Summer is officially upon us, and it’s time to take stock of the barbecue segment of the chain restaurant industry. As we touched on in this month’s Restaurant & Foodservice Snapshot Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, the largest BBQ chain in the business, is the 550-store gorilla in the room. As seen in the chart below, after adding 250+ units in the last three years, Dickey’s now dwarfs its closest competitors, Famous Dave’s and Sonny’s BBQ.


Source: Chains Store Guide Database of Chain Restaurant Operators


Surprisingly, while Dickey’s has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years, very few other chains have followed suit. Remove Dickey’s from the mix, and the chain BBQ segment doesn’t look much different today than it did three years ago in terms of the players and the number of restaurants they operate. Of the top-20 chain operators, only two – Moe’s Original Bar B Que and Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q – have shown significant unit growth in the last three years (21 to 40 units for the former; 25 to 37 units for the latter).  The other top-20 chains have experienced slight increases, stagnation or contraction in store counts.

A few factors are at work here. With its manic levels of expansion, Dickey’s has simply sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the room. But as importantly, barbecue doesn’t lend itself as easily to chain-based growth as many other concepts. The appeal of barbecue – regional variations, heritage and grass-roots operations – limits the likelihood of regional and min-chains blowing up.

Barbecue is everywhere, that’s clear. But it’s a multitude of operators and startups growing the one- and two- and three-unit concepts. Newcomers that grow much past those numbers quickly risk messing with the marketable story, approach and positioning that afford them initial success.