Southern Smoke BBQ Has a Big Impact on a Small Town

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Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Matt Register started cooking barbecue on a charcoal grill because he wanted to connect to his North Carolina roots. It didn’t take long for the real-estate-developer-turned-restaurateur to realize that he had a knack for pulled pork.

“I didn’t have a restaurant in mind when I started,” Register recalls. “I wanted to be able to cook for friends on weekends, but then I started getting requests to cook pork shoulders for family reunions or to cook a whole hog, and it snowballed from there.”

In 2014, Register and his wife, Jessica, opened Southern Smoke BBQ in a small storefront in Garland, North Carolina, and started serving barbecue and sides such as beans, collard greens, and mac and cheese a few days a week. A new barbecue restaurant was a big deal for the small town of Garland, home to just over 600 residents and not a single stoplight.

“There was a line the day we opened, and there’s been a line ever since,” he says. “We’ve got folks who make a road trip, driving an hour into Sampson County to see us for lunch and driving home afterward. We run out of ribs every single day. I still can’t believe it.”

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Register, who is humble about his success, believes good barbecue is about more than the basics, like cooking low and slow over wood and leaving each hog in the smoker (named Jezebel) for up to 14 hours. Barbecue, he says, has to be from the soul.

“Barbecue is part of who we are in North Carolina,” he says. “Growing up, when we go to church functions or family reunions or fundraisers, we’re not eating hamburgers and hot dogs – we’re eating barbecue.[A lot of chefs] might have the same philosophies about barbecue, but we have our own flavor profiles. When you eat my barbecue, you’ll know, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Southern Smoke.’ ”

See more: Nostalgia on the Menu at Historic N.C. Restaurants

As buzz about Southern Smoke BBQ grew, the Sampson County Farm Bureau members decided to go all in on their restaurant, and Register decided to turn the barbecue joint into his full-time job. He hopes that Jessica, a schoolteacher, will be able to join him soon.

In addition to the restaurant, which is open from 11:30 a.m. until the food runs out Thursday and Friday only, Register expanded and opened South Catering in 2015. Southern Smoke BBQ has also released two sauces: Sweet Grace, named after their daughter, a thicker Memphis-style sweet sauce that is perfect for ribs and chicken, and Two Brothers, named after their sons, a traditional eastern North Carolina vinegar-based barbecue sauce. Both are sold at the restaurant and retailers across North Carolina.

Register also wrote a cookbook, Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today, which was released this spring.

“I love old cookbooks and will always buy Junior League cookbooks or old church recipe books from the 1950s when I see them,” he says. “I still can’t believe I wrote a book. I learned so much more about the history of the things I cook and can’t wait for people to sit down and read the stories and try the recipes.”

Barbecue might be a 24/7 job (pork shoulders go into the smoker at 7:30 p.m. and must be checked at least once overnight to ensure perfection when the lunch rush hits the next morning), but the demands of a successful business haven’t stopped Register from being active in his community.

In the wake of Hurricane Florence, Register fired up the smoker and prepared lunches and suppers for utilities workers, first responders and a swift water rescue team that came to Garland from California to help with the rising waters and devastating flooding.

If You Go…

Southern Smoke BBQ

Hours: Thursday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. until the food runs out. Closed Saturday through Wednesday.

Address: 29 E. Warren St., Garland, NC 28441

Phone: (910) 549-7484

Website: southernsmokebbqnc.com

“Garland was hit hard,” he says. “We fed everybody we could. These guys deserved a home-cooked meal.”

Once the waters receded, Register joined other chefs to host a Sunday Supper series that raised more than $400,000 for hurricane relief.

“It did my heart good to see how everybody reached out to help,” he says.

See more: Helpers in Hurricane Relief

A lot has happened over the last five years, and Register is both grateful for the successes and poised for the next chapter.

“I want to keep growing Southern Smoke right here in Garland,” he says. “I want to keep making barbecue and writing books and being an asset to the town and our community.”

Jodi Helmer

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