Smokin' in Atlanta With a Barbecue Champ"Atlanta seems to be a calmer place, and the people are more courteous and laid-back than in other parts of the country," says Chad Renfroe (right).
Chad Renfroe has tapped into a happy sort of business synergy others only dream about.
The 47-year-old Atlanta-area native (he's lived here since he was 6 months old) owns a trucking business that specializes in hauling equipment for movie and entertainment productions, along with trade shows. But somewhere in the course of moving things around he made a discovery. People in this business get hungry. Really hungry. And so he set up a catering business on the side, with a heavy emphasis on barbecue.
"And now it's snowballed into something much bigger than the trucking business," he laughs.
Renfroe didn't arrive at his barbecue expertise overnight. In fact, he'd been smoking meats and cooking barbecue for his family and friends since 2004. Everyone always told him his barbecue was really good, and he started to get curious about just how good. So he entered into one of the 300 barbecue competitions sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, which provides a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal for the smoker crowd. "Well, we screwed up and won," Renfroe says.
Renfroe soon got hooked on the competition circuit, and now he's found on many weekends tending ribs, chicken, pork butts and brisket. He cooks over pecan wood when he can get it (hickory or oak if he can't), and says his output has more of a Midwestern twang than a Southern style — what comes off his grill tends to be more sweet than vinegary. He admits the competition circuit is not an inexpensive hobby — meat alone runs around $500 each contest, and he participates in at least 15 competitions a year (24 in 2010), traveling in a $50,000 fifth-wheel rig customized with a "garage" to haul his smoker.
His rig always attracts attention and sly admiration from other competitors. "I'm a firm believer in sleeping," Renfroe says, noting that many competitors stay up all night tending their fires. He invented a gravity-fed charcoal grill that's outfitted with a computer-controlled fan and thermostat to constantly monitor temperature. "I think we're the only ones out there who get eight hours of sleep."
While Atlanta doesn't have a national reputation for barbecue like Kansas City or the Carolinas, Renfroe says it's a great place to be based. "Atlanta seems to be a calmer place, and the people are more courteous and laid-back than in other parts of the country," he says.
When out on the town in Atlanta, he finds there's no shortage of things to do — and that's for someone who admits to not being a bar-hopper. He's partial to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, especially the Canopy Walk, a pathway that rises 40 feet and winds through the poplars and hickories. After visiting the garden, he might stop by Mary Mac's Tea Room, a place that "feels like it's been around since the Civil War" (actually, it opened in 1945).
And he's not averse to patronizing other practitioners of the smoking arts: When he's in the mood for some slow-cooked meats not of his own making, he'll head to Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, which has some 28 restaurants scattered across the South. "It's a chain, but they're doing it like you're supposed to be doing it, cooking it overnight," says Renfroe.
Atlanta has gone through a lot of change since he was younger, he says — of note, residents who moved out of the city's core over the past few decades have reversed course. "Atlanta is now growing from within," he says. "Everyone seems to be moving back in."
Check out Chad's Atlanta.