DG MARTIN COLUMN: A great Black-owned barbecue in trouble

Two years ago a Durham restaurant, Backyard Barbecue, gained national attention for being featured in “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue” by Adrian Miller.

Miller believes that the story of the American tradition of barbecue cannot be told without attention to Black-owned barbecue establishments. He thinks African American barbecuers are not getting the recognition they deserve.

On his short list of favorite African American barbecue restaurants, two are in North Carolina: Backyard BBQ Pit in Durham and Grady’s Bar-B-Q in Dudley near Goldsboro.

When you see Backyard’s rustic building about a mile from the intersection of N.C. 54 and N.C. 55, not far from I-40 Exit 278, it may remind you of the unpretentious location in Netflix’s still popular “House of Cards” where Freddie Hayes served up racks of ribs to the fictional South Carolina congressman and soon-to-be-president Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey.

On my first trip to Backyard, I ordered a working man’s special barbecue sandwich with hushpuppies and baked beans. I paid $4.99 plus $1.29 for a small glass of iced tea. A delicious bargain.

The restaurant is not slick. It is just the opposite, deliberately, like an old roadside café from 75 years ago. The walls are covered with magic-marker comments from prior customers attesting to the good food. “We are a barbecue restaurant, but we serve lots of other foods that our customers enjoy.”

Though the decor is far from fancy, there is something hanging on the wall that many popular barbecue places lack: a certificate from the Campaign for Real Barbecue attesting that Backyard meets the standards of the very few barbecue restaurants that cook their barbecue slowly over wood coals.

I learned last week that Backyard is in trouble.

A family member explained in a “Go Fund Me” (https://gofund.me/bd667d3b) appeal: “My name is Fabianne Simmons, one of the proud owners of Backyard BBQ Pit. We are proud to say that annually for 16 years we have fed our community free of pride and with dedication for our once-a-year customer appreciation day. Our notoriety stretches from East coast to West and in a couple of cases internationally! We have been featured on Yahoo, Yahoo Travel as the #1 BBQ in North Carolina, Southern Living as the best Eastern style BBQ, Man v. Food and much more! But with all the sweetness we’ve come to a rough patch.

“Currently, we are in a very distressed situation. On top of rising food costs and striving to recover from the pandemic, Durham’s hole in the wall is starting to cave in. Our equipment is outdated and as a result, we have been struggling to keep the doors open. We were not fortunate to receive any of the grant assistance many restaurants were gifted so we turn to you our family. With your help, we can come back strong and keep Backyard here in Durham where it belongs.

“Your prayers and donations will be much appreciated. Our goal is 50k to aid us in purchasing new equipment and necessary renovations. Please Help us to keep Backyard alive!”

When I first checked the GoFundMe web page, there were only a few reported donations — nowhere near the $50,000 goal.
It was a sad day, and I gave up hope that Backyard could survive.

But when I checked the next day, donations had grown to well over $20,000, and new donations were flowing in.

A successful fundraiser does not guarantee a successful future, but with so many fans who care enough to donate, I am betting that Backyard survives and thrives.

Raleigh lawyer Hugh Stevens agrees. He wrote me, “Over New Year’s we fed our children and grandchildren on their ribs, barbecue (pork and turkey), collards, and mac&cheese and sent them home happy.”

Next time you are close by, stop at Backyard and help them celebrate.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”