Fourth-generation N.C. agribusiness putting BBQ back on school lunch menus
The South is full of food traditions, and barbecue is one that North Carolinians take pretty seriously. Craig and Twig Wood, owners of Brookwood Farms, a fourth-generation pit-cooked barbecue manufacturer, bring that same level of passion to their work.
Before readers start writing letters to the editor, this isn't an Eastern North Carolina-versus-Western North Carolina barbecue article, but rather an agribusiness success story about a local company whose heat-and-serve barbecue is now part of a number of school lunch programs across the state and who, in 2012, sold a total of 9 million pounds of barbecue. The businesses' products are sold through food service companies, retail stores, company restaurants in the Charlotte and Raleigh airports, and school lunch programs.
Brookwood Farms' success in supplying barbecue to schools started with a simple question: How could barbecue, which is such a staple of Southern cuisine, not be a regular feature on school lunch menus?
The answer, they found, was a bit surprising. Students simply didn't care for the barbecue being offered – often oven-roasted pork flavored with liquid smoke. "What we were told again and again was that traditionally kids only want to eat chicken tenders and pizza," said Craig Wood.
The Woods figured a better, more traditional-tasting product, may sway students to give school barbecue another try.
To get started on product development, the Woods contacted staff members with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Food Distribution Division, who explained how the school lunch program worked and helped introduce them to some key contacts in the school nutrition industry.
"Our role in helping Brookwood get into the school lunch business was to steer them in the right direction, since this was completely new to them," said Gary Gay, director of the Food Distribution Division. "The brothers have been able to take an idea and grow it into a successful part of their business plan, which is a win for the company and the jobs it supports, a win for the schools and a win for the economy."
The Woods were able to gather feedback on the type of product that might appeal to students, meet nutritional guidelines and also be easy for cafeteria staff to prepare and serve.
In the 1980s when the company decided to expand into barbecue, Craig Wood spent the better part of a year talking to pit masters and learning more about cooking techniques and how to infuse the rich smoky flavor into the pork. There were many different types of cooking fuel sources, but, he learned that time spent slowly cooking over hot coals or embers seemed to be the most common denominator to great-tasting barbecue. Once he gathered the information, Craig Wood set about building a pit and through old-fashioned trial-and-error, he perfected the techniques that are used today to create Brookwood Farm's barbecue products. The company officially began cooking over pits in 1982, and entered the school lunch business in 2004.
For the schools, Brookwood Farms smokes pork shoulders, which is one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodity purchases. The frozen meat would normally be shipped to schools to use, but if schools choose to process with the company, that meat comes to the plant and is prepared for the schools for a manufacturing fee.
The company sampled its products at a special food service show geared for school systems and came away with a modest number of orders from child nutrition directors who tasted the product and decided to try it with students. Business took off, and now the company has its products in schools in 12 states.
The business' focus on following a tried-and-true recipe and not taking cooking shortcuts is part of what makes the product popular with customers and school nutrition directors alike.
Rachel Finley, school nutrition director for the Johnston County School System, understands the tradition of pork barbecue in the state and is happy the kids coming through the lunch line enjoy "barbecue day" in the cafeteria.
"When it comes to meat items, I like to offer things that kids normally find; if I am going to serve barbecue, then I want it to be pork barbecue because that is what they would be traditionally eating at home or out," Finley said. "What I like about the product is the ingredient label is slim. There are no fillers, not a lot of added ingredients; just good old-fashioned pork barbecue and vinegar sauce. It is gluten free and with the plethora of dietary needs we have in the schools, it really meets our needs."
In anticipation of upcoming nutritional changes to school lunches, Brookwood Farms has created a lower-sodium barbecue. Finley is happy the company has been proactive about these changes. She has sampled the product and plans to incorporate the lower-sodium barbecue into Johnston County school lunch menus this coming year. She thinks kids will like the new product.
Another plus for Finley is being able to work with a North Carolina company. "I like to keep my money in North Carolina if I can," she said.
School lunch products are just one part of the company's successful business model. While it has grown in geographic reach with its school lunch business, Craig Wood is happy to keep the business equation about the same, preferring a managed growth approach to business and ensuring the company does not to have all its eggs in any one basket or market sector.
On a recent Friday morning, the last shoulders and hams were coming out of the massive charcoal pits where they began their journey to becoming pork barbecue some 12 hours earlier. Some parts of the production process move along quickly, while others such as the slow cooking are not. Each leg of the process is exact; there are no shortcuts, no variations from the tried-and-true process that yields the flavorful product that Brookwood Farms has built its reputation on.
The sweet smell of smoked pork hung in the air, while workers quickly separated the steaming, tender meat from bones and skin, readying the meat to be chopped and sauced in quantities on a grand scale.
From there, the finished product has to cool before it can move into the packing portion of the plant where it is loaded into 1- or 5-pound tubs for shipping. The work is remarkably labor-intensive, but like everything involved in the preparation, that too, factors into the finished product.
Many Southerners are familiar with the process of barbecuing – whether you prefer Eastern- or Western-style 'cue. The meat is slow-cooked, and heat sources can vary from wood or gas to charcoal.
It is difficult to put into context what 200-plus gallons of barbecue sauce looks like rolling by in a large, square stainless cart from one processing destination to the next, or the speed with which hundreds of pounds of pork are chopped or sauced. It is equally difficult to describe the four cooking rooms, each with two long lines of identical pits running the entire length of the room. One could imagine the thick fragrance of smoked pork intensifies when all the cookers are working their slow magic.
Pit-cooked pork barbecue is far from the company's only product. It also sells whole Boston butts, beef barbecue, chicken barbecue, barbecue chicken quarters and barbecue pork ribs.
The Wood brothers are proud of the business and how it has grown. Craig's kids, Craig II and Ashley, and Twig's kids, Burton and Stephen, are the next generation poised to carry the business forward.