Saturday, November 08, 2008

Barbecue for the Uneducated

I gave The Wife a GPS for her car as an anniversary gift. (Yes, I know, REAL romantic . . . but it's what she wanted.) Hands down the the best feature is the option to find Points of Interest > Food > Barbecue. I don't think this is why she wanted a GPS, but--for me, at least--anything that has a built in barbecue locator is a gadget worth having. (It's what led me fortuitously to Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q in Jacksonville.)

So, we're playing with the thing the first day, and I see the barbecue option and make her select it, and the nearest barbecue joint to our turns out to be . . .

"Shane's Rib Shack!" The Wife announces. "2.1 miles!"

"Naw," I say, on impulse, "That's not real barbecue."

But everytime I got into the Wife's car and punched Points of Interest > Food > Barbecue into the device (which was a lot), it made me think, and I realized I hadn't really been fair to old Shane's.

For starters, I'd never actually eaten there. I knew it was a franchised chain--part of the Raving Brands stable of single-food oriented "concepts" that include Planet Smoothie (smoothies), Doc Green's (salads), and, at one time, the Moe's burrito chain. (It turns out Raving Brands sold Moe's to Focus Brands last year.)

But is that really enough to turn up my nose and snub Shane's outright? I mean, what if just 2.1 miles down the road from my house is a little storefront selling national-class barbecue and I've just been too pig-headed--or maybe not pig-minded enough--to even find out what I was missing?

So one afternoon, feeling particularly open-minded and hungry, I swung by and picked up a big "Shack Sample" combo dinner to go. When I opened the lid to the styrofoam box, two long orange strips caught my eye, and it was enough to give me pause. Buffalo chicken fingers . . . in a barbecue combo? Nothing barbecue about them--just deep fried chicken tenders coated not in barbecue sauce but in the conventional spicy wing sauce.

I pushed them aside and proceeded to the chopped pork. Nothing particularly bad about it, but nothing good about it, either--really quite bland, without a hint of smoke.

The baby back ribs had a very familiar flavor to them that I couldn't quite put my finger on, but I think it was something in the sauce, since there was nothing smoky about them at all. While they were definitely better than the chopped pork, they struck me more as the kind of thing you might make in your oven and not over a barbecue pit.

The coleslaw, though made with cabbage chopped into fine bits they way I like it, was as bland as the pork. There was flavor enough to the Brunswick Stew, but it wasn't a very good flavor, and the whole thing had that oddly glutinous texture that suggests corn starch or some other thickening agent.

Now, I firmly agree with whoever it was who said that, like sex, even bad barbecue is better than no barbecue at all. I suppose if you were stuck somewhere like Michigan and couldn't get sweet tea and people gave you diced corned beef when you asked for "hash", having a Shane's open up on the corner might be a welcome event. People eat all kinds of things when they're desperate (q.v. The Donner Party).

But, when just a few more miles down the road there's Melvin's, and Momma Brown's, and Ray's BBQ, and Sticky Fingers--well, Shane, who really needs you?

As it turns out, quote a few people actually do need Shane. These are people who have money to spend but don't like barbecue--or, at least, are so benighted that they've never actually tasted proper barbecue before.

Jim Auchmutey profiled Shane Thompson, the founder of Shane's Rib Shack, in the Atlanta Consitution back in 2006, and the interview reveals a man actively at odds with the traditions of barbecue. For starters, while the interior of Shane's outlets have plenty of Hee-Haw-esque country decor, you won't find little pig statuettes or cartoons of cute oinkers dressed in overalls or chef's hats. "That whole pig thing--I don't like it," Thompson told Auchmutey. "You know, a lot of people think pigs are dirty animals."

Cleanliness is a big thing for Shane's Rib Shack, and I doubt you'll ever find one with a "B" health rating. Thompson unapologetically extols the virtues of electric cookers over wood-fired pits and even the gas-wood combo smokers that dominate the restaurant industry today. Shane consciously sought them out so that his barbecue would have less smoke flavor, believing that women not only prefer clean restaurants to smoky old BBQ joints but also like a lighter smoked flavor than men. With their electric cookers, you'll never find a red smoke ring on Shane's barbecue, but that's intentional. "We don't want people thinking the meat isn't done," Thompson said. "A lot of people are uneducated about barbecue."

So, it's easy to spot Shane's target market.

Ordinarily, being a rather mild-mannered guy and loath to offend, I would have refrained from even discussing these issues. Shane Thompson, the former medical salesman turned electric pitmaster, sold his restaurant and the formula to Raving Brands back in 2005, remaining on simply as a folksy "goodwill ambassador" in the marketing materials.

A charitable person might hope that this Shane character is just a loose canon spouting off for reporters and that the marketing-meisters at Raving Brands would have more sense than promoting such blatant heresies as the fact that pigs are dirty animals, that women don't like the taste of real barbecue, and that chicken tenders belong on a barbecue combo platter.

But, it didn't take much detective work to turn up the AJC interview: it's right there on the Shane's Rib Shack Corporate website. So, I can only assume the corporate suits buy in part and parcel to the notion that the way to create a successful barbecue empire is to get rid of as many of the characteristics of classic barbecue as you can. Perhaps they're onto something. From 26 units in 2006, Shane's has grown to some 90 restaurants today, with another dozen or so more on their way.

My Garmin Nuvi might say that Shane's is the closest barbecue restaurant to my house, but I'd have to take issue with that.

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