EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Jon G’s Barbecue pitmaster Garren Kirkman on what’s next

If you’ve been following our current favorite barbecue purveyor in Charlotte, Jon G’s Barbecue, on Facebook or Instagram then you would have seen that the pitmaster behind it has made a big decision and will be devoting more time to his craft as of March 15th. I reached out to Garren Kirkman to get some more information and see what his plans are now.

First off, congrats! How excited are you?
I am stoked to see what the future has in store, but it’s bittersweet for this chapter of my life to (somewhat) close. It was my first job out of college, I bought my first house, I met my wife, my son was born and so many other milestones in life happened while I was employed at CMC… Carolinas Healthcare…ehrrr I mean what is now called Atrium Health-Union.

Can you help our readers understand what exactly the plan is as of 3/15, your last day full-time at Atrium Health in your current role?
The plan for now is to get more sleep! Until now I have worked 40 hours a week to come home Friday and stay up all night stoking a fire and seeing the whole process through until the service is over the next day. Make rub, trim brisket, season meat and so on and so forth, you name it, start to finish (meat wise) that’s me. 

Until now, we have done zero marketing besides a few Facebook promotions. Our biggest goal is to get our story out there, promote our brand and grow, grow, grow! 

Who was the 98-year old man that you quoted? Did he influence your barbecue dream  at all?
I can honestly say I don’t know who he is. I don’t know his name or his face, but I will never forget those words for as long as I live. In a roundabout way he most certainly spurred my dreams, even if the discussion wasn’t directly about barbecue. 

So why now?
Around 2010, hospitals were becoming a productivity driven environment and my 40 hour work week was being cut to around 20 hours some weeks due to the number of patients we were seeing. Sometimes I would unexpectedly have half of a normal paycheck. Even though I had half of a paycheck, the bills stayed the same. That being said, all those years ago when I was given the advice to not work for “The Man” it set into motion a vision that I had for my life. I didn’t know where it would lead me, but it led me to barbecue.

Jon G’s has grown beyond what we ever imagined it could with the time we allowed for it. We are booked solid every weekend until June and when we started turning down jobs that seemed to be my cue to take the opportunity that’s presenting itself.

Where do you want to take Jon G’s Barbecue in the next six months? One year? Five years?
Six months will look very similar to what we have been doing, a few pop ups and our scheduled catering gigs.

One year we hope to still be growing exponentially. We want to market ourselves and hope to get into some corporate catering during the week. Although we do believe in quality over quantity, we have a ton of room to spread the brisket gospel far and wide!

In 5 years we hope to still be in business…maybe in a brick and mortar?! We shall see!

What are your upcoming pop-ups or services? Where will folks be able to get their hands on your tasty brisket and barbecue?
You can find our schedule on our Instagram page @jongsbbq. We have plenty of dates between Monroe and Statesville, NC for people to come out and get some great food. Not to mention the breweries we are at have fantastic beer to compliment like Southern Range Brewing and Fourth Creek Brewing

Anything else?
I do want to say that when you come to one of our events it isn’t just me or my wife, Kelly that make it happen. We have amazing friends and family that allow us to create the Jon G’s experience.  We could NOT do it alone and I pray my son has a family business to step into one day. 

Thankful doesn’t seem like a big enough word to describe how we feel when people come give us a chance. Thank you all for helping our dreams become a reality! 

Thanks to Garren for his time. In the meantime, check out this mouthwatering video of his brisket in action.

Pitmasters of Charlotte: Garren Kirkman of Jon G’s Barbecue

While there is certainly good barbecue to be found in Charlotte, I wouldn’t quite say that it’s a barbecue city…yet. However, there are pitmasters out there doing great work, and I hope to spotlight that a little more in this series of posts called “Pitmasters of Charlotte.”

First up is Garren Kirkman, who along with his wife Kelly own and run Jon G’s Barbecue out of Marshville/Monroe. You may recognize Jon G’s as the current #1 on our Charlotte Big Board, so Garren was a natural first choice to feature.

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How long have you lived in Charlotte (or the surrounding area) and how did you get here?
I was born and raised in Statesville, NC and moved to Union County in 2007 for work. I’m a nuclear medicine supervisor by trade.

How did you become a pitmaster?
First off, I call myself a firekeeper. If you are reading this and think I’m a pitmaster, thanks!

I went to Walmart, found a choice whole packer brisket on clearance, went home and smoked it on an offset Char-Griller bellowing gray smoke for 16 hours and produced a meteorite. Needless to say…I had some work to do (although everyone ate it happily that day). Brisket was surprisingly the first thing I ever smoked and not a Boston butt.

What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer?
Brisket and beef ribs are definitely top two, brisket being more of a challenge. My favorite thing to smoke would be beef ribs (dinosaur rib), but we typically save those for catering events due to regional unpopularity.

