It’s not easy to open a barbecue restaurant in North Carolina.
Sure, each new eatery opens to demand and enthusiasm, but it also faces the weight of expectation and tradition, a legacy of smokehouse cathedrals it seems every new plate has to live up to.
Clayton pitmaster Jerry Stephenson plans to open Redneck Barbecue Lab in McGee’s Crossroads later this year, and he doesn’t do so lightly. After years of competition and catering success, he’ll stake his nationally ranked reputation on his first brick-and-mortar eatery. Stephenson made his bones smoking whole hogs while growing up on the family farm in Eastern North Carolina. He said his barbecue won’t follow the vinegar and spices blueprint of the region, or the more tomato-based formula of Western North Carolina.
“We’re still going to do the old-school North Carolina barbecue, or my take on North Carolina barbecue,” Stephenson said. “It’s not East, it’s not West, it’s Jerry’s take.”
The restaurant will take over the space vacated by Dairy Queen, attached to the BP gas station at Exit 319 on Interstate 40. Stephenson will offer the classics: pulled pork, brisket, ribs and chicken, but like the word “Lab” in the name suggests, he will also be doing some experimenting.
“We’re also going to rotate in a fifth thing,” Stephenson said. “Maybe turkey breast one month, maybe porchetta, then beef ribs, which are really popular right now. .. .You’ve got to keep stuff creative or you’ll die.”
Perhaps most revolutionary, Stephenson’s restaurant won’t have a fryer, meaning no french fries or hush puppies. In its place, he’ll have cornbread and jalapeno mac and cheese, green beans, his mom’s baked bean recipe and coleslaw. He’s also planning baked hand pies and vegetable specials.
The restaurant will have 24 seats and a drive-thru and bring to mind the tobacco warehouses of North Carolina, Stephenson said. Right now, as construction continues, the windows and doors are covered in brown paper, but with a target opening around Thanksgiving, Stephenson said the walls will look plain and wooden.
“It’s something that’s going to be super simple,” he said, noting that his sister and barbecue partner, Roxanne Manley, designed the interior. “People will walk in and a cattle line will direct them to come up to the window. They’ll order and take two steps to the right where someone will slice or chop their barbecue right in front of them. You just don’t see that around here; it’s usually dying under a heat lamp or something.”
More and more, barbecue restaurants, including some in North Carolina, are catching national attention for their complexities and deliciousness, rather than being dismissed as regional novelties. Stephenson will take a trend if it’s there, but he said his restaurant’s timing has little to do with the flavor of the day. He plans to still be here slinging plates and sandwiches long after national eyes have moved on to the next thing.
“I don’t think anyone has the proven record, competition wise, of what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We’re not really tuned into what other people have done; we’re not trying to be the flavor of the day. We built up a great catering base. You really have to put the work in; you can’t fake it. That’s why we’re doing the restaurant.”
For now, and likely until later in the fall, there’s just a sign on the window. It says, “The Rednecks are coming.”