What It’s Like to Open a Barbecue Restaurant in the Middle of a Pandemic

Good news: Garren and Kelli Kirkman of Jon G’s Barbecue finally realized their dream of opening a barbecue restaurant this year. Bad news: the restaurant opening was in the middle of a global pandemic with all of the social distancing and protective measures that go along with that. A little over three months into their dream, I reached out to Garren and Kelly to see how the first few months have gone.

How has the reception been the past 3 months or so after opening your long-awaited brick and mortar?
Pretty humbling to say the least. It blows our minds when people from all walks of life start lining up to eat our food. From local Anson county natives all the way to people from Texas and beyond, we truly feel so honored to get to do this week to week in our own building.

What were you able to learn from your three soft openings in June and July?
Those soft opening days were crazy and hectic, but we knew that we needed to train our staff that had never worked on the food truck before. 

It was also a goal of ours to help people understand how the line would work and make the wait seem like more of a party than a wait at all. 

The biggest thing (more from a business perspective) was to dial in our ticket times. We wanted to be very similar in the food truck times, but still engage in our customers with conversation and a welcoming atmosphere. Amazingly, every week, be it a $10 ticket or a $300 ticket it is still a 1-3 minute turnaround. 

What are some of the unexpected things you didn’t realize you’d have to do as part of running a restaurant? 
Well, food truck life is definitely not for the faint of heart. It prepared us in ways that we didn’t even know we needed until we opened the restaurant doors. It felt like a relief and a dream to have our own space to cook in. It is nice to not have to drive ourselves to where we are serving worrying about flat tires, generator issues, praying the food stays put in the trailer while traveling and serving in 107°or 30°. 

Changing gears, how early have you been selling out each Saturday?
The earliest was 3:30, but on average around 5:00 pm. Sometimes what we have on special, Brunswick Stew for example, is sold out by noon. We did Pork Chops on special (which we thought were phenomenal, by the way) that we were giving away at the end of the night. Sometimes it’s just a gamble.

What’s been the most popular menu item?
Overall, brisket continues to take the top spot, but we sell double (sometimes triple) the amount of sandwiches in the restaurant versus the food truck days.

Any plans for opening outside of Saturdays in the near future?
We’d love to, but not sure what that schedule looks like at this point. A very large (75% or more) of our guests are people who drive from 1+ hours away and couldn’t necessarily make that trip for a weekday lunch break.

We are finally getting catering calls again, which has been null since March. Catering is typically a weekday job, so we are at the restaurant prepping and delivering that for people as well. 

With a small building comes limited refrigeration and warming space. We have to keep everything at safe temperatures and grow into whatever is next for us. 

That makes a lot of sense. In terms of upcoming specials, are there any you’d like to tease?
We just rolled out our Brunswick Stew, and my gracious it went FAST. We’ll continue to have that through the Fall. We are also toying with the idea of a burnt end. Posted one picture on social media and we think people will enjoy those as well. 

What would you like every customer to know before they make the trip out to Peachland?
Don’t let the line be a downer. The best part is that it’s outside (covered for rain and such). You can social distance and still feel somewhat back to normal in these crazy times we live in today. Make friends, BYOB, share stories and talk to us when it’s your time to order. We wouldn’t have gotten to this point without our amazing customers and staff. We love getting to know you. At the end of the day, we are a small business and it’s still us (Garren and Kelly) working the front lines and we wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Thanks to Garren and Kelly for taking time out of their busy schedule to talk with us.

Jon G’s Barbecue is located off Highway 74 at 116 Glenn Falls St in Peachland, NC (about 40 minutes east of Charlotte). They are open Saturdays from 11 until 6pm or until the meat runs out.

Jon G’s Barbecue Will Have an Authenticity You Can’t Fake

Have you ever made the trip from Charlotte to Lexington Barbecue during a work day for “a quick lunch?” Or when in Austin, have you ever made the trek to The Salt Lick in Driftwood or Snow’s in Lexington (TX)? When the long-awaited Jon G’s Barbecue brick-and-mortar restaurant opens later this month, it very well might fill that same niche for Charlotte in the small town of Peachland just a short 40-45 minute drive east (praise G’s for that new-ish 74 bypass).

