Southern Smoke BBQ is a restaurant and sauce line based in Garland, North Carolina. Owner Matthew Register, a native eastern North Carolinian himself, has barbecue in his blood—one of his sauces is a 100-year-old family recipe that was entrusted to him by his wife’s late grandfather. With his restaurant and sauces, Matthew is aiming to preserve the region’s barbecue tradition for future generations of North Carolinians. Recently, our Specialty Food Buyer, Charlotte Myer, spent some time chatting with him about the past and future of real, wood-smoked barbecue, among many other things. Read on for excerpts from that conversation, and to learn more about the story behind Southern Smoke Barbecue!
CM: So, let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me a little about how you got started with Southern Smoke?
MR: You know, growing up in eastern North Carolina, I have barbecue in my veins, but in 2010, I really got serious about it. We did some competition stuff, started cooking seriously, and it just kind of snowballed. It was mainly people calling us because of the way we actually cook the barbecue. We cook it on oak wood, it’s old school. Everything we do is kind of old school. We try to honor all the old cooking traditions, but to do it with kind of a new school twist, do it our way. We just opened our restaurant last week!
CM: Last week! Congratulations, you must be so excited. Can you tell me a little about your two sauces?
MR: So, Sweet Grace was a sauce that I developed personally, over time, for like a rib or chicken sauce. I think of it as more of an everyday barbecue sauce. I tried and tried for 8 or 9 months, and when I finally got the recipe right, my little girl, who was 4 or 5 at the time, gave me the thumbs up and said, “Dad, I love this barbecue sauce.” We decided to name it after her. Her name is Taylor Grace, and like it says on our bottle, we named it after the sweetest Grace we know.
A little bit of background, I spent a lot of time eating barbecue in Memphis and the Delta with the sweeter sauce, so I wanted to kind of infuse the vinegar base of eastern North Carolina into that. That was a big thing for me, trying to get the balance just right between those two barbecue regions. So it has a little bit of a tang from eastern North Carolina, but it has the sweetness of Memphis with the brown sugar and that kind of stuff.
We have been truly blown away by eastern North Carolina people that have just fallen in love with our Sweet Grace sauce. We serve it every day in our restaurant—that’s what goes on our ribs. And I catch a lot of old timer eastern North Carolina barbecue men putting it on their sandwiches. That’s a true test that it’s pretty good, if the old timers are putting it on their barbecue.
CM: That really is. It says a lot.
MR: It’s been wild what we’ve found out about the way people are using it. People swear by putting it on their meatloaf because it has a smoky sweetness to it. We have people that use it on steak, use it on salmon, I get blown away when people walk right up to us and say, “Hey, we use it on this or we use it on that.” My kids’ favorite is mixing it with Duke’s Mayonnaise and making a french fry sauce out of it.
And then the other one, that’s a 100-year-old family recipe, so that one’s special too.
CM: Would you tell me a little bit about the story behind the other one?
MR: The other one [Two Brothers] was my wife’s grandfather’s recipe who was in the barbecue business in the 50s and 60s. It’s a take on his recipe that he gave me three months before he died, so it’s really near and dear to my heart. I finally got the full thing and I altered it a little bit because his was a little too spicy for the general consumer. But it is basically his recipe, a traditional eastern North Carolina sauce. It’s got spice and it’s got vinegar in it.
That one has a really big meaning with my wife, and I learned a lot about the barbecue business from him, techniques of how to cook barbecue and how to chop barbecue and how it should be flavored. I could ramble on a million things of what I’ve learned from him.
I really think that sitting and talking with him before he died really pushed me over the barbecue edge and I decided this is really something that I want to do, I was scared that my children wouldn’t grow up with wood-cooked barbecue, because it is dying. It’s a dying breed. You know, everybody wants to do it easier and faster, and being a barbecue person in North Carolina, that just scared me to death.
CM: We’ve gotta preserve it!
MR: Yeah, and it’s hard. You know, the restaurant business is hard. We’re open two days a week, and we do catering 3 days a week, which I love. With catering, we do farm-to-table sides with really cool, fresh, non-typical red-and-white tablecloth barbecue sides. You know, you’ll always get cole slaw, baked beans and boiled potatoes, but we do a lot of different things. We try to show people that barbecue can be cool, and can be sexy and presentable, and people are taking a liking to it!