Mixture of well seasoned white oak and pecan are my choices for wood, but occasionally some red oak will slip in as well. We won’t turn red oak down as long as it’s seasoned. It is all about a consistent, clean burning fire.

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What are your barbecue influences?
If you’ve ever had our food it’s obviously influenced by Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin,TX. But aside from Texas influences, I admire Skylight Inn and Sam Jones in Ayden, NC. While I’m not smoking exactly like them, the history and their dedication to quality and product speaks for itself. I am not a trained “chef” so there is definitely some “Grandmas Sunday lunch” influence on our side dishes. On a side note, we do have a couple events planned this fall featuring a whole hog.

What is your favorite barbecue joint or style?
I’m not into chain restaurant barbecue. I like to go places where I can see the hard work that’s being poured into the food. I like to think we accomplish this even though we are a food truck (for now).

IMG_2509 (2)What is your earliest memory of barbecue?
Growing up in a small town in NC, fire department BBQ was a go-to and is honestly my first memory of BBQ. I’ll just say, it was for a good cause!

What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue?
If I’m being completely honest, barbecue is not our first choice of a meal when we are home. We save it up for places like Buxton Hall in Asheville, Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, or when traveling to Texas, more up and coming places like Truth Barbecue. Of course we have made the rounds at Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, etc.

What is a weakness or opportunity of Charlotte barbecue?
I’d love to see more pitmaster-based barbecue joints. A face behind the food, if you will. And less gas.

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Thanks to Garren for being our first guinea pig for this series. For more about Jon G’s BBQ, check out their Instagram or Facebook page. If you know of a pitmaster who we should feature next, let us know!

Linkdown: 7/11/18

– Adrian Miller, James Beard Award Winner: It’s time to diversity the BBQ Hall of Fame

Of the 27 inductees chosen thus far, only one African American is in the Hall. This is an absurdity that needs to be rectified given the significant contributions that African Americans have made to American barbecue culture.

– What’s the best beer pairing for barbecue? 12 pitmasters weigh in, including Sam Jones

– No surprise here

– Heirloom Market BBQ, B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque, and Fox Bros BBQ continue to be on Eater Atlanta’s refreshed 38 essential restaurants

– Midwood Smokehouse Park Road and Unknown Brewing have collaborated on a smoked malt Helles beer called Heaven and Helles and are debuting it this Saturday at their Hop, Chop, and Sauce It party

– TMBBQ’s best pitmaster pit stops in Texas

– Conyers also earned a PhD in 09 from Duke

– City Limits Q in Columbia (who I still really need to try) is serving smashburgers this Friday at Craft and Draft

– Jon G’s Barbecue will be at the Union County Farmer’s Market in Monroe this Saturday at 10:30

– Not sure if there will be any left at the time of posting, but here’s your PSA

Photo Gallery: The Best Barbecue in 2017 So Far

Bar-B-Q King – Lincolnton, NC (review)

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The Smoke Pit – Salisbury, NC (review)

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Jon G’s BBQ – Monroe, NC (review)

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Central BBQ – Memphis, TN (review)

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B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque – Atlanta, GA (review)

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Heirloom Market Bar-B-Que – Atlanta, GA (review)

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DAS BBQ – Atlanta, GA (review)

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Lewis Barbecue – Charleston, SC (review)

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Rodney Scott’s BBQ – Charleston, SC (review)

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Swig & Swine – Summerville, SC (review)

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Charlotte Barbecue Joint Big Board – March 2017

We have a new #1! Jon G’s BBQ hosts a regular pop-up at Southern Range Brewing in Monroe and smokes some of the finest brisket in NC (the pork’s not so bad either), which lands it at the top spot in our latest update. Since our last big board in December 2015, we’ve added seven total new joints to the list, four of which landed in the top 7: the aforementioned Jon G’s BBQMidwood Smokeshack – the fast casual brother of Midwood Smokehouse, the Texas-style joint Big Tiny’s BBQ in Mooresville, and the year-old korean-southern barbecue fusion of Seoul Food Meat Co. 2017 should hopefully bring us the debut of Jim Noble’s barbecue restaurant, the Texas-and-maybe-Lexington-barbecue-influenced Noble Smoke (side note: our top 5 has a little too much Texas flavor to it for my liking). He’s done some events in Charlotte over the past few months on his new smoker, and I am hoping his brick and mortar restaurant opens soon (or at least I get a chance to taste his barbecue somewhere).

What other Charlotte area joints should we check out? Feel free to weigh in on your favorite in the comments and if you present a strong enough case we will try to head there next. I’ve checked out a few joints recently based on reader comments and feedback (including our new #1) and am always looking for more, whether in Charlotte or across the state.

