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City Barbeque offers a road trip through America’s best barbecue styles

The only consistent style at this Ohio-based fast casual is a commitment to craft.


Barbecue is so often rooted in geographic identity, whether it’s the vinegary pulled pork in North Carolina, the brisket in Texas, the burnt ends in Kansas City or the ribs in St. Louis.

What, then, should be made of the style at City Barbeque, which hails from Columbus, Ohio?

“Our brand positioning is that we deliver the flavors of America,” said Annica Conrad, chief brand officer at City Barbeque. “So you'll find that, for example, we use a St. Louis-cut rib and then currently we're featuring a sandwich that is in a Carolina style, with a Carolina sauce. We really believe that City is a cooking platform where everything is smoked, but we kind of take permissibility with the brand to really bring in what we think is the best of all of America's barbecue regions.”

This summer City Barbeque is promoting a “Flavors of America Road Trip” featuring five regionally distinct menu items: the Carolina Goldmine Sandwich and Crispy Fried Ribs, Nashville Hot Chicken, Texas-Style Sausage, and Pulled Chicken with 'Bama Sauce.

Founded by Rick Malir in 1999, City Barbeque has grown to 67 locations in eight states. A Kansas native, Malir originally smoked barbecue out of his garage and participated in competitions. He opened City Barbeque as a permanent destination for high-quality smoked meats served in a fast-casual manner.

City Barbeque dining rooms are upscale and comfortable like you might expect from a standard fast casual, yet they still reflect that rustic character typical of a traditional roadside barbecue joint, with metal trays, real silverware, and paper towel rolls on each table. Crucial to the experience at City Barbeque is the immersion in barbecue, from the wood-smoke smell to the team members slicing and shredding meat right in front of the guests.

“Once we open a joint, the smokers never turn off,” Conrad said. “When you walk in, whether you walk into an older location or a newer location, you'll really see kind of the theater of the barbecue, if you will.”

Newer City Barbeque locations, Conrad added, prominently feature the stainless steel smokers outside the building. She said that’s an important differentiator for the brand, as it seeks to be known for the hard work that goes into making everything in house.

“We've tried to really keep the notion of the craft kind of front and center but upgrading that experience a little bit so that it is relevant for a modern consumer,” she said. “We want people to experience us however they need.”

That includes evolving the service model to accommodate on-the-go guests. City Barbeque features curbside service powered by its mobile app, and it’s also investing heavily in drive-thrus with new locations. Conrad said barbecue is well suited to the speed of service necessary for drive-thru operations.

City Barbeque locations are all corporate-owned. Conrad said this especially helps the brand develop its culture and recruit and retain skilled workers.

“We believe, and our people believe, that because we are all one system and we own all the joints, that there's really a lot of opportunity, if you're inclined and you're motivated; this is a brand that you can grow with,” she said.

Conrad said City Barbeque plans to open 12-18 new locations per year in a concentric-circle strategy, outward from its Ohio base. That includes entering South Carolina for the first time this year, and soon Florida, Alabama, and maybe Tennessee.

While Conrad sees a lot of white space in the market for quality barbecue, she said the company’s commitment to quality necessitates a slow-and-steady growth pace.

“What we do is really kind of an art more so than you might see in some other restaurant type of operations,” she said. “So it takes a while to get a joint trained and open and running. We don't want to get out ahead of our skis.”

City Barbeque is a finalist! Vote on our LinkedIn or Instagram pages. The winner will be announced the week of July 3.

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