Randy McCall and his wife had been selling out of smoked, chopped pork at a takeout stand behind their Pikeville home for nearly five years.
So, when he and Worth Westbrook were considering opening a restaurant together, Westbrook asked McCall why he needed a partner.
“‘I am not the most organized person in the world,’” McCall said he responded.
The conversation marked the beginning of a partnership that transformed a Goldsboro barn that had housed a string of failed businesses into the 25-year-old McCall’s Bar-B-Q & Seafood.
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The business sells up to 40,000 pounds of pork a month out of its Goldsboro and Clayton locations and pulls in more than $9.6 million in revenue annually.
The restaurant, which offers a buffet with barbecue, fried seafood and country cooking, got its start and has held its own on U.S. 70, nestled between decades-old outlets that helped blaze North Carolina’s barbecue trail.
Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro is less than a minute’s drive to the west and Kings Restaurant in Kinston is 30 minutes east, but McCall’s clearly has built its own following.
On a good month, the Goldsboro restaurant sells about 25,000 buffet lunches and dinners. The Clayton location isn’t far behind that, the owners said, but the Goldsboro spot does significantly more takeout business.
The secret, the owners said, isn’t just in the simple, vinegar-based sauce.
“You serve good food,” Westbrook said. “They show up.”
The concept was built on a small-business formula centered on providing consistent and quality food, despite the pressure to scale up to meet the demand that increased year after year.
When it comes to barbecue, the owners said, the people in this part of the state wouldn’t accept anything less.
Being their own boss
Westbrook, 58, grew up on a tobacco farm in southern Johnston County, where he still lives with his family. McCall, 60, still in Pikeville, grew up in the mountains in Brevard.
They met in 1981 in Wilson working for pet and animal food company Ralston Purina.
They managed the distribution network for large animal products in adjacent districts of clustered North Carolina counties for nine years.
“Pretty much best friends the whole time,” Westbrook said.
McCall’s wife, Martie, was a nurse but wanted to be able to stay at home with their three small children, so they opened a takeout stand in 1984. It was open every Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. or until they ran out of food.
Meanwhile, McCall and Westbrook were concerned about their future selling feed to the consolidating hog industry and were always discussing ways in which they could be their own bosses.
Around April 1989, McCall called Westbrook and said he had found a restaurant for lease.
They jumped in and planned to smoke their meats at McCall’s Pikeville pit for the first 90 days and decided to offer seafood to differentiate themselves from the historic barbecue spots. McCall’s wooden pit burned down the second night.
“So, we were off to a running start,” McCall said.
A Nahunta volunteer fire department let the owners use their pit while they built their own.
They opened the doors on Aug. 23, 1989. It was a Wednesday, and they weren’t very busy.
But come Sunday, “we just got killed,” Westbrook said. The small kitchen didn’t have enough space to meet the instant demand of the church crowd. So they bought and rolled out a buffet on Sundays.
Skeptical but intrigued by the bump in Sunday business, they opened the buffet on Friday and Saturday nights. Then they tried it at lunch.
“It was just like, ‘Boom!’ ” Westbrook said, and business doubled.
By 1991, McCall’s offered a buffet seven days a week and had added drive-thru.
The formula for maintaining a quality buffet and managing food costs now involves looking at historical sales data, buying quality ingredients and timing food preparation so pork is chopped and vegetables are prepared just hours before they hits customers’ plates.
“We chop barbecue all day long,” McCall said.
But early on, it involved throwing away a lot of barbecue because it no longer met their standards.
They were trying to build a business, McCall said, not just make money.
After a year and a half, McCall and Westbrook stepped away from the food preparation and plating and started managing the restaurant. They set up alternating schedules.
“One of us was always there,” Westbrook said.
In the 1990s, they explored a franchising option with partners who opened a McCall’s in Cape Carteret but moved to Jacksonville. Another opened in Morehead City. The businesses were closed within seven years.
McCall and Westbrook described it as a learning experience they don’t want to repeat.
Opening a second location
In the early 2000s, the business partners started looking for a second location that would be just far enough away that it wouldn’t cannibalize the Goldsboro restaurant.
They really wanted to open near Carolina Pottery in Smithfield but didn’t want to compete with Holt Lake Bar-B-Que & Seafood. Westbrook had gone to high school and college with Holt Lake owner Terry Barefoot, who also sent staff to help when McCall’s first opened.
“He had been so gracious to us,” Westbrook said.
On Aug. 23, 2004, McCall and Westbrook opened their second restaurant in Clayton with two partners that they later bought out.
In 2007, the Clayton spot closed for seven months after a single-engine plane crashed into the restaurant, killing the pilot.
The owners said they thought they were well-insured, but ended up spending the next seven months agitated and frustrated with the haggling process involved in turning the insurance company’s offer to pay $970,000 to cover damage and payroll into a settlement of $2.6 million.
As business increased year after year, McCall and Westbrook have had to figure out how to meet the increasing demand without expanding their kitchen footprint.
They turned to European equipment, such as ovens that cook with a combination of steam and convection and blast chillers to keep foods at the proper temperatures.
Despite the fancy equipment, quality control is a key tool.
One of the first things McCall did when he walked into his Clayton restaurant last week was try the barbecue. Westbrook brought a gallon of sauce from the Goldsboro spot to compare to the Clayton sauce.
“You have to serve good food, and you have to do it every day,” Westbrook said. “You can’t do it good one day and not quite as good the next day, because people have to know what to expect.”