June 29 2016 10:10 AM

Looking for local style in the barbecue scene

Sean Johnson, owner/operator of Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine, stands in front of his Old Town restaurant.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse
What is barbecue? It depends on where you stand — literally.

Across the U.S., especially in the South, the idea of barbecue takes on different forms from region to region, as each area has its own idea of what kind of meat should be smoked, how to smoke it and how to dress it up before it’s eaten. Carolinians will nearly come to blows over whether you should top your pulled pork with vinegar- or mustard-based sauces. In Texas, the Longhorn State, beef is king and brisket is the gold standard. And then there’s Memphis and Alabama and Kansas City and St. Louis … .

We’re in the middle of a barbecue boom here in Greater Lansing, but does Michigan have its own barbecue style?

Simply put, no. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Local restaurateurs can experiment with their recipes without the burden of regional expectations.

“We think of it more like craft barbecue,” said Matt Gillett, co-owner and operator of Saddleback BBQ. “We take what we like and adapt it for the market. Customers are always giving us ideas.”

Saddleback BBQ, which opened a year ago in Lansing’s REO Town district, is just one of many barbecue joints that have recently sprung up in Greater Lansing. Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine, which opened in Old Town in 2012, was at the vanguard of this barbecue boom. When Meat opened its doors, the only other barbecue shops in town were the local BackYard BarBQ restaurants, chain barbecue joint Smokey Bones and north Lansing’s King of the Grill. Now there are at least 10 barbecue restaurants in Greater Lansing and a half-dozen food trucks dedicated to smoked meats.

“Michigan is becoming a barbecue state,” said Sean Johnson, owner/operator of Meat. “Lansing didn’t have much real Southern barbecue. Now you’ve got all these places rushing in.”

Like Gillett, Johnson doesn’t pull from any specific region.

“I borrow from all over,” he said. “I don’t think you can hone in on just one style.”

But there is a Texas barbecue staple that has caught on in a big way in mid-Michigan.

“People are really into brisket,” Johnson said.

“Everybody wants the brisket,” echoed Craig “Gump” Garmyn, owner/operator of Gump’s BBQ. “It’s amazing how much I’m going through.”

Garmyn opened Gump’s BBQ, nestled in a small storefront off Cedar Street behind Kwik Car Wash, earlier this year. While he started with a specific style in mind, he also has been tweaking his recipes to appeal to a Midwestern palate.

Matt Gillett, co-owner and operator of Saddleback BBQ, stands beside one of Saddleback’s custom-made smokers.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse
“I like to pull from the Carolina style, with vinegar-based barbecue,” he said. “But you’ve got to please the masses.”

Garmyn isn’t surprised that so many barbecue joints have appeared recently.

“Everyone is a backyard barbecuer,” he said.

“Right now, barbecue is an inexpensive way to start a business,” added Gillett, noting that many brick-and-mortar shops started as food trucks or home-grown catering businesses. “Lansing’s next great restaurant is probably along the side of the road somewhere.”

While some business owners might get worried about splitting the market share with more and more restaurants, Johnson welcomes the challenge. The friendly rivalries between the barbecue shops — and their respective fans — pushes everyone to work harder at creating a good product and unique vibe.

“Down in Texas, having a favorite barbecue joint is like having a favorite football team,” Johnson said.

Travis Stoliker, co-owner of Saddleback BBQ, also takes a rising-tide-raises-all-ships view of the local barbecue scene. But earlier this month, when Saddleback was named best barbecue joint in Michigan by the website Mental Floss, he saw “anonymous internet trolls” taking shots at them and other restaurants over who should rightfully hold the title.

“It was disappointing to see how people tried to pit us against each other,” Stoliker said. “We’re not in competition with these places; we encourage more barbecue. It increases awareness and raises Lansing’s profile as a barbecue destination.”

Greater Lansing’s barbecue bubble may eventually burst, but for now, Stoliker said, there’s room for everyone to earn a spot at the table.

“We can all have great barbecue,” he said. “Our success doesn’t have to come at the failure of someone else.”