Obsessed with the tastes and traditions of the Deep South, Hickory’s Smokehouse has spent the last decade introducing true southern hospitality to guests in the UK
This year – 2020 – marks the tenth birthday of Hickory’s Smokehouse (Hickory’s). What began as a single restaurant in Chester, serving authentic barbecue style food inspired by the tastes of the American Deep South, has since gone on to become a group of 11 establishments across the North West of England and the Midlands.
The inspiration behind Hickory’s actually came about when its founder – Neil McDonnell – embarked upon what was a fairly haphazard trip across the southern states of America, during which time he made sure to eat at every barbecue joint that he could find, soaking up the passion of the South. “It was this melting pot of cultures and characters that Neil encountered that inspired him,” confirms Hickory’s Executive Chef Director, Rob Bacon. “He quickly fell in love with the Deep South, particularly its attitude towards food, drink and unbridled southern hospitality, and he knew that he had to share what he had discovered.”
Upon returning to the UK, Neil set out to scour the North West for a location that he felt would bring the concept he had in mind to life and do justice to his ideas. What he found was a neglected road-side building that would require a lot of love and passion to turn it around. Fortunately, that is what it received and a year to the day after he returned from his overseas trip, the first Hickory’s Smokehouse opened its doors to guests.
Hickory’s menu has been carefully built around its smokers, with its smokehouse dishes being far and away the most popular with its guests. “Our pitmasters have been trained in the art of barbecue, and have spent time with some of the best and proudest in the South learning how to get it right,” Rob states. “Our Texas style brisket has been smoked ‘low ‘n’ slow’ for 16 hours. We have learnt how to smoke, carve and eat brisket the right way, and it’s a popular choice for our guests.
“Our most popular dish though has to be The Smokehouse Platter. It is packed with all the smokehouse classics – grain-fed Texas style brisket, Memphis style baby back ribs, BBQ baby back ribs, hand pulled pork, eight-hour smoked Jacob’s Ladder, bourbon glazed chicken wings and our smoked pork, jalapeno and cheese sausage. It’s the ultimate smokehouse experience and when our guests can’t decide what to have it’s the perfect choice!
“Guests love our appetisers too and we have introduced lots of guests to Frickles, Burnt Ends and Corn Dogs over the years. Alongside the Smokehouse, we’ve got an incredible selection of burgers. For instance, the Go Big or Go Home is packed with beef patties, southern fried chicken, streaky bacon and bourbon glazed brisket and guests love it. We’ve found that our guests love to try something different too. The Chicken Fried Waffle – a freshly made waffle topped with southern fried chicken, maple candied bacon and its own jug of syrup – is a real crowd pleaser and the 3am Mac – a classic mac ‘n’ cheese topped with buttermilk marinated southern fried chicken, bacon crumb and maple syrup – also has a following of its own.”
Hickory’s sources all of its ingredients from well established, accredited suppliers whom it has established great working relationships with over the years. These suppliers work very closely with the business to meet its needs, whether it be for imported grain-fed brisket, or the best head of crisp fresh lettuce. “We forward buy in the market as much as possible to ensure we get our name on the best possible produce,” Rob explains. “This is a part of what makes our food in the first place, and ensures we stay authentic.”
Rob continues: “It is so important to us that we get everything right for barbecue enthusiasts and smokehouse fans. They understand what barbecue perfection is, what the pink band of colour is on the meat and how it’s a sign of truly authentic barbecue. However, it is equally important that Hickory’s appeals to everyone. We are a family friendly restaurant and we treat every guest like an old friend who we welcome into our home, or as we say ‘from no teeth to false teeth’. Family time is so important, and we have tried to think about our smaller guests too. For them, we have cinema rooms and popcorn, plus safe and secure outside areas with ping pong at many of our restaurants. So, mum and dad can sit back and relax knowing the kids are also having a great time.
