If you’re one of the multitudes who will be craving barbecue on Memorial Day, you won’t be alone.
And for many, summer holidays aren’t the only days people want to chow down.
The year-round love for roasted meat even during the lockdown surprised a Delaware restaurant devoted to it.
Nick Wallace, pit boss and manager at Limestone BBQ and Bourbon in Wilmington, said sales actually went up when the restaurant industry was forced to move to takeout during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
“Barbecue gives everybody that summertime good feeling,” Wallace said. “And even when they’re not allowed outside, they can still enjoy that food that they’re used to sitting out in the backyard, enjoying family around and everything like that.”
That helped keep people employed. As takeout took off, it helped the restaurant on Limestone Road keep staff on.
Most restaurants severely cut stuff in March 2020 after Gov. John Carney shut down the state to try to stop the virus from spreading and overwhelming hospitals, like it was elsewhere.
Limestone BBQ kept most workers, but laid off bartenders for a few weeks. As soon as the state told restaurants they could sell alcohol along with food for takeout, the bartenders were hired back. When they weren’t filling cocktail orders, they helped out in the kitchen.
As takeout rose, the company put in an online-ordering system.
Wallace was a driving force behind the concept of a barbecue and bourbon restaurant for High 5 Hospitality. He’s also worked as a sous chef at the chain’s Stone Balloon Ale House in Newark and helped to open Eggspectations, its brunch-and-more spot on Stanton Christiana Road. In addition, he handles catering for the company.
The enduring appeal of grilled meat is enhanced by how well it travels.
Much lockdown takeout from restaurants suffered a little on the trip from eatery to home, although few were going to worry or complain about it. They just wanted something hot and served.
“We can’t really cook anything on the fly like at a regular restaurant because everything takes so long,” Wallace said. “All of our meats usually come in aluminum. So that way if you need to reheat it, you can reheat it right in that pan.”
Their food holds up well, he said, even when he has to travel an hour or more for a catering job.
“The fat content and brining of the meat allows meat to stay moist instead of drying out,” he said.
In addition to order a single meal, Wallace said, people seem to really like the packages of barbecue at holidays and especially in fall and winter ball game seasons.
They allow people who want to have a gathering, but don’t want to spend hours cooking meat, to pick up what they want and enjoy both food and company, he said.
Limestone BBQ now also has a food truck that’s popular, and Wallace said he’s seen an exponential growth of catering.
“I almost can’t even keep up with the emails we have so much coming in,” he said. “I could easily do a 40-hour work week of just answering emails and doing food truck and catering.”
He said restaurant managers weren’t sure what to expect as Carney reopens restaurant capacity and allows vaccinated people to take off their masks, except for a few things in crowded settings. But so far, everything seems to be going extremely well and people are happy to be back inside restaurants.
Wallace hopes the state will allow restaurants to continue to sell alcohol with takeout meals. Right now, the law that OKs that is set to expire at the end of March 2022.
“We would like for that to be permanent,” Wallace said. “It’s nice to be able to offer it. It helps drive up sales and when people weren’t coming in, any bit of sales that we could capture was a huge benefit for us.”
Wallace expects takeout orders to remain higher than they were pre-COVID as the pandemic ebbs.
But to welcome diners back inside, Limestone BBQ has tweaked its menu, removing some items and adding others, and it’s revamped its cocktail list.
For example, it now offers smoked beef ribs, but only on Thursday.
“It’s another way to capture more new customers and bring back a lot of our old customers,” Wallace said. “We’ve been lucky enough that a lot of our regulars actually were regulars right through the pandemic.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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