If you’ve been following this site in the past three years, you should already know about Jon G’s Barbecue. But when their brick and mortar opens, they will instantly offer a few things you won’t find at other Charlotte barbecue restaurants.

There will almost certainly be a line, central-Texas style. Each tray will be sliced to order and the counter service simply takes some time for each customer to go through. This is of course not the usual in North Carolina where most of the joints both classic and new are sit down affairs and you rarely have to wait. And even though the reconfigured former Barbee’s Bar-B-Que space has been opened up, Jon G’s is still on the smaller end of the spectrum with only 40 or so seats inside and another 40 or so outside (weather permitting, of course). But that doesn’t matter, because…

As it turns out, the town of Peachland (just across the county line in Anson County) is actually a dry town so if you want brews with your brisket, you will actually be able to bring your own cooler (yes, you read that right). In line waiting for your barbecue? Sit on your cooler and have a cold beer as you move through it (you might even get handed a free one). Nice day out? Sit on one of the custom-built picnic tables outside and have a picnic once you get through that line. The newly-opened Prime BBQ in Knightdale is the only other example of a BYOB barbecue restaurant in NC that I’m aware of, but I love the idea.

Besides the line and the BYOB-nature of it all, Jon G’s feels different because its an updated take on the NC roadside barbecue joint (albeit one that happens to serve brisket, of course). There’s simply no pretension to their barbecue operation (not that much would likely be tolerated in Peachland). All of Kelly and Garren’s hard work has led to this point, from the tailgate tent at Southern Range Brewing to the food truck and now to a brick and mortar store. There’s no big money backers here, and they have worked for everything they’ve earned. Major props to them.

Then of course, there’s the barbecue itself. Jon G’s has been our favorite Charlotte-area barbecue for 3 years running and it looks like there is no stopping it anytime soon. Garren has honed his meats on his new Oyler smoker over the past few months and on the night I tried them the brisket, ribs, Cheerwine hot link, and pulled pork were all consistent with the meat I fell in love with that was smoked on the offset. And the tacos should continue to be big sellers.

Opening a restaurant during a pandemic is not ideal and North Carolinians may not be quite used to driving long distances for barbecue (well, outside a few of us wackos). However, I assure you that it will be well worth your time. Once Jon G’s Barbecue opens full time, I predict I will be dragging as many people as I can out that 74 bypass to spread the gospel of Jon G’s. I would urge you to take the trip as swell. Congrats Kelly and Garren!

Jon G’s Barbecue (Speedy’s take)

Name: Jon G’s Barbecue (Speedy’s Take)
Date: 9/26/19
Order: ½ lb brisket, ½ lb pork, 1 Cheerwine sausage link
Pricing: $$

Speedy: For a couple years now, Monk has been raving about (and rubbing in) his times eating Jon G’s Barbecue. So when I was in Charlotte on an evening when Jon G was parked outside The Chamber by Wooden Robot in NoDa, I knew I had to go. Hat tip to Monk for the heads up. 

Monk: While Jon G’s has been making inroads into Charlotte more and more, a mid-week pop-up was a rare occurrence. With Speedy in town for a wedding, luckily the timing worked out nicely. 

Speedy: I arrived a little late to the party, and Monk had already left, but fortunately for me, he had let pitmaster Garren know I was coming. I learned very quickly the Garren is a smart man, as he offered me a bite of brisket before I ordered. Like I had done at La Barbecue and Franklin before that, I graciously accepted the bite and was immediately in heaven. It didn’t change my order, but it did let me know I was in for a treat. Knowing I had to try everything, I ordered a half pound of brisket, the same amount of pork, and 1 (the last!) Cheerwine hot link. Slap on a side of baked beans and we were ready to roll.