“We equally welcome groups of friends – whether for a meal, a drink at the bar, or to join us to watch sport. Sunday’s nights are dedicated to the NFL, and we have grown a loyal following over the past ten years. Our bars are a real neighbourhood hub, and we have got lots of guests who join us weekly for a drink after work. At any one time, you could have a family enjoying dinner, a couple on a date, a group of friends having a catch up or an extended family celebrating a birthday. It is this mix of occasions – alongside the great food and drink, and southern hospitality of our team – that see our guests coming back.”
For Hickory’s, it is obvious that authenticity is absolutely key, and indeed it makes up one of its five ‘star values’, alongside community, daring, welcoming and passion. “Authentic starts with our smokers,” Rob adds. “Our custom smokers take up to 12 weeks to ship from the United States. Our Ole Hickory smokers come from Missouri, whilst our Southern Pride hail from Texas and they settle right into the heart of our restaurants.
“We travel to the southern states each year to get new inspiration. Last year, a team of eight including General Managers and Head Chefs travelled to South Carolina. There they spent time with pitmasters, bar tenders and owners, and brought back ideas that our chefs and bar team have developed
nto new menu items, such as Collard Greens, Charleston Banana Pudding, and Irish Coffee. Today, our menu is testament to the 18 trips and 70 cities we have visited over the last decade and more.”
People are also at the heart of Hickory’s success, and as Rob reveals, without the hard work, talent, creativity and passion of its workforce, the business would not exist. “The team have all been hand-picked, not because of fancy CV’s or impressive qualifications, but because they have great personalities and embody the qualities we love. Sometimes quirky, always fun and with a spark that can be developed; this personality first approach is what helps us show growth and gain such great guest feedback.
“We like to do things a bit differently, and our team development is no exception. Our teams have access to all the official accreditations they need to undertake their roles, but it is our commitment to immersing our team in the taste, smells and sounds of southern hospitality that really set them apart. Also, with an inhouse training team and over 60 bespoke courses, last year we have even created our very own Hickory’s Academy. We see every team member as part of the Hickory’s family, which means that we support each other, and that couldn’t be truer than over this past year.”
At home offer
The past year, of course, cannot accurately be reflected upon without mentioning the Covid-19 pandemic and the disruption it has forced on people’s everyday lives. For Hickory’s, a huge mchallenge involved how it would respond to the nationwide lockdown that began in March 2020. “During lockdown, we worked hard to keep the brand alive, which for us meant playing our part in the local community and helping those less fortunate than us,” Rob reveals. “We are very lucky to be based in such wonderful communities, and along with our team and guests we set up an appeal to support our dedicated charity, Cash For Kids.
“We worked really hard behind the scenes too preparing to reopen and key to us was making sure that Hickory’s was a safe place for our team to work and for our guests to join us. We developed our Safety Pledge that covered all the changes we committed to, from building Southern Sanitiser Stations in all our restaurants, socially distancing all our tables to heightening all our cleaning processes. What was key to all of this was making sure that the Hickory’s experience wasn’t impacted, and we have received great feedback from our guests that they’ve been able to enjoy dining and drinking with us, that our team have welcomed them and that we haven’t lost that personal touch to technology.”
Looking ahead to 2021, as well as hoping to have all of its restaurants open and in full swing as soon as is safely possible, the business also intends to improve and strength its recently launched Hickory’s At Home offering. Born out of the first Covid-19 lockdown, this next day delivery service allows customers to order their barbecue online and heat at their convenience at home. Already proving itself very popular, Rob believes that there is a great deal more potential in the concept yet. “When you think about it, we haven’t even scratched the surface yet with Hickory’s At Home, what with the options of NFL Wing Nights, a special Superbowl Box, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, the list is endless and we envisage having a lot of fun with it. From merchandise to sauces and rubs, it has so much to offer.
“We also intend to look to restart our growth plans with the opening of our newest restaurant in Wilmslow, a venue we had to put on hold due to Covid-19, but that we are itching to have opened. It is in a fantastic area with a great local community who we can’t wait to welcome for some Hickory’s-style southern hospitality, and hopefully we will get back on track to our pre-Covid-19 plans of opening three-to-four restaurants a year.”