The Redneck BBQ Lab is in a prime location at Exit 319 off I-40, otherwise known as McGee’s Crossroads in Johnston County. Unlike most of the other locally owned North Carolina restaurants you’ll find, this place proudly serves competition-style BBQ. Before you go asking about what that even is and why someone would do this, Jerry Stephenson talked about it with us at his restaurant. He also shared his background before becoming a BBQ competitor and eventual restauranteur, things he’s learned while traveling in North Carolina and around, and even more during our interview.
People of NC: Jerry Stephenson of Redneck BBQ Lab
This article is a part of our series that features the People of NC and North Carolina Food. It was originally published on September 13, 2018. Special thanks to the folks at Johnston County Visitors Bureau in the Piedmont for introducing us to Jerry.
Carl Hedinger: How did you get into cooking BBQ?
Jerry Stephenson: I’m an Eastern Carolina boy and we grew up cooking BBQ. When we had funerals, weddings, holidays, there was always a Pig Pickin’. That’s a North Carolina tradition, where a whole hog gets cooked overnight and the next day, people come together and eat. I always thought that it was so cool how they would shovel fire under these things. I always wanted to do it. After a while, they let me start putting the fire under the coals and that was how BBQ started for me. Later in life, I did it as a way to make some extra money in college, cooking pigs for fraternities and sororities for football games.
For even more background on this NC staple, check out Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed.
JS: I also worked in the statistics lab at East Carolina. I had a professor who put me under his wing and made beer on the side. He taught me how you keep empirical data and keep notes in an organized fashion and make beer. And that was so cool to me, how you can take something in a theoretical concept and you put in a quantitative data. Even when we’re in a competition, we weigh things out into grams. The dynamics of the smokers, the scientific reactions, it all matters.
The Redneck BBQ Experience
JS: The Redneck BBQ Lab experience started one day when we were cooking turkeys on our really inefficient smoker. I thought, “There has to be a better way to do this.” So, I did some research and found this design for Ugly Drum Smokers, and we started building them. They’re really cool, efficient, minimum amounts of fuel, and use simple physics. The coal comes up from the bottom, heat traps out the top and creates convection in there. It would just cook it with a constant flow of air with the right amount of fuel. It would create this level, 225-degree cooking area that was a moist contained area. Cooking the turkeys turned into competing, which turned into catering. Catering turned into the demand for a public place for people to enjoy the food. The restaurant opened in January 2017.
CH: How long did it take you to get from cooking turkeys to now?
JS: It’s been 6 years.
CH: What sets you apart from others who cook NC BBQ?
JS: When we opened up here, we really rocked the boat. Our BBQ style is different. It’s not Eastern NC or Western NC. We’re not doing the whole hog. It’s not a vinegar base or the red sauce dip. This is not the red slaw versus the mayonnaise slaw. And, it’s a different BBQ. Our BBQ is what you do for competition: chicken, pork ribs, brisket, and pork shoulder. We do whole or quartered chicken, St. Louis Ribs just like we would in competition, and we also do butts and brisket including the burnt ends like in competition.
We use the same smokers, rubs, and spices that we do in competition. So it’s as close to what you’re going to get to competition winning meat. Recently, we won Grand Champion in Richmond and people can come here today and experience the same kind of food. The flavors and the technique of competition-style food are what sets us apart because that competition stuff that you see on TV, you can’t buy.
JS: There are three things that people told me when they said we wouldn’t survive:
1) “We aren’t whole hog BBQ. That’s what North Carolina BBQ is all about.”
2) “You have to have hushpuppies.”
Nope, we have cornbread.
3) “You have to have French Fries.”
Nope, there isn’t a fryer in our building.
When I started I said there would be no steamer, no microwave, no fryer, and no freezer. What you eat is fresh. We cooked it last night or this morning, and you eat it fresh. Leftovers are donated to a homeless kitchen that comes every morning to pick it up. Anything we have left—macaroni or vegetables—they take it and twice a week they’re feeding people.
JS: And that is the coolest thing about all of this. We have a monthly sponsorship with Johnston County and they come in and get dinner. Food is a powerful thing. It can bring people together, it can get people’s attention, and you can use food as an awesome tool. On one Saturday, I drove by Lighthouse Church with my Dad and there were 90 people standing out there waiting for food. I thought it was kind of cool that we were one of their partners to help make this happen. It puts a smile on your face and makes you feel good.
CH: How have your travels inspired your BBQ?
JS: That’s the cool thing. On my journeys, I’ll find things and bring them back. If I’m out in Kansas City and find something, I’m going to bring it back here. I picked up some stuff at the Asian Fusion market while in Richmond. We call ourselves a lab, so we’re always playing and being scientists here.
CH: Where’s the farthest you’ve traveled for a competition?
JS: We were in Palm Springs, California a year before last as the farthest west. Competed in Orlando, Florida several times and as far north as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In a normal year, my sister and I will travel 25,000 miles competing and grinding. We’re always competing and traveling.
CH: What’s a big takeaway from all your travels?
JS: The people. The people have been really cool. I knew growing up that food brought people together. Not only family and friends, but complete strangers. All travel brings together some of the most interesting, and even boring, people together. And it’s a cultural thing where we have doctors we’re competing against and we have ditch diggers. We’ve gone up against people of all races and genders and it’s just this kaleidoscope, which is really cool. I’m drawn to things like that.
CH: Do you have any future business plans?
JS: We’re crazy right now. We’re expanding our dining room 200 percent. We’re going to build a picnic shelter outside, so it’s going to be like a big barn. Right now, it’s hard for the church crowd to bring their family in because we only have seating for four people at a time. Once we expand, we’ll be able to have more people here. Once we get the outside seating up and running, we’ll probably have a whole hog event once a month and do it like we used to do it and bring more of the community in. We also have a food truck we’re working on, too.
Advice for Us All
CH: Advice for someone who wants to cook NC BBQ like you?
JS: Do your homework. Know what the rewards are, but also what risks are involved. Failure is the indication that you’re trying. The only way that you can do this is to jump off that cliff. You’re standing there waiting, knowing in your mind knowing that’s what you want to do you just got to take the step. It’s like ripping off the Band-Aid—you just have to do it. Make sure you know what you’re getting into.
In the restaurant industry, you’re pushing in all your poker chips. In the BBQ world, we help each other out. The true competitors, the ones who are on the grind every day, the ones you might beat every day you’ll have their back if they ever need help. Even in competition, if something happens with their equipment or something you help them out, even though that the person you’re trying to beat. Any advice people give you, even if it’s what not to do, still, listen. Just make sure you do your homework before you jump off that cliff.
Our Final Thoughts
I’m hopeful that in reading Jerry’s thoughts, you’ll be able to glean the absolute passion that he exhibits when chatting about BBQ, traveling to competitions, Johnston County, and everything else we talked about. After we finished the interview, Christina and I got in line and ordered some lunch. What came out was one Fat Redneck sandwich (Brisket, Pulled Pork, and Collards) and a Pulled Pork Plate with Jalapeno Mac and Cheese and Collards. We gobbled it all up because it was just too delicious to leave even crumb behind. And that’s all I really can say about that eating experience, mostly because it was a blur.
Seeing the food, eating it, and then watching all the people around us happily chat with each other while they ate, convinced me that there’s something special happening here. The Redneck BBQ Lab is definitely somewhere I think you should check out for yourself, too, if you haven’t already. So what are you waiting for? Head out to McGee’s Crossroads and spend your next meal eating some of the most delicious and genuinely award-winning BBQ you’ll eat in North Carolina. There, I said it. Now, it’s up to you to go and get some. Enjoy!