Rodney Scott: Can He Make it in Charleston?

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Can Rodney Scott Make it in Charleston?

Scotts BBQ, Hemingway, SC

Rodney Scott, from humble Hemingway, is widely accepted as South Carolina’s premier pitmaster on the strength of his whole hog, vinegar-pepper based BBQ.

The simple truth: there is none better than Scott’s BBQ.

Scotts BBQ, Hemingway, SC: Scott's BBQ Plate

Scotts BBQ, Hemingway, SC: Scott’s BBQ Plate

With news that Scott is opening a new restaurant in Charleston (to be called Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que), the issue not whether the BBQ will be exceptional; it will be.  The wonder is if Scott can deliver on that promise in the face of a number of other questions.

First, will Rodney Scott’s be open more than a few days a week and, if so, can a heavier pace be sustained?

Scott’s in Hemingway is only open Wednesday – Saturday. Will the Charleston restaurant be open 6 or even 7 days a week?

If nothing else, understand one thing: making whole hog BBQ with wood from a burn barrel is incredibly hard work. Exhausting is not an exaggeration.

Rodney Scott's burn barrel at Scott's BBQ in Hemingway

Rodney Scott’s burn barrel at Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway

If someone is willing to go to all that work for you, consider yourself special…and be willing to pay a premium for it if you’re eating out.

Whole hogs take 12 or more hours to cook. That doesn’t count the hours it takes to get hardwoods burned down and enough embers collected to begin cooking.

When cooking hogs with wood embers in the way Scott does, the pitmaster has to be on constant watch. Embers have to be spread around the hog about every 30 minutes or so.

There is no gas to keep the heat steady. There is no break.

Constant, steady watchfulness throughout the night is demanded.

Firing the pits at Scott's in Hemingway

Firing the pits at Scott’s in Hemingway

That’s hard enough to do with his current schedule.

Will Scott be able to replicate such a grueling schedule in a market that is not accustomed to restaurants that are open only 4 days a week? And if he expands that schedule another couple of days a week, can he survive such a demanding schedule?

And keep in mind, that all the cooking happens before all the serving; those aren’t concurrent events.

Another question builds from the first: What about his fuel source?

Scott cooks with hardwoods only. No gas, no electricity. And he should be recognized and thanked for it. That is one of the things that makes his BBQ elite.

In Hemingway, Scott goes out and cuts his own wood. The wood he gathers is split into logs on site using a hydraulic splitter.

The wood pile and hydraulic splitter at Scott's BBQ in Hemingway

The wood pile and hydraulic splitter at Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway

Hemingway is a long way from Charleston and wood is not cheap.

My wife and I cook a hog every Christmas Eve. One year, we decided to do Scott-style, with a burn barrel to create the embers as the only heat source which cooked the pig.

We spent over $160 on wood from local providers just to cook that one hog.

Granted we didn’t have Scott’s expertise to guide us and maybe we could have been more efficient, but that is what it took for us to do it.

That is not sustainable on a larger scale.

Will Charleston allow him to store and split wood on site? Will he haul it down from home? Will he have to purchase the wood?

John Lewis at nearby Lewis BBQ is all wood as well, but I suspect his method uses the wood much more effectively, as he simply adds logs to a fire-box on the side of his very large, efficiently designed pits. The heat and smoke from the fire-box are what fires the pit.

Lewis Barbecue - Wood Stacks

Lewis Barbecue – Wood Stacks

In Scott’s case, the wood is burned separately in a barrel far away from his pits. The embers are scooped into shovels and carried to the pits and spread under the hogs.

None of the heat from the burning process is used to cook with.

As a result, Scott will require an enormous volume of hardwoods to fire his pits.

How well can that be done in the obviously more urban setting of Charleston?

That leads to a related question: Will the City of Charleston allow such an operation and how will the city’s more environmentally conscious residents feel about it?

Can you see this being allowed in downtown Charleston?

Can you see this being allowed in downtown Charleston?

Section 13-10 of the City of Charleston Code of Ordinances prohibits “open burning.” The relevant parts are copied below:

  • Sec. 13-10. – Open burning prohibited.

    (a) “Open burning” means the intentional burning of materials wherein products of combustion are emitted directly into the ambient air without passing through a stack or chimney from an enclosed chamber. For the purpose of this definition, a chamber shall be regarded as enclosed when, during the time combustion occurs, only apertures, ducts, stacks, flues or chimneys necessary to provide combustion air and permit the escape of exhaust gas are open.