My name was called a few minutes later and it was go time. We have to start with the brisket. I later told Garren that I had previously refused to order brisket in the Carolinas, but John Lewis and Jim Noble changed that for me. And I think Jon G’s one upped both of them. The peppery moist goodness of the brisket (I ordered a mix of the fatty and lean) was top notch. This brisket was 99% as good as what I’d had at the top Texas joints, and on a good day could equal that. Garren had given me a sample of all of their sauces to try, but I didn’t dare use any on this brisket, because there was no improvement needed.

Monk: I haven’t been as fortunate as Speedy when it comes to trying brisket at the top places in Texas, so while I was high on Garren’s brisket I simply had no true baseline. I do know that Garren has traveled to Texas a lot for research, so its nice to get some agreement from Speedy here.  

Speedy: The pork was next on the list, and, while it made me happy, it took a back seat to the brisket. I found it to have a nice smoky flavor, but I did need to add a bit of the vinegar sauce to get the full effect. 

Monk: Pork can be a bit of an afterthought in Texas, but that’s certainly not the case here. I always get the pork and do agree that a bit of the vinegar sauce sets it off. Maybe we can get some big Texas Pete bottles in the future, Garren?!?

Speedy: Huge applause to Garren and team for making their own sausage – a Cheerwine hot link (which eventually ran out during service due to popularity). The link had great flavor and consistency and I definitely recommend it. It stayed together unlike some scratch made sausages I’ve had. My only complaint (with the whole meal) is that I’d like a little more snap when biting in, but it’s hard to find anything else that can be improved. 

Monk: I was waiting to order until Speedy got there so when he was held up and then I had to leave before he got there, so sadly I still have not tasted the magical, mysterious Cheerwine hot link. Per Garren, it seems as if this sausage may lead to some partnering opportunities with Cheerwine in the future, so it sounds as if its here to stay. I can’t wait to eventually try it.

Speedy: With all that meat, I was only able to eat a couple bites of baked beans, which we good, but very sweet. I’m more a savory guy, so I found myself focusing my attention back to the brisket.

Monk has labelled Jon G’s Barbecue the best in Charlotte, and I’m here to confirm that he’s right. Everything about this platter was perfect, and I can’t wait to see Garren and team again.

Ratings:
Brisket – 4.5 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Sausage – 4 hogs
Overall – 4.5 Hogs

The Bryan Furman “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s Brought Together Some of Charlotte’s Best Pitmasters

Monk: Bryan Furman, pitmaster of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque and a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef, was back in Charlotte last weekend though it was not to continue scouting Charlotte for locations for expansion as far as I’m aware (unfortunately). It was, however, for a “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s BBQ – think a tap takeover at a bar, but for barbecue. That Sunday, DJ Smitty was providing tunes on the patio, Birdsong Brewing was serving beer outside, smoked oysters were a special on the menu, and the line may have been slightly longer than normal but other than that it was more or less business as usual, just with Furman’s very good barbecue instead of Sweet Lew’s also very good barbecue.

The real boon for Charlotte’s burgeoning barbecue community didn’t take place that day but instead the night before, and I was sad to be out of town and unable to experience first hand. There, in the parking lot of Sweet Lew’s, some of Charlotte’s best pitmasters hung out, sampled each other’s barbecue, and assisted Furman in the smoking of several whole hogs. Garren Kirkman from Jon G’s Barbecue brought his brisket and Cheerwine hot links, Michael Wagner and Matthew Berry from Midwood Smokehouse brought their mobile BQ smoker to help smoke hogs, and of course Lewis Donald was there as the gracious host.

I have spoken separately with Midwood Smokehouse’s Wagner and Berry and Garren from Jon G’s about the lack of a cohesive Charlotte barbecue community, and this is certainly a step in the right direction to say the least. FS Food Group (the parent company of Midwood Smokehouse) Brand Director Rémy Thurston has recently mentioned to me that they want to be on the forefront of making Charlotte a true barbecue city, and some things may be in the works to bring these pitmasters (and perhaps more) back together sooner rather than later. All of this makes me hopeful that Charlotte barbecue is on the upswing and I truly believe that the best things are yet to come. World, you are on notice.