red bridges barbecue
photograph by Johnny Autry

Doug Bridges is on the phone with a customer who’s trying to place an order. “We don’t have ribs,” he says. It’s clear that the person on the other end of the line doesn’t believe him. So Doug, the white-haired, longtime manager in a polo shirt and half-apron, tries again. “You know this is the barbecue place across from the mall, right?” he asks.

He hangs up. “Every day,” he sighs.

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby cooks pork shoulders, not the whole hog. Hence, no ribs. Bridges has no plans to start serving ribs. And yet every day, someone calls, asking for ribs. You can’t blame them. If your barbecue place has ribs, wouldn’t you figure every other joint has them, too?

“We do a certain thing,” Doug says. “Change comes hard around here.”

Therein lies the tension of modern barbecue. Most people, to their credit, arrive at Bridges knowing what they’re going to get: tender, hand-chopped barbecue, painstakingly pit-cooked over a bed of glowing hickory and oak, slathered in red Lexington-style sauce. Insiders and traditionalists, the people who eat lunch here on weekdays, want exactly this and nothing else. But out-of-towners and newcomers, who fill Bridges on the weekends, sometimes expect  something different. “This generation is being raised, a lot, on the gas-cooked barbecue,” says Debbie Bridges-Webb, the owner. “That bothers me.”

Complainers are rare, but Chase Webb, Debbie’s son and chief slaw-maker, knows how the conversations go. The meat’s not pink, they’ll tell him. It’s not supposed to be pink, Chase says, because the hickory smoke darkens everything. I didn’t taste the gas, they’ll say. Chase pauses for a long time to show his incredulity before telling them the restaurant doesn’t use gas.

If you grew up on Bridges’ sauce, red slaw, and hush puppies, the recipes of your youth are still there in the restaurant, inside of a safe that’s hidden in Debbie’s office. Her late father, Red, started the place 70 years ago, and over time, his wife, Lyttle, wrote the recipes in intricate detail on the back of order slips. Debbie will get them out from time to time, just to double-check the instructions. She will not, however, show the recipes to you, no matter how sweetly you ask.

There’s another fail-safe: Debbie and her workers rely on a core group of customer taste-testers, like Mike and Barbara Jones from Cherryville. The couple grew up on Bridges. They come nearly every day to eat, sometimes twice. (“When they cremate me,” Mike says, laughing, “they’ll say, ‘Do I smell barbecue?’”) On the rare occasion that something tastes off, Mike and Barbara speak up.

But even regulars can get it wrong. Natalie Ramsey, Debbie’s daughter, says older customers come in every once in a while and tell her that something tastes different. Natalie will ask them: Have you changed your medication lately? That’s usually it. Prescriptions can mess with the taste buds. Natalie has to calm those customers down. Because if there’s one overarching fear at Bridges, it’s this: “They’ll think we’re changing,” she says, “and we’re not.”

red bridges barbecue

Doug Bridges, in white, holds court in the dining room. Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge draws regulars and newcomers from miles away. photograph by Johnny Autry

True North Carolina Barbecue is cooked in a decades-old shack, overnight, over wood. But today, only about 1 in 7 barbecue restaurants in North Carolina uses wood, because it’s harder, dirtier, more regulated, and more expensive. A generation of old-school owners are dying off. That’s led some prominent publications, from The Washington Post to The New Yorker, to wonder if True North Carolina Barbecue is an endangered species. For every starry-eyed up-and-comer who opens a place that honors wood-fired tradition, there’s also a pulled-pork franchisee looking for a steady return on investment.

With this in mind, I visit a Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar‑B‑Q in Greensboro. I know! It’s a chain! There’s a drive-thru! They have a hefty gas bill! Dear God, they serve shrimp! This is not True North Carolina Barbecue, says a voice in the back of your head. This location opened less than three years ago, and it sits behind a McDonald’s. On the outside, it’s brick and boxy; inside, it’s clean and bright. It has fancy wood paneling, huge windows, subway tiles, and an awning over the counter where you place your order. “Fresh daily” is spelled out above the menu; “Established 1964” is spelled out below. Rockabilly music plays in the background. Styrofoam plate. Plastic fork. Slaw, potato salad, and hush puppies. I sprinkle some vinegary sauce over the pork and take a bite.