    (b) A person shall not kindle, maintain, or authorize to be kindled or maintained any open burning unless allowed below.

    (c)  Open burning is prohibited except as provided as follows:

    (1) Fires set for the cooking of food for human consumption if:

    a. Contained within a device designed for the purposes of cooking food over open flame;

    b. Kept from beneath or under a residence (or eaves);
    c. Kept three (3) feet from any combustible material;
    d. If the cooking fire is constantly attended until extinguished; and
    e. A minimum of one portable fire extinguisher with a minimum 4-A rating or other approved on-site fire-extinguishing equipment, such as dirt, sand, water barrel, garden hose, shall be available for immediate utilization.

    (3) Fires set in a pit for the cooking of food for human consumption if:

    a. The total fuel area is three (3) feet or less in diameter and two (2) feet or less in height;
    b. Kept twenty-five (25) feet from any structure or combustible material; and
    c. A minimum of one portable fire extinguisher with a minimum 4-A rating or other approved on-site fire-extinguishing equipment, such as dirt, sand, water barrel, garden hose, shall be available for immediate utilization.

    (d)  The fire department, police department, and fire code officials are authorized to order the extinguishment of any fire that violates the provisions of this ordinance or creates a public nuisance as defined in Chapter 21.

    (e) Violation of this section shall be punishable by a fine up to five hundred dollars ($500.00).

    (Code 1975, § 24-82; Ord. No. 2001-54, § 28, 5-29-01; Ord. No. 2010-113, § 1, 7-20-10)

Now, there may be codes I am not aware of that counter these and allow Scott to operate as he does in Hemingway, but there are a few concerns raised by the language above.

  1. I am not sure if his burn barrel approach meets the demands of (a) above, but I will assume that it does. If not, this could be easily worked around with an appropriate construction on site.
  2. Per C. 1. A., Scott does not, in fact, cook his food “over an open flame.”  As noted above, the wood simply burns down to create coals or embers that are then transported to the pits manually. Where the actual “burning” takes place, there is no cooking.
  3. As for C. 3., the fires are not “set in a pit” to begin with. The fire is set elsewhere. Also, the burn barrel at Scott’s in Hemingway is much larger than the area defined by C.3.A., “three (3) feet or less in diameter and two (2) feet or less in height.”

Per Charleston’s own ordinances, it seems that Scott will have to alter his typical practice.

Despite the questions of cooking methods, other questions exist regarding Scott’s move to Charleston.

Can Scott deliver a great dining experience?

In case you are unaware, Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway is not really a restaurant. It is much more of a takeout place. Honestly, it could be argued that Scott has no experience running a restaurant. That is not an unfair statement.

Scott's BBQ in Hemingway

Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway

If you are one of the few who has followed this blog from the beginning, you will know that Scott’s was the very first location we ever visited.

Scott’s serves unbelievably delicious BBQ. Frankly, it is our favorite among the many places we’ve tried, and we did, in fact, eat on site during our visit — at a picnic table, outside.

Inside, at the time of our visit, there was one table and a few chairs.

Scott’s is simply not a restaurant….and in Charleston, there exists a fairly high standard for restaurant service and quality.

So the question remains, can Scott step from among the pits and deliver a true (BBQ) restaurant experience at the level Charlestonians have come to expect?

And that brings us to one final question: Will Scott need to step up his food game?

There is no question that Scott’s BBQ is among the best you will ever try. It simply is.

But that is not all that is on the plate.

The sides at Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway can be ignored because the BBQ is so good, but we’re not so sure that will cut it in a place like Charleston.

Standard sides on a BBQ plate at Scott’s are baked beans, slaw, and white bread slices.

Frankly, there is nothing special or interesting about them, but, again, you don’t care because it is all about the BBQ.

In Charleston, people care about the whole meal.

So while there is no question that Rodney Scott makes amazing BBQ, that does not mean there are no questions about whether or not he can be successful coming into a market like Charleston.

Yes, Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que will make a splash when it launches, but only time will tell if Scott will be able to sustain that early success over time.

Here’s hoping he does.

Plans for Rodney Scott's Bar-B-Que in Charleston

Plans for Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Charleston

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