Barbecue Joints: What's Really In a Name?
There’s an art to naming a barbecue joint, especially one that will stick around for decades and become a Southern classic.
For starters, it doesn’t pay to get cutesy. Recent years have brought a rash of restaurant names with slightly-risque anatomical puns, like "Rubbin’ Butts” and “Smoky Butts” and all sorts of other butts. Pit wits like to put “Bone” in their restaurant names, too, since they can pair so many verbs with it and make people giggle.
But do you really want to stake your fortune on a jokey name? It’s worth noting that no restaurant with “butt” or “bone” in its name made it onto Southern Living’s Top 50 list. (And, no, spelling “Buttz” or “Bonz” with a “z” does not class things up.)
Incorporating “Pig” into a restaurant’s name is a popular if less titillating way to go, especially since there are so many other p-words to pair with it—poor, pink, pretty, porky. You’ll often see “Little Pigs” on barbecue signs, and not just because of the children’s story. Many are remnants of a would-be barbecue empire launched in the 1960s. The Memphis-based Little Pigs of America expanded aggressively, opening 200 franchised restaurants by 1965—and then went belly up. A lot of former franchisee stayed in business as independent operators and are still using the Little Pigs name today.
But if you are opening a barbecue joint and want to hedge your bets, there’s one tried-and-true formula: use your own name.
The proof is in the numbers: fully 64% of the restaurants on our Top 50 list bear their founder’s name. Sometimes they tack on a little flourish, like Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis, but generally it’s just the owner’s name plus “barbecue”.
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Or “barbeque,” “bar-b-q,” “bar-b-que”, or “BBQ”, which saves a few bucks on the sign. If you can’t land on a preferred spelling, that’s okay, too. One of our Top 50 restaurants is located in Jackson, Georgia. Is it “Fresh Air Barbecue”, “Fresh Air Bar-B-Que”, or “Fresh Air Barbeque”? I have no idea: all three are used on the homepage of their website. (This kind of thing really annoys magazine fact checkers working on Top 50 lists.)
But here’s a tip: use your last name, not your first. There are only so many first names out there, and our brains seem unable to lock a restaurant’s name in memory if it’s just called Jack’s or Bill’s. Up in Greenville, South Carolina, there’s a Mike & Jeff’s BBQ and also a Mutt’s BBQ—or is that Mutt & Jeff’s BBQ and Mike’s BBQ? I can never remember.
My wife is even worse at being on a first-name basis with restaurants. Early in our marriage, we agreed to meet for lunch at Larry’s Barbecue. I arrived a few minutes early and waited with growing impatience for twenty minutes, then thirty. Finally my cell phone rang. “Where are you?” she demanded. “I’ve been waiting half an hour!”
“I’m sitting right here—at the table by the door!”
“I don’t see you.”
It turns out she wasn’t at Larry’s. She was across town at Leon’s. But I still got blamed for the blunder. “You’re the one who picked a first-name restaurant,” she said, resting her case.
Only three joints on the Top 50 list use the owner’s first name, and two of them have modifiers. At Miss Myra’s in Birmingham, the title “Miss” mixes things up a bit, and at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, the city name helps anchor the place.
The restaurants that really do it right incorporate the proprietor’s full name, like Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City and Louie Mueller in Lockhart, Texas. There’s something proud and confident about putting your first and last name on a restaurant, like you’re staking your reputation on it and putting your full faith and credit behind the venture. If you’ve got a nickname you can throw in there, like Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama, why that’s even better.
Which Arthur’s Barbecue? Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque. Which Bob’s Barbecue? Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q. No ifs, ands, or buttz about it.