-Monk

Note: “new” denotes reviewed since last big board update

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  1. Jon G’s BBQ new
    A recent revelation from Monroe. Check their Facebook and Instagram to figure out when Garren and Kelly will be smoking at Southern Range Brewing next because you won’t want to miss it.IMG_0196
  2. Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen (food truck)
    Some friends of the blog ordered some catering from Boone’s last summer and it was still pretty dang good. I hope to catch them out and about some time soon to see if Jon G’s really is the new best barbecue in town.IMG_1469
  3. Midwood SmokehouseBallantyne / Central Ave (original review)
    Midwood keeps doing their thing, and continue to expand with another Charlotte location expected to open with the next month or so.
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  4. Midwood Smokeshack (Matthews) new
    Recently relocated Texas-born pitmaster Michael Wagner is doing some great things at the fast casual brother of Midwood Smokehouse.IMG_4457
  5. The Smoke Pit (Concord) (original review)
    Having recently tried the Salisbury location of The Smoke Pit, I was reminded just how good their smoked meats are.
  6. Big Tiny’s BBQ (Mooresville) new
  7. Seoul Food Meat Co new
  8. Sauceman’s (original review)
  9. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue (original review)
  10. Kyle Fletcher’s Barbecue & Catering
  11. Q2U (Lake Wylie) new
  12. The Improper Pig
  13. Killer Q
  14. Bar-B-Q King
  15. 521 BBQ and Grill: Tega Cay / Indian Land
  16. Mac’s Speed Shop: Steele Creek / South Blvd
  17. Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q (Concord) 
  18. The Q Shack
  19. Smoke & Go Bar-B-Que (food truck)
  20. Kid Cashew new 
  21. Treehouse Whiskey and Fork new
  22. Smoke Modern Barbeque (Huntersville)
  23. R&R Bar-B-Que (Concord)
  24. Queen City Q (original review)
  25. Lancaster’s BBQ: Huntersville / Mooresville
  26. Rock Store Bar-B-Q: Stallings / Mint Hill
  27. Moe’s Original Bar-B-Que: food truck / Matthews (original review)
  28. McKoy’s Smokehouse and Saloon
  29. Brooks’ Sandwich House
  30. Fort Mill BBQ Company (Fort Mill) new 
  31. Queen City Q (Concord) new
  32. Bubba’s Barbecue
  33. JJR’s BBQ Shack
  34. Ranucci’s Big Butt BBQ
  35. The Dixie Pig (Rock Hill)
  36. City Smoke
  37. Bobbee-O’s BBQ (original review)
  38. OooWee BBQ (food truck)
  39. R.O.’s Bar-B-Que

Closed: Old Hickory House (April 2015), Elwood’s Barbecue & Burger Bar (September 2015), Carolina Ribs on the Run (Mooresville) (July 2014), Farmer’s BBQ (unknown)

Still to review: Dan the Pig Man (food truck), Bodrick’s BBQ, Glenn’s Again (Kannapolis), Slow Smokin’ BBQ (food truck), Smokey J’s BBQ (food truck), Smoke Modern Barbeque (Stonecrest), JB’s Lazy Pig BBQ and Ice Cream (Waxhaw), Unnamed Jim Noble barbecue restaurant (coming soon), Randy’s BBQ (Troutman), City Barbeque, Dan Good Que

Previous Big Boards: December 2015, January 2015May 2014December 2013July 2013

Jon G’s BBQ – Monroe, NC

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Name: Jon G’s BBQ (monthly pop up at Southern Range Brewing)
Date: 2/25/17
Address: 151 S Stewart St, Monroe, NC 28112
Order: Two meat platter (brisket and pulled pork) with coleslaw and jalapeno cheddar grits
Price: $17

Monk: For the past few months, Jon G’s BBQ has been hosting a monthly pop-up dubbed “BBQ Saturdays” at Southern Range BBQ in Monroe, NC (about 30 miles southeast of Charlotte on US-74). On a beautiful mild February day (what day this past February wasn’t?), I was able to convince my trooper of a wife two days past her due date to make the 35 minute trek with me to finally check it out after months of Instagram stalking.

Jon G’s BBQ is the barbecue catering operation of Garren Kirkman and his wife Kelly. Garren is a NC guy but his barbecue is heavily influenced by Central Texas. He routinely makes trips to Texas and you can tell he’s done his research in his product.

Getting right to it, the brisket without a doubt is one of the best briskets I’ve had in NC . Garren has gone to pains to recreate the Central Texas style of his brisket, down to constructing his giant offset smoker out of a 500 gallon propane tank and smoking with a mixture of pecan and oak. And it showed – the bark was thick and peppery and the beautifully smoked meat had a nice tug to it. Granted, I haven’t really made the rounds in Texas like Rudy or even Speedy have but this was a damn fine brisket.

