Mention to family or friends you’re inviting them over to your house for a backyard barbecue and “I can’t wait!” will probably be their reaction. Of all the meat and poultry products being produced in the United States, barbecue is one of the most popular. And thanks to professional barbecue manufacturers and makers the average consumer today can serve great barbecue quickly and easily.

Barbecue, including meats made from pork, beef and chicken are made by big national manufacturers and small and regional meat and poultry processors, as well. In barbecue circles, words like “magic,” “special,” and “unique” come up during conversations.

Nick Schweitzer, product manager at Lloyd’s Barbeque Products, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods, says barbecue is a unique niche. “To me, barbecue is special because of its unique flavor and process – long and slow, I always say. Barbecue is also unique because it’s customizable for anyone, whether it’s finding your favorite type of meat or type of sauce. You can make great barbecue on your own,” he says.

Meat or the sauce?

Some say the meat is the most critical part of the barbecue product because without meat, there’s no point in having sauce. They also say something is lacking if the meat is served without sauce.

“Which is the best part of barbecue – the meat, the sauce or both? This is an age-old question constantly debated by barbecue aficionados,” Schweitzer says with a laugh. “Many people stick by their favorites, so Lloyd’s barbecue products boast our signature sauce that crosses all boundaries and pleases all palates, from the tried-and-true to the new.”

He says the company also offers a line of items without sauce – Lloyd’s Woodfire Barbeque, premium meats including slow-smoked pulled pork, pulled chicken and shredded-beef brisket. “But for me, I have to say, it’s all about the meat,” Schweitzer says.

Lloyd’s Barbeque Company is based in Mendota Heights, Minn. The company began operating in 1978 behind the reins of Lloyd Sigel, whose prowess for barbecuing was earned after years of cooking for friends and family in the town. Hormel Foods later acquired the business and expanded the number of offerings. Lloyd’s products consist of ribs with sauce, including babyback ribs, St. Louis, style spare ribs, and center-cut beef ribs. Their tubs and single-serve cup products include pork, beef and chicken items, he says.

What is barbecue exactly? “To me, barbecue is a cooking method for meat and poultry that uses hot smoke to cook and flavor the meat,” Schweitzer says. “It’s typically associated with grilling, but the main difference is you use less heat from a more indirect source for a longer period of time. The cooking is long and slow.”

One of the most important factors for processors of barbecue products is making it easy for home preparation and consumption, Schweitzer says. “It’s essential for us to make each and every Lloyd’s barbecue product easy for home cooks to prepare and consume. Each of the items we offer is fully cooked and most come prepared with a savory or sweet sauce.”

Schweitzer says the products are offered fully cooked for an important reason. “A lot of consumers love to barbecue, but they don’t have the time to do so. Fully cooked makes for a convenient meal option, and makes sure we don’t compromise on food safety.”

Lloyd’s has also moved off the beaten barbecue track by offering barbeque products for pizza. “Barbecue and pizza provide a savory combination of tender meats, flavorful sauces and crispy pizza crust.”

A growing business

Curly’s Foods Inc. is owned by Smithfield Foods Inc., as part of the John Morrell & Co. division, with its plant in Sioux City, Iowa. Curly’s is a foodservice and retail supplier of raw and fully cooked ribs, as well as smoked pork, beef and chicken entrées. Its retail products can be found at many club stores and supermarkets. The company was originally independently owned and began operating in 1988 under Neil Feinberg and Bob Brady, still its general manager. It was sold to Morrell in 1997, and subsequently bought by Smithfield.

John Pauley, Curly’s president, says the barbecue-manufacturing sector totals about $100 million annually. “We’re about $18 million of that figure, and we’re growing 18 percent annually, double-digit growth every year. Between Hormel [Lloyd’s] and us, we have about 60 percent of the business in the category. The remaining 40 percent are regional, private label and small.”

Barbecue has become more important in foodservice in the last few years, Pauley says, because of the wide variety of flavors now available. “Barbecue used to be seen as a regional phenomenon, and it still is, to a degree. But the foodservice industry is no longer afraid of that. Regionally, brisket is very popular in Texas, pork butts are big in Kansas City, and in the Carolinas pork is popular, flavored with a vinegar sauce. But the greatest change is in retail, where we’ve taken the work out of it, and it can be easily prepared at home,” Pauley points out. “We say, ‘Smoked for hours, ready in minutes.’”