It’s … It’s … It’s pretty good. Would I eat there again? Probably. Would I take a road trip to get there? Probably not, there’s no need: Smithfield’s has blanketed eastern North Carolina with 37 locations between Greensboro, Rockingham, and Morehead City, with more to come.

On a personal level, there’s nothing wrong with barbecue from a chain restaurant. I talked to a bunch of people for unbiased feedback, and they all agreed: I kinda like Smithfield’s. The chain wasn’t always a chain. It started as a tin-roofed, brick building in the town of Smithfield, with a sink in the dining room so farmers could wash their hands before eating. One restaurant became two, which became a franchise, which keeps pushing westward. This expansion of gas-cooked barbecue  worries traditionalists. The fear? That True North Carolina Barbecue, unique in custom and consistency, could become a commodity. That a corporation could decipher its secrets. That barbecue could lose its human touch.

The lack of a nationwide franchise shows that nobody’s found a formula to re-create the magic to serve billions. That hasn’t stopped people from trying. After finding success serving hot dogs and hamburgers, McDonald’s started a barbecue stand in California in 1940. But it struggled. Eight years later, McDonald’s got rid of the pits and pork. The last big barbecue push peaked in 1965, when Little Pigs of America had more than 200 barbecue restaurants in the United States and Canada. The company went bankrupt. There are more than a dozen regional barbecue chains across the country. Thanks to franchises, gas cookers, and meat grinders, barbecue has never been more popular, more accessible, or more homogenized.

That sameness doesn’t diminish True North Carolina Barbecue; it enhances it. A sense of unique place, history, and tradition always stands out. The way meat is cooked is important. But so is perception. Barbecue tastes better when you see a woodpile out back.

Nothing pairs better with barbecue than cold, sweet tea by the pitcherful. photograph by Johnny Autry

Bridges has always had a wood pile out back. Pitmaster Dennis “Hangman” Bridges (no relation to Doug, who is of no relation to Red) stacks and lights the oak and hickory, then folds it into the coals and shovels it underneath pork shoulders covered with cardboard. He sits in an aluminum chair and gets up every 15 minutes. Chop chop chop. Shovel shovel shovel. Then he goes back to the chair, where he remains for six to nine hours a day, scanning for any flashes from coarse embers that might start a grease fire. That’s it. No poking at a smartphone. No reading a book. Nothing. What does Hangman think about? “That fire, and those two pits right there,” he says. That’s what he thinks about. That, and sweating. Four months after he started working at Bridges, Hangman had lost 43 pounds.

• • •
 

Up front, the tradition continues. The parquet-style ceilings and vintage booths make you feel like you’re in a restaurant that’s well-worn. Sometimes women come in and ask if there’s an opening for a waitress. “When somebody dies,” Chase tells them, “we’ll let you know.”
The big idea: Don’t change a thing. But that’s not possible, because even traditional institutions have to make tweaks. Ingredients, flavors, and habits change. Eight years ago, Bridges started serving chicken because people wanted it. The restaurant is no longer cash-only. The cabbage tastes spicier in the winter, because it comes from New York at that time of year. The pits are in the original spot, built to the original specifications, but they’re not actually the originals, because they’ve burned down three times.

One of the biggest changes at Bridges is also the most recent. Last year, Hangman’s elderly mother needed someone to stay with her while she slept, so after decades of cooking hogs at night, Bridges now cooks them during the day. The smoke now billows out of the chimney in daylight, across the parking lot, and out toward U.S. Highway 74. It’s a Bat-Signal for barbecue. First people see it. Then they smell it. They pull off the road. New customers come in, suddenly hungry. They leave, largely satisfied. The taste is the same. The perception is different.

Like Doug says, change comes hard around here. But sometimes just a tiny bit can do you good.

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Markovich is a senior editor/writer at Our State, and a former special content producer for NBC Charlotte. He has won two 2011 regional Emmy Awards and regional Edward R. Murrow awards along with the 2011 Green Eyeshade award for Magazine Feature Writing, the 2010 National City and Regional Magazine Award for Personality Profile, the 2010 Clarion Award for a Magazine Feature Article, and the 2010 Green Eyeshade Award’s Best-In-Show for Non Daily Print Journalism.