As I mentioned previously, this semester I will work with Hillsborough BBQ Company for my Documentary Photography final project. That’s why today I drove to the restaurant to both have lunch and start the project.
The restaurant is located on 236 S Nash St. just five minutes away from Hillsborough downtown, on the West side of the town. Sundays are usually busy; sometimes there’s a line of 18-20 people outside waiting to be seated! This Sunday it was not really packed so I was able to get this very quickly:
This, my friends, is a dish of 1/4 lb. brisket (delicious North Carolina pork which “stays on the coals for about 15 hours”) with French fries, hush puppies, some yellow mustard-based slaw and toast. According to Alex, the front-house manager, “everybody loves our brisket.” He has met people driving from Virginia who just went to Hillsborough to have a plate of brisket at the restaurant. There’s even the case of a lady coming from New York who didn’t know the restaurant closed earlier one day and got quite pissed because she “wanted to have a good plate of brisket even before visiting her grandson in town.”
But who’s responsible for this magic to happen? Who’s in charge of making this bowl of pork so special than people coming from New York prefer eating it first rather than seeing their family?
His name is John. Born and raised in Hillsborough, NC, he is the “chief leader” of the cooks nowadays. He is the guy getting to the restaurant at 5 am. to put the meat in the pit and transform it from a raw product into some people’s obsession.
One of John’ secrets (besides the way he prepares the vinegar-based sauce for the food) is the way he chops the pork. Nothing is wasted here, so after throwing away some greasy parts of the pork that are unusable to cook (and which will become compost later,) he chops the skin and the meat twice to get both soft small pieces and crispy chunks.
One of the things that everybody remarked is that all of them are happy with the “family setting” Hillsborough BBQ Company offers. This is a “family-oriented group” in which everybody “cares for each other” as John and Herman put it.
Well, somebody has to do the “dirty work” here, right? And with “dirty work” I mean just the opposite. Herman is the person in charge of cleaning everything up. Waiters put the dirty plates, glasses, and silverware clients use, and in a very efficient way, Herman both washes them and puts them back in their right place.
The very first person I actually met was Alex, the front-house manager. When I got to the restaurant I talked with the hostess and explained to her my photography project in broad strokes. She asked me to wait for the manager and then Alex popped up. He introduced me to the people, showed me the pit and the kitchen, and had a very nice conversation with me for a while (born and raised in Michigan, Alex came to the South to visit some relatives around 15 years ago; he simply loved North Carolina’s weather so he decided to stay. Since then, he has worked as a cook in different places both in Hillsborough and Durham, and three years ago he started working at the Hillsborough BBQ Company.)
Alex is one of the typical big dudes who, like Nick Offerman, can scare the crap out of you if you don’t get to know them at all; however, again like Nick Offerman, if you approach him and start interacting with him for a while, you’ll realize how nice, friendly, and willing to share his experiences and anecdotes with you he is. As a manager, he is in charge of supervising that everything is in order but, confirming what people like John and Herman said about the restaurant’s environment, Alex continuously shows that he cares for his peeps a lot, as if they were part of his own family.
One of the things that caught my attention about the restaurant is how well they use their products. You saw the food I got, right? Pork, potatoes, slaw… And as mentioned before, unusable food is recycled as compost (and sometimes other leftovers feed local pigs.) Another paradigmatic example is their Bloody Mary.
One of the ingredients of the Bloody Mary you see here is the Western BBQ sauce they themselves make: freaking BBQ sauce in a freaking Bloody Mary! How amazing is that? On the following post of this project, you’ll get to know Whitney, the bartender, a Nursing School student at Durham Tech who has been working at the restaurant for about one year and who’s made some unique cocktails up herself (like this Bloody Mary.)
BBQ Company is one of those odd places where people actually have fun while they work. Not only do they feel surrounded by people who care for each other but they actually have fun as well! If you don’t believe it, ask Dell, who was wearing these pig ears over the course of the two hours I spent at the restaurant today.
“You put that photo on the front page [of a magazine] and this business is going down,” he said. Maybe he is right, maybe Hillsborough BBQ Company is an exemption and some conservative clients would be horrified by their silliness. But friends, would you not be intrigued by a restaurant where you can eat one of the most delicious brisket in the state (and probably beyond; remember that lady from New York who came to eat here before visiting her grandson!) and see waiters wearing pig ears at the same time?…