Barbecue is about as Southern as it gets, except for maybe fried green tomatoes, grits or sweet tea. Yet, it wasn’t too long ago that you may not have found traditional barbecue on very many school lunch menus.
When brothers Craig and Twig Wood, co-owners of Brookwood Farms, a barbecue maker in Siler City, became interested in expanding their business into the schools, they started the process by trying to understand why barbecue wasn’t a regular menu option.
The answer, they found, was a bit surprising. Students simply didn’t care for the barbecue being offered – often oven-roasted pork flavored with liquid smoke. “What we were told again and again was that traditionally, kids only want to eat chicken tenders and pizza,” said Craig Wood. The Woods figured a better, more traditional-tasting product, may sway students to give school barbecue another try.
Brookwood Farms co-owner Craig Wood checks the smoked pork at the end of the cooking cycle. Brookwood Farms of Siler City sold 9 million pounds of pork in 2012, some of which went into school lunches.
To get started on product development, the Woods contacted staff members with the Food Distribution Division, who explained how the school lunch program worked and helped introduce them to some key contacts in the school nutrition industry.
“Our role in helping Brookwood get into the school lunch business was to steer them in the right direction, since this was completely new to them,” said Gary Gay, director of the Food Distribution Division. “The brothers have been able to take an idea and grow it into a successful part of their business plan, which is a win for the company and the jobs it supports, a win for the schools and a win for the economy.”
The Woods were able to gather feedback on the type of product that might appeal to students, meet nutritional guidelines and also be easy for cafeteria staff to prepare and serve.
In the 1980s when the company first decided to expand into barbecue, Craig Wood spent the better part of a year talking to pit masters and learning more about cooking techniques and how to infuse the rich smoky flavor into the pork. There were many different types of cooking fuel sources, but, he learned that time spent slowly cooking over hot coals or embers seemed to be the most common denominator to great-tasting barbecue. Once he gathered the information, Craig Wood set about building a pit, and through old-fashioned trial-and-error he perfected the techniques that are used today to create Brookwood Farms’ barbecue products. The company officially began cooking over pits in 1982, and entered the school lunch business in 2004.
For the schools, Brookwood Farms smokes pork shoulders, which is one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commodity purchases. The frozen meat would normally be shipped to schools to use, but if schools choose to process with the company, that meat comes to the plant and is prepared for the schools for a manufacturing fee. The finished heat-and-serve product is shipped to schools in 5-pound tubs.
Workers stack finished 5-pound tubs of heat-and-serve barbecue onto pallets for shipment.
The company sampled its products at a special foodservice show geared for school systems and came away with a modest number of orders from child nutrition directors who tasted the product and decided to try it with students. Business took off, and now the company has its products in schools in 12 states.
The business’ focus on following a tried-and-true recipe and not taking cooking shortcuts is part of what makes the product popular with customers and school nutrition directors alike. Rachel Finley, school nutrition director for the Johnston County School System, understands the tradition of pork barbecue in the state and is happy the kids coming through the lunch line enjoy “barbecue day” in the cafeteria.
“When it comes to meat items, I like to offer things that kids normally find; if I am going to serve barbecue, then I want it to be pork barbecue because that is what they would be traditionally eating at home or out,” Finley said. “What I like about the product is the ingredient label is slim. There are no fillers, not a lot of added ingredients; just good old-fashioned pork barbecue and vinegar sauce. It is gluten free and with the plethora of dietary needs we have in the schools, it really meets our needs.”
In anticipation of upcoming nutritional changes to school lunches, Brookwood Farms has created a lower-sodium barbecue. Finley is happy the company has been proactive about these changes. She has sampled the product and plans to incorporate the lower-sodium barbecue into Johnston County school lunch menus this coming year. She thinks kids will like the new product.
Another plus for Finley is being able to work with a North Carolina company. “I like to keep my money in North Carolina if I can,” she said.
School lunch products are just one part of the company’s successful business model. While it has grown in geographic reach with its school lunch business, Craig Wood is happy to keep the business equation about the same, preferring a managed growth approach to business and ensuring the company does not to have all its eggs in any one basket or market sector.
In 2012, Brookwood Farms sold a total of 9 million pounds of barbecue through foodservice companies, retail stores, company restaurants in the Charlotte and Raleigh airports, and school lunch programs. Pit-cooked pork barbecue is far from the company’s only product. It also sells whole Boston butts, beef barbecue, chicken barbecue, barbecue chicken quarters and barbecue pork ribs.
The Wood brothers are proud of the business and how it has grown. It is a fourth-generation company, now that Craig’s kids, Craig II and Ashley, and Twig’s kids, Burton and Stephen, are involved in the business.