The vast majority of barbecue pits are Kansas City or Texas "offset"-based, i.e., they cook using raw wood instead of burnt wood embers. As New York City's first Carolina barbecue stylist, I had no local vendors selling my type of equipment. Fortunately, my business partner Lou, who grew up in the tightly knit Greek community of Astoria, Queens, knew just the guy: a cantankerous old man named Constantine.
After some discussion on what I was looking for, Constantine beckoned me closer to offer some sage advice.
Constantine: Listen young man, I've been around for a long time. I'll tell you what you need to do to be successful. Are you listening?
Constantine: You need to have spanakopita—Greek spinach pie. Every successful restaurant I know has spanakopita.
Me: But I'm a barbecue joint—I cook whole pigs, smoke beans, boil collards etc.
Constantine: It will never work. My wife and I, when we go eat, if there's no spinach pie on the menu, my wife walks right out. You need spinach pie.
We talked a while ago about how I set up my menu. That was all fun and good, but it was also largely theoretical. Nothing sets your menu like running something live, and after six weeks, our menu's been through some changes.
Well That Was a Bad Idea
We've already cut two items from the menu: turkey legs and corn pone. There's a certain amount of market efficiency when it comes to a barbecue menu. Certain items appear everywhere because they're guaranteed hits: brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and chicken are time-tested and reliable. Sometimes you win big when you go against the grain, but for the most part one would do well to heed the wisdom of crowds.
The turkey leg is a royal pain in the ass. It has tough muscles and sinews and a layer of silverskin. It has tendons you have to yank out with pliers to preserve the drumstick's shape. Ours also didn't sell well. So with several cases of turkey legs to go through, we wound up grinding them down to make a turkey sausage seasoned with Thai fish sauce, sriracha, and raisins. That sold like hot cakes.
The corn pone was a matter of me over-intellectualizing a menu item, taking the whole hog tradition one bridge too far. Corn pone is the great-granddaddy of cornbread. It is what hardline cornbread conservatives deem the one true cornbread. At its best it's savory, salty, and dry, unlike the cakey sweet moist cornbreads Northerners tend to love.
Again, principles of market efficiency come into play—there's a reason no one serves corn pone, save the tiny barbecue joints in the sticks of North Carolina. And more and more Southerners have grown up eating sweet "Northern" cornbread. So I finally gave up on the corn pone. Now we serve a cornbread waffle.
Mac and Cheese
Mac and cheese poses a perpetual problem in the restaurant industry: no matter how you make your mac and cheese, people are going to talk shit about it. However your mother made mac and cheese for you, that's basically your mac and cheese. Do you like it baked? Creamy? Topped with breadcrumbs? Corn flakes? Cheetos? Deep dish or shallow and crusty? Classic American cheese or truffles and Gruyere?
Restaurant owners drive themselves nuts getting feedback from customers on mac and cheese. I consulted at one place that changed their mac and cheese recipe no fewer than five times—each when a partner freaked out about a customer saying the dish blew. The really sad part is that each incarnation of the dish had its fans; by "accepting feedback" from some customers, the kitchen alienated others who liked the mac and cheese the way it was. The restaurant finally gave up and switched to an inoffensive macaroni salad instead.
My menu lists an item called Kenny G's Mac and Cheese, and it's a tribute to to Kenji's mac and cheese cooked in a waffle iron. It's the answer to every stoner's purple haze prayer. If you like baked mac and cheese, you know that the best part is the brown cheesy crust on top, and Kenny G's is all crust! Just as importantly, it looks nothing like your mother's—unless of course Mama Kenji is making your dinner.
The waffle has been very popular with guests. It's the single most Instagrammed dish on the menu, far outclassing the whole hog I'm supposedly best known for. I'm even considering taking it off the menu, lest I be known as the waffle mac and cheese guy rather than the whole hog guy.
It's also my longest running gag. My crew begs me to let them warn customers who order the mac and cheese that it comes in waffle form. When the golden brown waffle arrives at their table, many assume we've made a mistake. Then they figure it out and you see involuntary grins form on their faces. They get to eat mac and cheese with their hands. And they like it.
But not everyone is amused. Here's one guest who enjoyed the rest of his meal, but...
Guest: The mac & cheese is awful, just awful.
Me: I'm sorry to hear that. What's wrong with it?
Guest: Well, first of all it's not in a bowl. Mac & cheese is supposed to be in a bowl! This is dry! It's supposed to be creamy.
Me: I guess I could stick it into a bowl?
Guest: This is just feedback. If you wanna be successful, knock it off with the waffle iron and just make creamy mac and cheese. This here is nothing more than a cheap gimmick.
Me: But many of guests love the crispy waffle.
Guest: Well, they're idiots.
Everyone's a critic. Especially about mac and cheese.
My Anaconda Don't Want None
The New York burger powerhouse, Shake Shack, was long criticized for using mass-produced frozen crinkle cut fries. It didn't seem to fit in their premium brand of bespoke burger blends and gourmet milkshakes. Surely fresh cut fries are the way to go; how dare Shake Shack force their cheap, generic frozen fries upon us like a couple of corporate sellouts?
