West Ashley pitmasters size up local barbecue scene

Barbecue at Bessinger's (Hanna Raskin)

Local barbecue restaurants are keeping pace with the growth of Charleston’s dining scene, despite the hardships associated with perpetual understaffing, a group of pitmasters last week told the West Ashley James Island Business Association.

“We try to make it a good experience for employees,” said Anthony DiBernando of Swig & Swine, which is readying to open a second location in Summerville. “For us, it’s finding that overnight guy that’s hard.”

Despite staffing challenges, DiBernando; Aaron Siegel of Home Team BBQ and Michael Bessinger of Bessinger’s Barbecue, which hosted the panel discussion, are confident that barbecue has a healthy future in the Lowcountry. But they told audience members that increased competition has in some cases forced them to devise more general menus and embrace innovation.

“I like to think everything is our specialty,” DiBernando said. “My job is to be a people pleaser and get everything I can out there.”

Siegel, who’s on the cusp of opening Home Team’s first downtown outlet, recalled how much time he spent in the restaurant’s early days explaining to customers why he didn’t offer mustard sauce. “So I went and made one,” he concluded. At Bessinger’s, which 76 years ago introduced mustard sauce to the area, beef is now a regular item.

“Because of these guys, I’ve been forced to do brisket,” said Bessinger, who added his restaurant is trying to maintain its “turn-and-burn” speed while also enhancing the quality of its barbecue. “It’s catching up with us. Customers are waiting longer and longer.”

The specter of John Lewis loomed over the discussion, with the moderator tactfully referring to him only as “the guy from Texas.” But Siegel said he appreciated the respect being afforded smoked meat artists, even those who’ve moved here from elsewhere. (Siegel grew up in Georgia; DiBernando is from New Jersey.)

“Chefs are no longer grunts, so to speak,” Siegel said, suggesting the transition brings with it a different set of expectations from customers. “Nobody’s really satisfied: It’s kind of hard to sit still.”