Does Atlanta Really Have The Most BBQ Joints Per Capita?

The BBQ Numbers Game

By Robert F. Moss

Ribs and brisket at Community Q, Atlanta
Ribs and brisket at Community Q, Atlanta
The Atlanta Journal Constitution just took a barbecue tour of Atlanta with Bob Herndon, founder of the Atlanta Bar-B-Q Festival and the Atlanta Bar-B-Q Club, and learned from him six lessons about barbecue. Number two will shock you.

Or, at least, it might make you raise an eyebrow, for it advances a claim I’ve not heard before: “Atlanta boasts nearly 150 barbecue restaurants, the highest per capita of any city in the U.S.”

My gut reaction was swift: “That can’t possible be right.”

Now, mind you, Atlanta has some really great barbecue joints, like Fox Brothers, Heirloom Market, Community Q, and The Old Brick Pit, to name just a few.

But I've never really thought of Atlanta as a barbecue town per se. Unlike Memphis or Kansas City, there’s no particular style that you would point to and say, “That’s Atlanta-style barbecue.” Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. If you want to sample the distinctive Georgia style of barbecue you have to get out on the backroads and visit places like Fresh Air in Griffin and and Heavy’s in Crawfordville. Atlanta is more a melting pot of barbecue styles from all over the country, often served with upscale twists or modern fusions like brisket tacos and pulled-pork laden nachos.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of barbecue restaurant in the city. “Numbers!” I thought. “I like numbers.” It’s not often in my barbecue research that I get to craft a spreadsheet, so I gleefully broke out the laptop and got to work.

So, with “nearly 150” barbecue restaurants, does Atlanta truly have the highest joints per capita of any city in the count? If we take the AJC’s total with the most charitable possible reading and call it 149 restaurants, and use Atlanta’s estimated population is 463,878, that gives us a ratio of 1 barbecue restaurant for every 3,113 residents.

Now you might be thinking that 463,000 sounds pretty small for Atlanta’s population, and as for that 3,113 residents figure, well, I’ve waited in line behind more people than that at Fox Brothers on a Friday afternoon. But the population tally is just for the city limits, which except on the west side of town doesn’t even get you outside the I-285 Perimeter. The greater Atlanta metropolitan area clocks in at a whopping 5,522,942. Unless all those barbecue joints are inside the city limits (and a quick look at a map will show they aren’t) it seems you need to go with the larger figure, which gives us a ratio of one restaurant per 37,067 residents. And that sounds to me almost like a barbecue desert.

But how does that number stack up to other cities? I’m not sure what the beancounters at the Census Bureau are doing with all their time up there in Washington, but it sure isn’t counting barbecue joints. I was left with a less precise way forward: searching the online Yellow Pages for businesses tagged as “barbecue restaurant” and tallying them up.

This is a less than satisfying methodology, for while the search results include all the well-known barbecue restaurants in each of the cities I searched it also includes a lot of steakhouse and wing joints, too, skewing the numbers upward. (Greater Atlanta, by this method, has 414 self-identified barbecue restaurants.) But, it seems reasonable to conclude that the oversampling occurs at relatively the same rate from city to city, so if a city has the highest per capita ratio of might-be-real-BBQ-joints it would also score highest on the per capita ratio of real BBQ joints, too. (Barbecueology is admittedly not a precise science.)

So, here is the tally, with my ratios of city limits population as well as metropolitan area:

Highly Scientific BBQ Hub Survey: BBQ Joints By City

Totals represent number of residents per barbecue restaurant

CityCity LimitsMetro
Charleston, SC1,62310,061
Kansas City3,10714,112

As you’ll see, I decided to rank the cities using their metropolitan area population. And that means Memphis, which has 50% more people (647,000) in its city limits than Atlanta but only a quarter as many (1.3 million) in the metro area, comes out on top. I think you have to go with the metro stats because otherwise city councils will have too much incentive to keep shrinking their city limits just to rise to the top of the esteemed barbecue joints per capita rankings. Besides, it just feels right, for if you drive around Memphis you seem to pass a barbecue stand on every city block, whereas in Atlanta it’s all just Chick-Fil-A’s and Waffle Houses.

One could certainly question this methodology, as I am sure plenty of people will (especially people from Atlanta.) But in the end, it’s really a moot point because no matter how you tally up the barbecue restaurants or define the population, there’s one city in America that has all the above cities beat by a mile.

Lexington, North Carolina, has no fewer than 18 genuine, hands-down, ain’t-a-chicken-wing-place barbecue restaurants. And most of those places still cook with all wood. And it’s a city of 18,893 people, giving it a ratio of 1 joint per 1,052 citizens. (If you use the Yellow Page methodology described above, you get an eye-popping 1 per 249 residents, but that not only pulls in a few steakhouses but also restaurants in nearby Thomasville and High Point.)

To be fair, the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s per-capita figure was presented as sort of a throw away line, brought up in passing while explaining the larger lesson that there are a million ways to spell barbecue. (Come to think of it, the math in that lesson might be a bit of a stretch, too.) But before we go about repeating it—and, for what it’s worth, repeating the competing claim that Kansas City has been throwing around that it’s the one with the most barbecue restaurants per capita—I think it’s time for a detailed barbecue census.

As soon as the BBQ Hub’s next crop of summer interns comes on board, we’ll get right on it.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.