Bill Langford takes a three-pronged approach to the business of barbecue with restaurant, catering and mobile service

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING Fire It Up BBQ leaps from food truck to brick and mortar

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The checkerboard covers and paper towel rolls on every table may make Fire It Up BBQ at 22 GA 20 Spur in Cartersville seem like a folksy, Southern-style hole-in-the-wall, but owner Bill Langford says his business is indeed a "concept restaurant."

"Simple food, for simple people at fair prices — that's our concept," he said. "Something for the everyday person, that has quality, that's something like mama and grandmama used to make."

The 57-year-old grew up in Vienna, Georgia — home of the Big Pig Jig, the state's premier barbecue championship cook-off. Langford, who has been barbecuing since the early 1990s, picked up a couple of state championships as a member of Cajun Cookers, and even got invited to the world championship cook-off in Memphis three years in a row.

An insurance agent by trade, Langford moved to Cartersville in 2006 when he was promoted to area manager. Naturally, he took his smoker with him when he relocated to Bartow; it wasn't long before he was cruising around in his log-cabin-style food truck, serving up his acclaimed pork and brisket at fairs and festivals all over northwest Georgia.

Eventually, he upgraded to a full "rolling kitchen" model. Partnering with fellow motorcycle enthusiast Terry Billings, Fire It Up BBQ, as a brand, became official in 2016.

"We were both looking for what our next career, our last hurrah, was going to be," Langford said. "We both liked the food industry and we seemed to have similar personalities and common interests and we just joined together."

From the beginning, Langford said he tried to pick and choose the most profitable events to attend. 

"We'd get called all the time by people wanting us to bring the food truck out for 30, 40 people," he said. "That sounds like a lot, and we like to have it, but sometimes it's just not feasible when you're cooking barbecue."

Fast food, his meat certainly isn't. Indeed, it often takes him upwards of 12 hours to fully prepare his cuts. 

"It's not like a taco truck, where you can just put some ground beef on a flat top. It takes a lot of prepping," he said. 

Langford has his preferred venues. He hits up the annual Cartersville Bluegrass and Folk Festival each year and he's swung by the local Anheuser-Busch plant several times for community events. Then there's the Emerald Coast Cruizin' car show in Panama City, Florida. 

"There's 10,000 people a day for three days straight," he said. "So the larger the crowds, obviously, the better you're going to do."

Ironically enough, one of the reasons why Langford said he invested in the food truck was so he wouldn't have to open a brick and mortar business. Alas, everywhere he went customers kept asking him where his "restaurant" was, and in February he moved operations inside what used to be The Fruit Jar Cafe.

"We really rented this place for catering, the kitchen space," he said. "That's kind of how this evolved. It actually got so busy we had to close the food truck to come back in here and get this ready. The community really supported it and took to it."

The "stationary" Fire It Up BBQ restaurant officially opened its doors May 9.

Business has been booming ever since. On average, Langford said he's running about 130 tickets a day — and that's not counting the food truck sales, nor the revenue generated by his catering services.

Langford said he's had his eye on the location for several years.

"As the food truck and catering business grew, we needed more space and that's the primary reason we decided to go ahead and make the plunge," he said. "I've looked at probably everything that's become available — I had a contract with the old Slope's BBQ building to purchase it — but this was set up pretty much to our menu, for barbecue and Southern-country cooking."

With barrels of homemade pork rinds and a full-service bean bar, there's no denying the authenticity of Fire It Up's country cuisine. While Langford's restaurant serves up an abundance of menu items — everything from sausage links to ribs to Brunswick stew to smoked turkey — his top sellers seem to be the pulled pork and brisket.

"People ask us what our secret is, and there really is no secret other than good, quality rubs, the right amount of smoke and time and temperature control," he said. "The way we serve it is different because it's fresh. It's not sitting in a warmer, chopped up, drying up. You'll see us cut it right off the bone."

As for sides, the restaurant offers an assortment of regional favorites, including collard greens, fried okra and onion rings. "The mac and cheese is off the chain," Langford said.

Fire It Up BBQ also sells some more nontraditional menu items, such as "monster taters," barbecue salads and barbecue nachos — complete with hand-fried chips. 

"Everything on our menu is homemade and made from scratch," Langford said. "People cut corners today for the sake of costs, and we have to be cautious, too, but we try not to sacrifice the quality or freshness."

That means not skimping out on the high-quality meats. It might be more expensive, but Langford said he always uses Certified Angus beef for his briskets. And while other restaurants are content with using liquid smoke for that faux-barbecue flavor, he prepares his protein using pecan wood — the overall effect is a taste similar to hickory-smoked meat, albeit a bit milder.

While he assures customers his proprietary barbecue sauces "are excellent," he also advises patrons to try his products un-soaked so they can taste the distinct rubs he uses to enhance the flavor of his cuts.

"Sauce is secondary to us," he said. "Our focus is on the meat."

Langford has about a dozen employees at the moment. He said he would like to hire on a few more to staff his food truck.

With the restaurant now serving as his primary revenue generator (Langford estimates the brick and mortar business accounts for half of his sales), he also said he'd like to beef up his catering services. "Now we've got a larger space so we can handle larger clientele," he said. 

Running a standalone restaurant, mobile operations and the catering services, he said, can be quite hectic. He also said he has to employ different operational and management strategies for each. 

"With the restaurant, once you're open, you promote it, of course, but it's more of an open-door type deal," he said. "Looking at planning events, you have to be a little more proactive there."

Regarding his future business plans, Langford said he'd love to someday expand his Fire It Up BBQ empire. But for the time being, he said he's focused on making his new, wheel-less restaurant a success for the long haul.

"We want to make sure this is dialed in right first," he said. 

More information on Fire It Up BBQ — including menu details — is available online at www.facebook.com/FireItUpBBQFoodTruck.