Another new trend in barbecue is making product as an ingredient to be used in other dishes, rather than as a stand-alone meal, Pauley says. “So, we make barbecue meat with no sauce, which can be added to other items.” Demand for this approach to barbecue has arisen because some people don’t like the sauces typically associated with the product, and they’re looking for ways to “spice up” other dishes, he says.

“Barbecue can be used as an ingredient in burritos, soups, stews and even on top of salads. Our research has shown we need to give the consumer as many choices as possible. We also use a standard barbecue sauce, so people can doctor it, or make their own,” he adds.

Pauley agrees with Schweitzer that it’s important to make barbecue easy for home cooks to use. “We’re in a world now where people just don’t have the time to smoke meat for hours and hours,” he says. “QSRs are also starting to embrace barbecue, those restaurants missed out on this great product for a lot of years.”

Pauley also thinks the most important part of barbecue is the meat. “We use pork butts, which is the most flavorful, and cook them for five or six hours. It’s a relatively inexpensive cut of meat that can be turned into a ton of flavor.” He says Curly’s gets very involved in barbecue recipes for its consumers, both supplying recipes, and making recipes customers send to the company available to other customers. They can be found on the company’s web site.

The ‘sauce is boss’

Possibly disagreeing with the “meat is the most important part” theory is Tom Murphy of Ken’s Foods, in Marlborough, Mass. That’s because “The sauce is the boss” is one of the company’s sayings. Sweet Baby Ray’s Sauce is what made the company famous, beginning in Chicago in 1985 by two brothers, Larry and Dave Raymond. The company eventually was acquired by Ken’s Foods in the early 2000s, probably best-known for its salad dressings.

Murphy says Sweet Baby Ray’s makes seven different sauces, including Original, Honey, Hickory and Brown Sugar, Sweet ‘n Spicy, Sweet Vidalia Onion, Honey Chipotle and Raspberry Chipotle. “Barbecue comes in such a range of flavors, and the sauces are even greater flavor enhancers for the meat.”

Murphy thinks meat and sauce are both needed to make good barbecue. “It’s tough to dress up bad meat, even with a sauce,” he adds. “I think there are three things that are very important parts of barbecue. First, there’s fanaticism – people are very excited about the type of barbecue they make. Then there’s regional pride – depending where in the country people live, they tend to think their local barbecue is the best. And then there’s style – each area of the country has its own barbecue style.”

Hess Barbecue, in Willow Street, Pa., near Lancaster, has been in business for 39 years. The original shop was built in 1916, and owner Lloyd Hess’s dad, Paul Sr., ran the business until he retired in 1978. “My son, who is now working in the business, is the fourth generation of the family involved,” says Lloyd, 57, who with his brother, Paul, 63, owns and operates the business today. The company began with a pig roast and custom butchering. Hess is a small” operator, and he does a lot of catering, weddings, deer processing during hunting season, and even has a stand at the local minor league baseball team, the Lancaster Barnstormers. His business is probably one of the biggest catering operations in Pennsylvania.

But his first love is barbecue. Hess has even constructed log cabins in various locations where he serves barbecue, including one outside the State Farm Show in Harrisburg, and he offers barbecue fundraisers for local non-profit organizations, making pork barbecue and beef brisket for these organizations to sell.

He began barbecuing with a couple of Southern Pride cookers, without sauce. Now he offers a choice of sauces. “We began with one sauce, what I call Lancaster County sweet, because we add sugar to it,” he says.

Sweet foods and sauces are very popular in the area because the Amish tend to make sweet foods. “But then, as more and more people from outside the area were moving in, we started offering different kinds of sauces,” he says. “We now have vinegar sauce and yellow-mustard sauce, our Original Lancaster County Sauce and our hot Texas Bold Sauce.”

He estimates 70 percent of his business is related to the barbecue segment. “Barbecue is part of virtually everything we do, it’s really amazing,” Hess says, shaking his head, and noting a few weeks ago they catered a barbecue event in nearby New Holland, Pa. for 3,300 people. For all this work, he employs 30 people, including full- and part-time employees.

“Barbecue is really unique, different from many other meat products. We sell it as something people can take home, further doctor it up themselves or eat it as we’ve made it. It’s a product that’s easy for people to do things with, even with pork shoulder.”

The same thing is true of ribs,” Hess says. “It’s not easy for a lot of homeowners to cook up a rack of ribs,” he adds. “But they can buy them already cooked, a convenient food item. And there’s barbecued chicken as well. The diversity of barbecue is key to its great popularity.”

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.