Shake Shack finally conceded to demands and started rolling out fresh cut fries to their stores. Unfortunately for Shake Shack, they didn't take. It turns out that the public at large didn't care whether their fries were frozen. Are they golden brown? Are they crispy? Does their crinkle shape remind me of my childhood? Then leave my damn crinkle fries alone. Within a year Shake Shack scrapped the fresh potato nonsense and went back to the frozen stuff.
For a good two weeks after opening, I didn't have any buns on the menu. What? You're probably saying. You're Carolina whole hog joint, you gotta have buns! Everyone knows the traditional way of eating BBQ in North Carolina is between a bun. How could you not have any buns available?
As strange as it sounds, I don't particularly care for the bun with my barbecue. If you've been following this series, you'll already know that far too much of my daily nutrition comes from ground meat in a bun. Even in North Carolina I prefer getting plates with hush puppies rather than eat slow cooked pork sandwiched in the cheapest supermarket bread known to man.
But the public has been relentless. Eater and the Village Voice have spoken. They all want buns. So I caved.
Folks celebrated! The internet raved! Finally at long last! Buns are now available at the Swine! The problem is that no one really wants them. For every 300 plates of food I sell, I might have one person who wants a bun.
Therein lies the issue with "authenticity." I am quite tickled to be the first whole hog barbecue joint in New York City, but that doesn't mean I'm going to shove every Carolina product onto the menu. Most of what gets left out is for economic reasons: people won't buy it. There's a whole host of tarheel products I could offer that wouldn't sell: moonpies, Cheerwine, barbecue hash, brunswick stew, liver mush, scrapple, and the like.
It's not like I don't want to. Believe me, I'd love to add my from-scratch banana pudding on the menu. But a restaurant has to consider more than what the chef wants. The reality is it probably wouldn't be a top seller and I don't have much shelf space to spare.
Some items don't make the menu because I lack the infrastructure for them. During my Hog Days of Summer pop-up series, for instance, I fried up balls of hush puppies. But I don't have a fryer here, so I can't. In addition to the $20,000 fryer, I'd need to file a hood and fire suppression system with the Department of Buildings, and who knows how long that'd take. So: no hush puppies for now.
How Do You Take Feedback?
I had figured taking feedback from critics was going to be easy. If the expert eaters of the world tells you something sucks, you simply amend it so that it no longer does so. Some feedback really is that easy—that smoked turkey leg was obviously a poor exercise in judgment. Other feedback is harder to figure out.
A recent barbecue reviewer called my sausage "bland bologna." So what should I do? Add more spices? Change it to a coarse grind instead of the meat purée we've been doing? Both critics from the Village Voice and Eater loved the sausage as-is, and so do many of my guests.
The same reviewer also thought my smoked chicken wings were "over-seasoned" and "over-rubbery." Now, I'm no chicken fan, and if I'm going to eat wings, they're going to be fried. But people like chicken—it's an easy sell—and without a fryer, smoking is our next best option. And smoked wings are inherently rubbery, if only a little.
We only smoke chicken wings from Friday through Sunday, largely as a bar snack for the football crowd. My guests asked for wings and we accommodated. Aside from my mac and cheese waffle, the wings are my single most popular item. We will smoke a case of chicken wings at a time and run out before 8 p.m. People buy them by the dozen and come back for more. So again, what am I to do? Do I change my recipe? Therein lies the challenge—do you change up a popular item? Do you become that restaurant owner who's too proud to take feedback?
After World War II, Japanese businessmen implemented the principle of kaizen in the workplace. The concept is to integrate continual improvement as a self-diagnostic part of your daily workflow. How can things be better? How can we work more efficiently and offer better products?
As we go to press with this story, new changes are afoot on the menu. We're adding more sides. I changed up the pork belly to feature a new rub and a spicy tamarind sauce. Unlike most traditional barbecue joints, where a single rub or sauce goes on everything, each menu item at the Swine has its own separate seasoning. My whole hog and outside brown have their own sauces native to North Carolina. But the ribs, which are more of a South Carolina thing, get a South Carolina mustard glaze.
I didn't change the pork belly because of negative feedback (though Robert Sietsema at Eater found them mediocre). I did so because I wanted a change, because I'm always looking for ways to improve the menu. The new pork belly recipe not only gets a new sauce. It's also topped with crispy shallots as a pungent contrast to what could easily be a bland piece of meat.
Fortunately, I haven't gotten too many reviews, which gives my crew and me some breathing room to play around with the menu. Ironically, the hardest thing to do in a restaurant is play with the food. I'd love to spend the morning working through recipes and developing new dishes to serve my guests, but there's never a quiet moment running a shop. Instead of trying out my new vegan sandwich, I'm dealing with payroll issues. Instead of working on new sausages, it's meetings with contractors and architects. More fun items are coming, but it's gonna be a slow release.
Oh and six weeks after opening, I finally did follow Costantine's advice. There is indeed a Greek spinach pie sitting in a barbecue joint's menu. And of course, like the mac and cheese, the sweet potatoes, and the cornbread, it's shaped like a waffle.