While Garren has clearly focused on his brisket, his pork doesn’t suffer in the least. He smokes Boston butts and the coarsely pulled strands of pork were tender and flavorful. It did not require any sauce but one of the three available was an eastern NC vinegar sauce and it paired well with the pork.

I found my sides (cole slaw and jalapeno cheese grits) to be solid, but the real stars of the show were the meats.

Jon G’s BBQ is absolutely worth the trip to Monroe. The portions are quite generous (I got a second meal out of it) and the beer at Southern Range ain’t so bad either. However, be sure not to delay too much after they begin serving as they tend to sell out of meat within a couple of hours. If you make the trip (and you absolutely should), be assured that you are tasting the best barbecue in the Charlotte area.

Ratings:
Atmosphere – N/A
Brisket – 4.5 hogs
Pork – 4.5 hogs
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 4.5 hogs

Linkdown: 7/6/16

– After their campaign stop Tuesday afternoon, Obama and Hillary stopped by Midwood for pork and brisket (Obama) and chicken and ribs (Hillary)

– Village Voice takes you behind the scenes with the pitmasters the night before the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party

– Scott’s BBQ is closed this week, returning a week from today

– For the home smoker, an Epicurious writer says he’s over lump hardwood charcoal because “it’s expensive, burns too hot, and doesn’t last long enough”

– Monroe, NC gets its first craft beer bar, and it also serves barbecue – Southern Range Craft Beer & BBQ

– Food Republic has the lowdown on barbecue hash, with help from Elliot Moss among others

– Time has listicles of 8 Incredible BBQ Spots in Texas (with help from Daniel Vaughn of TMBBQ) as well as 8 Best BBQ Spots in the Carolinas (with help from Rien Fertel)

– Business Insider teams with Foursquare for their list of top 50 barbecue joints ranked

– Southern Living barbecue editor Robert Moss has released an updated 2016 list of the best barbecue joints in the south

Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q – Monroe, NC (CLOSED)

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Name: Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q
Date: 6/28/13
Location: 1507 W. Roosevelt Road, Monroe, NC 28110
Order: Pulled Pork and brisket combo plate with vinegar slaw and fries, sweet tea (link to menu, although this isn’t the menu at the NC location)
Price: $15.48

From what I can tell, Big Bob Gibson’s is a pretty well-respected Alabama barbecue restaurant that has been operating in Decatur, Alabama since 1925. For the past few years, they have gained exposure through their current pitmaster Chris Lilly, who has appeared on “BBQ Pitmasters” numberous times and has also written a book. In addition to their two restaurants in Decatur, naturally they chose the site for their third restaurant to be in Monroe, North Carolina…wait, what?

That’s right, for reasons unknown their third and currently only other location is in a small town outside Charlotte some 465 miles away. I haven’t had good luck with Alabama barbecue lately, but I figured I’d give it a try anyways.

This Big Bob Gibson’s is in a standalone building off Highway 74 in Monroe, and really reads more “upscale southern grill” than “barbecue joint.” The interior is actually quite nice, with a bar off to the left as you walk in and the main dining area to the right. I was definitely surprised by how nice it was.

I got there before any lunch rush so after I was promptly seated and after a minute to review the menu I decided on the combo plate of both pulled pork and brisket. The choice of sides included both a mayo slaw and a vinegar slaw, so naturally I ordered vinegar as well as fries to round out the order. Thankfully, a couple of hush puppies are also included with each platter.

After only about 5 minutes I received a large plate of food. The pulled pork was not very smoky and also quite dry, so I needed the “Championship Red Sauce” that comes on the table but was also served in a warmed ramekin with the meal. It is a thicker, tangy/sweet sauce that is closer to Kraft BBQ Sauce than dip – not for me. As for the brisket, I was expecting slices but it came chopped; I do not believe this was not stated on the menu. And it more or less tasted like chopped beef roast, which is fine unless of course you want brisket. The two hush puppies came out still hot and were large spheres of cornmeal that were ok but didn’t have the sweetness I like to taste in my hush puppies. The vinegar slaw was interesting in that it wasn’t the barbecue slaw that we are used to in the piedmont. It did have the tang expected of a vinegar-based slaw but was also sweet, likely to do the addition of quite a bit of sugar. It was different but gave a nice cold crunch to the meal.

So dawg, for me for you, Big Bob Gibson’s was a little bit of a bust. They also serve barbecue chicken (with that curious white sauce) and turkey, but despite the warm and friendly service I received I probably won’t be making it back to try those out. Sorry Alabama, I’m just still not impressed with your barbecue.

-Monk

Ratings:
Atmosphere/ambiance – 3.5 hogs
Pork – 2 hogs
Brisket – 2 hogs
Sides – 2.5 hogs
Overall – 2.5 hogs

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