Lansing’s barbecue boom

From a meat-lover’s perspective, the key attribute of barbecue cooking, elevating it above all other types of cuisine, is its distinctive aroma. You don’t get the same reaction from walking past, say, a good Italian restaurant — “Mmmm, can you smell that ravioli boiling?”
 
In recent years, that heavenly meat-in-a-smoker bouquet has become increasingly prevalent throughout Metro Lansing. Since 2012, no fewer than six new barbecue joints have popped up across the landscape, adding to the existing ones to create a district of slow-cooked sustenance and Southern-style sides.
 
The founder of the feast is the aptly named Meat. Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine, 1224 N. Turner St. in Lansing’s Old Town neighborhood. Initially serving as a sort of counter-programming to the area’s women’s apparel stores, art galleries and antique shops, Meat. has served as forerunner to both the dining scene in Old Town and the barbecue boom that has taken mid-Michigan by storm.
 
“I had no intention of starting any kind of trend when I opened,” says Meat. owner/operator Sean Johnson. “I was just taking a hobby that I had a passion for and trying to make it work as a business. I consider myself very lucky that it’s working.”
 
Johnson opened Meat. in 2012 in an unassuming space that was previously home to a café. The brisket, ribs, chicken, turkey and pulled pork are prepared in a massive wood-burning rotisserie stove, nicknamed “The Beast,” which can slow-cook 600 lbs. of meat at any time. The Beast represents the restaurant’s single-biggest investment and required the construction of a separate weatherproof shed out back to hold it.
 
“There were already a couple barbecue places in town when we opened, and I wanted to build on that,” Johnson says. “But no one was doing what we were doing at the kind of level we had envisioned. I think that’s what the difference was.”
 
Meat. was a success out of the gate. The kitchen routinely sold out of food by midway through the shift, which is one of only drawbacks of barbecue cooking.
 
“We smoke our meat for 20 hours,” Johnson says. “You can’t rush slow-cooked food.”
 
What you can do, however, is grow. Last year, Meat. nearly doubled its size when it took over the adjacent space and expanded its dining room, patio and bar area. It also added a much-need second smoker out back. Finding that balance between restaurant size and output was something business partners Matt Gillett and Travis Stoliker kept in mind when they opened Saddleback BBQ, 1147 S. Washington Ave., in REO Town last year.
 
“I don’t want to be in the position of running out of food,” Gillett says. “Barbecue (cuisine) has a ton of personality, and it’s the kind of food people will give a chance to. The best part is that it’s so diverse — there are so many ways to be the best.”
 
The restaurant space is only has room for about 30 seats, but between sit-down service and carryout, they churn through about dozens of people every day. The menu is simple — sausage, chicken, ribs, pulled pork, brisket and just a few sides — but the emphasis is placed heavily on the craft.
 
“We went down to Georgia and bought a smoker from (competitive pit master) Lonnie Smith,” Gillett says. “We cooked with him for the Big Pig Jig, which is like the Super Bowl of smoking, and won the grand championship. We learned about the process.”
 
Saddleback utilizes a wood-fed smoker that produces a big smoke flavor. The restaurant also makes all its own sauces, including Gillett’s specialty, a Vernors ginger ale-based reduction. As for that name — Saddleback — it comes British Saddleback, a distinctive type of pig with black-and-white bands, also used in the restaurant’s logo. Gillett settled on the name as a tribute to his roots. Kind of.
 
“I grew up in Mason, where there are a lot of pig farms, but I never paid any attention to them,” Gillett says. “When I was looking for a name, I did some research and came across the Saddleback, which has a neat sound and an interesting look to it. That was that.”
 
Gillett’s and Stoliker’s experience planted a seed for an idea to open a barbecue restaurant, and after a failed fundraising pitch to East Lansing startup business booster the Hatching, they decided to raise the money themselves. They opened within three weeks of finding their home, a space that had been home to a series of historic Lansing restaurants including, most recently, Vintage Café. 
 
“It all came together fast,” he says. “I’m pretty sure first-time ventures, don’t always goes like this.”
 
Gillett, an 18-year veteran of the food service industry, left his job as the wine bar manager at Dusty’s Cellar to focus on opening Saddleback, but Craig “Gump” Garmyn was a restaurant newbie when he opened Gump BBQ, 1105 River St., earlier this year. Garmyn has worked in construction for 26 years, but he says he’s always been a barbecue hobbyist on the side.
“Then last year I started kicking around the idea of opening my own place, and I struck up a conversation with (restaurateur) Scott Simmons,” Garmyn says. “He said he had the perfect building for me, and that really put the wheels in motion for Gump’s BBQ. “
 
Simmons, owner of the Waterfront Bar & Grill in the Lansing City Market and the River House Inn in Williamston, owns the Gump BBQ building, which is also home to Garmyn’s River Street Catering business. Garmyn spent a few months honing the menu, including creating specialty barbecue sauces and a roster of side items, including cheesy potatoes. He added a wood-fed electric smoker and transformed the interior into some semblance of a dining room. He says the response has been good so far.
 
“There’s a baseball field right across the street, and this summer, I want to add a patio out front so people can sit and watch their kids play,” Garmyn says. “But really, I have a construction background, so my goal was to be able to accommodate all the local construction workers. I’m operating it like an indoor food truck.”
 
BackYard BarBQ, which has existed for more than a decade, launched its own food truck last year. With two locations in Okemos and downtown Lansing, BYB is part of the original guard (i.e., pre-Meat.) of local barbecue, which includes King of the Grill and chain restaurant Smokey Bones. Other recent additions to the scene are Famous Dave’s, another national chain based out of Virginia, and Crossroads Barbecue in Grand Ledge, but perhaps the most idiosyncratic newcomer lives inside a cell phone store. Yes, you can upgrade your data plan and pick up a banh mi sandwich in one go.

Linh Lee and Regan Louchart are the co-owner/operators of Captial City BBQ, 1026 W. Saginaw St. in Lansing, inside Sunshine Cellular store. Situated on the northeast corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Saginaw St., it’s easy to miss, but the smell of barbecue wafting out into the intersection is a dead giveaway.
 
“If I don’t love it, I won’t put it on the menu,” Linh says. “I’m (new to barbecue), but I grew up in Vietnam with all this wonderful food that I’ll share if people (respond well) to the items we have. Money is nice, but I like making people happy.”
 
The smoker out back kicks out conventional barbecue offerings — ribs, brisket, chicken — as well as the meat that’s used for the decidedly non-traditional dishes, including the aforementioned banh mi, a spicy Vietnamese sandwich featuring pork belly, veggies and pickled toppings. Capital City BBQ features three types of banh mi: grilled lemon grass and pork, pork and pate, and meatball. Linh spent months searching for the perfect bread, which is the hallmark of the sandwich.
 
“The bread is the most important part,” Linh says. “If you don’t have the right type of French bread, it’s not a banh mi.”
 
Included with the traditional barbecue sides like potato salad, baked beans and mac and cheese, are traditional Vietnamese egg rolls made with pork and shrimp, making Capital City BBQ the most eclectic of the new generation of barbecue restaurants inspired by Meat.  

Johnson is in talks to begin packaging Meat.’s sauces and selling them commercially, perhaps encouraging amateur mid-Michigan chefs to experiment with their own backyard smokers.
 
“I definitely don’t consider myself an inspiration,” says Johnson. “But if (opening Meat.) inspired others to try opening their own restaurants and try to make a living out of their passions, then that makes me happy.”

 
Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
 
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