Residents of eastern North Carolina prefer vinegar-based barbecue sauce over the mustard-based versions made in South Carolina. Texans will argue that their beef-heavy grilling style, which favors dry rubs, is far superior to the sweet and tangy sauce-coated pork chunks found throughout the Kansas City, Missouri area.
There really is no right answer to the best barbecue in the country.
Traditionally, the DMV area (Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia) isn’t a barbecue destination like Kansas City, Austin, Texas, or Memphis. But these days, the nation’s capital is drawing the attention of barbecue lovers for the wonderful briskets, ribs and pork that come from smokers in the area.
Though the pandemic has challenged grill restaurants with unstable meat prices, unreliable supply chains, and a general distrust of public food, some Washington grill restaurants are finding ways to weather the storm and sometimes expand their customer base.
Adaptability has been key during the pandemic.
Federalist Pig is a grill restaurant that doesn’t attempt to wade into the murky waters of regional grill styles, instead focusing on how the meat tastes when it comes out of the smoker.
“I’ve grilled all over the country and there’s really only two styles when you cook it whole: good and bad,” said Rob Sonderman, co-founder and pitmaster of Federalist Pig. “As long as we can be on the good side of things, that’s where we want to live.”
The first Federalist Pig opened about six years ago and now serves three locations: one in Washington and two just over the border in Maryland. Sonderman said the pig embraces all barbecue traditions and tries to get creative when serving its smoked meats, particularly its sandwiches.
“Most places where you get a sandwich you just get meat on a bun with pickled coleslaw. Of course you can do that here, but we’ve taken famous, well-known sandwiches and given them our own little grill twist,” he said.
For example, there’s confit of smoked duck leg with arugula and grated fennel salad, or a Chicago-style smoked Italian beef sandwich with homemade giardiniera. The Pig even offers vegetarian options like tofu banh mi with crispy onions and garlic aioli.
Recently, the Federalist Pig has partnered with Table 22 to offer a Barbecue Supper Club where customers can experience a worldwide barbecue tour. One month featured West Indian-Caribbean barbecue, another month had an Irish St. Patrick’s Day meal, and in May, the Supper Club focused on Korean barbecue.
The idea came about just as the pandemic shut down in-person dining — and like many other restaurants — the Federalist Pig had to reorganize its business to reach customers. However, finding ways to get groceries to paying customers was just one problem, getting the product to cook was another.
The restaurant uses certified selection (or better) Angus beef brisket. Ideally, the hog would smoke more prime briskets, but the pandemic has made procurement difficult and expensive.
Brisket became a major concern early in the pandemic. At times, brisket prices have doubled in the past two years, Sonderman said. The restaurant experimented with using chuck flap meat or boneless short ribs instead of brisket.
Another cost-cutting strategy has been to design the menu to attract customers to dishes that generate higher profit margins, Sonderman said. “As much as we love brisket and everyone loves brisket, we’d rather order chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, and ribs.”
Now, Sonderman sees the prices of chicken and pork ribs starting to rise, and the Federal pig is in the same position as most companies are today: raising prices to offset inflationary pressures.
Lobbying for the lunch guests
Federalist Pig isn’t the only barbecue restaurant in Washington that needs to find ways to keep customers happy while managing the costs of running a restaurant during a pandemic.
The Bark Barbecue Cafe grew out of co-owner and Pitmaster Berj Ghazarian’s hobby interest in live fires and in-pit grilling. He’s been hosting pop-ups and catering for private events since 2013, but it wasn’t until last December that he decided to open a brick and mortar location.
Bark uses live fire, offset Moberg smokers to cook his meat. The original idea was to open a weigh-and-pay style barbecue restaurant, where meat is ordered by the pound.
“But that’s not really conducive to every market in my opinion,” Ghazarian said. “The average person spends between $25 and $30 there, and we didn’t think this model would be very sustainable for the market.”
The Bark Barbecue Cafe’s market focuses on the lunchtime crowd. The restaurant is located in Stevensville, Maryland on a commercial area on Kent Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay – an odd place for a popular grill restaurant. Co-owner Berj Ghazarian operates a food manufacturer in the building next door.
The restaurant is open Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and primarily serves the approximately 1,200 people who work in the commercial area.
But its popularity has grown thanks to word of mouth, making it onto food writer Tim Carman’s list of The Washington Post’s “Best Barbecue Joints in the DC Area” in February. Due to demand from hungry locals and guests from the District of Columbia, Bark is now preparing to open this weekend.
“The menu is based on a sandwich and bowl concept. And we have burritos for breakfast,” Ghazarian said. “It’s a little bit more accessible, definitely more affordable and curated.”
Much like Federalist Pig, Bark wants to expand its business into a model that’s more aligned with how the hospitality industry has changed during the pandemic. The restaurant hopes to launch family meal sets soon.
“We found that eating habits have changed somehow since the pandemic,” he said. “You can take something with you on the way home from work and enjoy it with the family.”
The Pandemic Cucumber
Before the pandemic, when Bark was a pure pop-up operation, Ghazarian sourced all his meat from Fells Point Meat in Baltimore, but by the time the restaurant opened he had to source a lot more USDA Prime beef and the prices had become unsustainable .
Before the pandemic, the common price for a pound of grilled brisket was between $21 and $24 a pound, Ghazarian said.
“Right now – to even be able to survive – the price would be $28 to $29 a pound.”
Ghazarian found that Costco offered the best price for whole Prime briskets. He currently gets his brisket for about $2 a pound less than any other supplier.
“For a small business, if we cook 100 to 150 pounds of brisket a day, it adds up and it’s a big savings,” he said. “We don’t have a very close connection with local suppliers for the meat at the moment, but it’s more of a necessity to survive.”
Bark intentionally doesn’t offer a pound of meat on the menu to encourage people to get something that’s affordable. Grilling in the DMV area is no longer a niche market. It has become part of the metropolitan food culture.
“The competition has definitely gotten a lot tougher here in DC and there are a lot of really great grill restaurants,” Sonderman said. “The average consumer now knows what great grilling is, so it raised the bar.”