Chris lilly
Chris Lilly runs Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Most published barbecue restaurant rankings have many of the same destination eateries near the top of the list. Joints like Skylight Inn BBQ in North Carolina, Franklin Barbecue in Texas, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que in Kansas City and Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Alabama, are legendary in barbecue circles around the country for producing some of the best low-and-slow cooked meats around.

While barbecue connoisseurs all have their favorite spots to dine, they’ll agree it’s hard to compare one restaurant to another, because each has its specialty. It’s these specialties that keep the customers coming back for more – and even more so, keep customers travelling far and wide across the country to get a taste.

Locals and visitors to Ayden, North Carolina, drop in to Skylight Inn BBQ for the whole-hog pork, served with corn bread and slaw. People travel far and wide to Aaron Franklin’s Austin, Texas eatery, Franklin Barbecue, to try the brisket. At Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, hungry customers line up daily for the famous burnt ends, as well as the Z-man sandwich (stuffed with slow-smoked brisket, smoked provolone cheese and topped with a crispy onion ring).


Since 1925, people have been flocking to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, in Decatur, Alabama, for smoked chicken slathered in Bob’s signature tangy white sauce.

“Every chicken that comes out of our hickory fired pit gets dipped in our white sauce,” says Chris Lilly, fourth-generation owner and award-winning pitmaster at Big Gibson. The signature sauce has a vinegar and mayonnaise base, seasoned with black pepper and lemon juice. “We are known for our barbecue chicken in white sauce — it was invented here back in 1925 — but now I see it all over the country.”

Perhaps part of the reason Big Bob Gibson’s signature sauce can be found in restaurants around the country is because the restaurant itself is legendary. Bob Gibson started his business 92 years ago in Decatur and it’s been handed down through four generations of the family. While the smoked chicken remain at the top of the menu, new recipes and meat selection were added through the years, as well as an additional location to accommodate growth. However, the restaurant truly started to gain its national recognition when Lilly took over in 1991.

Lilly learned his craft by doing, from the time he started with Big Bob Gibson until 1997 when he took his knowledge on the road and represented the company in a barbecue competition for the first time. The restaurant had purchased  a rotisserie cooker on a trailer to use with the catering side of the business and used it in that first barbecue competition, held in Huntsville, Alabama, as a way to promote the catering business. On its first try, Big Bob Gibson’s team got high marks and earned an invitation to cook at the Memphis in May Barbecue Championship. “And then we were addicted,” he recalls.

“We started (competing) as a way to promote the restaurant, but they’re also a lot of fun,” he says. “If you get out there and win consistently on the circuit — at competitions like Memphis in May and the American Royal — you can use those wins to promote your restaurant.”

Smoking in Kansas City

Building a successful new barbecue business can be a challenge in any location, but inside the barbecue belt it might be easier said than done. No one knows this better than Dan Janssen, owner of The Rub Bar-B-Que in Olathe, Kansas.

With more than 20 years in the restaurant industry under his belt — 15 years with Applebee’s — Janssen decided in 2011 to pursue his dream of opening up his own place. It would have been easier in the Kansas City market to open any other type of restaurant other than barbecue – but Janssen’s love of cooking barbecue that he discovered on the competition circuit led him to opening up yet another barbecue restaurant in a city that has more than its share.

“Barbecue in Kansas City is the toughest restaurant market to get into,” Janssen explains. “There are 105 to 110 barbecue restaurants within 35 or so miles. The competition is fierce.”

Read more about foodservice trends in the barbecue segment in the June issue of MEAT+POULTRY.