CM: So how do you and your family most often enjoy your own product?
MR: You know, the Sweet Grace sauce, we use it a ton on chicken and hamburgers. Barbecue chicken is one of my favorite things in the world. I love it whole, bone-in, cooked on charcoal on the grill. I even caught my dad using it on hot dogs. The main things are chicken and ribs. But yeah, my favorite way is at home, sitting back on the deck and grilling some barbecue chicken with Sweet Grace sauce on it.
CM: That sounds like such a nice evening!
MR: Yeah, just enjoying some North Carolina beer and some Sweet Grace.
CM: You’ve kind of already answered this question—I think it might be barbecue—but what is your favorite Southern food tradition?
MR: Yeah, barbecue is one of my favorites. And collards. Collards are one of my all-time favorite foods. A perfect meal for me is homemade macaroni and cheese, collards and some good wood-cooking barbecue. That’s one of my favorite things when collards come in season, I have a small dinner party, and that’s what I cook. With a little bit of sweet, Yankee corn bread.
CM: You’re making me hungry now!
MR: I’m making myself hungry too!
And you know, I always remember pig pickin’s when I was little at Easter. That was a family tradition we used to have, and everyone just pulled pig right off the grill. I didn’t realize it when I was seven, eight, nine-years-old, but that’s when my love of barbecue and my love of food and that kind of stuff was really starting.
Then, the reason we got into doing a lot of fresh sides and farm-to-table stuff is because I’m a runner, so I wanted to find really good food that wasn’t really really bad for you. You know, you can’t eat fried chicken and french fries all the time. So that’s hard.
We don’t live in a city like Raleigh or Chapel Hill, but my wife and I have taken the stance that if we teach our kids from an early age how to eat, and that you can eat good, flavorful food that’s not bad for you, then they’ll teach their children, and so on. The whole thing for me with the restaurant was that I wanted to do cool, different things and still charge $5.75 for a barbecue sandwich and a good side of black-eyed pea salad and a drink. We’re trying to say, “Hey, we’re a little joint here but we’re serving fresh food at an affordable price.” I probably could have saved myself some money by charging more, but I’m not going to do it. That’s just my stance on it.
CM: We’re excited to have you! Tell us, why are you excited to partner with Southern Season?
MR: Southern Season to me is the end-all, be-all of gourmet food stores in the South. That’s how I viewed it. Because of the expansion, the towns that you’re in and the towns that you’re expanding to, they’re food meccas. So, you know, I did a dance when I found out we were going to be in your store! Because we’re not just any barbecue sauce, we want to be in gourmet food stores, we want people to realize that this is something that we put our time and energy into.
I actually turned down several large retailers who wanted to carry our sauce, because we are not just like any old barbecue sauce. We feel like we’re more of a gourmet product for a store like y’all’s. That’s the clientele that will appreciate our barbecue sauce.
CM: I love that you did a dance! That makes me smile.
MR: We did! And here’s the amazing thing. Y’all were our fifth or sixth retail store, y’all were there from the beginning, and you know, being small, it’s hard to get into stores like Southern Season, and when we found out, that was huge to us.
CM: So what’s the most important thing that you think people should know about your story? What makes you unique?
MR: I pride myself on being a North Carolina barbecue sauce company; we’re North Carolinians born and raised. I left once for six months and swore I’d never, ever leave again. That’s the biggest thing.
With our catering and food, we want you to feel like every time you taste a product of ours, you’re eating at our table. I wouldn’t serve somebody something that I didn’t believe in if they were coming to my house. And that’s been the great thing about it, we’ve met so many people through the barbecue sauce and to hear their responses from their friends, it feels great.
I also want people to know, this is not just something that I just threw together, but I tweaked and tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. I’ll never forget the day that my little girl tasted it and said, “Daddy that’s it,” and that’s a personal thing for me. That’s a moment in her life I’ll never forget. This is not just something we just cooked up and slammed a name on, this was named after the most precious thing that I have other than my two boys, my daughter.
(All photos courtesy of Southern Smoke Barbecue)