Cliff Oxford: How Joe's BBQ Got Ranked the Best BBQ in the Country

Cliff Oxford

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015, based in Newton, MA announced last Wednesday that Joe’s BBQ in Blue Ridge, GA was the best BBQ restaurant in the country. That’s big news here in the South, but it went national fast. Major media like CNN, Huffington Post and Fox News poured fuel on the story by repeating it over and over.

As I have a big appetite for BBQ and fancy myself as an expert on the subject, I went to give Joe’s a try on Saturday. Unfortunately, they ran out of BBQ before I got there, two and a half hours before closing. What do you expect after being crowned the best BBQ in the nation? Instead of going home with an empty stomach, I drove about 500 yards to Mike’s Trackside BBQ and met owners Edona and Mike Ackers. When I brought up Joe’s ranking, she snapped, “We could have done the same thing with TripAdvisor TRIP -0.7%, but we want to earn our way to the top with a real open pit smoker instead of using those electric smokers like Joe and them use.” As a BBQ guy from southern Georgia, the mention of electric smokers made the hair stand up on my neck. My first and last thought, it’s not real barbeque. She continued, “Joe did that with them [TripAdvisor] because he wants to sell.” I don’t know, but I tell him he has nothing to sell but a BBQ recipe.While much of what Edona said might be true, I disagree with her. Joe does have something more to sell than a recipe. He has the #1 ranking as the best BBQ in the country – a pretty big trophy in my opinion. It also goes to show how powerful social media is in every side of business today. I mean, we’re down to the barbeque joints where social media is a make or break point whether you win big with a number 1 ranking or ignore it and go out of business. What about who has the best product? Well, the next day, I drove back to Blue Ridge to ask Joe if he wanted to sell, to also understand the criteria of how TripAdvisor made its choice, and of course, to taste what TripAdvisor claims to be the best BBQ in the nation.

First, Joe was the friendliest and most open BBQ owner I’ve ever met. I had once visited every BBQ joint in Georgia, and most of the owners hardly ever talk or say anything. Harold over at Harold’s BBQ in south Atlanta was deadly quiet. Customers would go on and on at the cash register about how much they loved his BBQ and cracklin’ cornbread. And he would just look up and say, “Thank you, ­ $7.95.”

Joe dismissed as “rumors around town” anything I mentioned to him about selling. He playfully said “I’m 69 and I don’t know what I want to do next. I was a little surprised when he told me he had never smoked any meat until he started three and a half years ago after he came out of the mortgage industry wanting to do something positive that made a difference in peoples lives. On the #1 rankings, his outlook was a little bit different from Edona’s. Joe said, “Look, we just got lucky they picked us based on our reviews. I think you have to have at least 100 reviews to qualify.” According to Market Metrics, TripAdvisor’s ratings are determined by their popularity index,­ though the particulars behind their popularity index are kept secret. When TripAdvisor makes the announcements of their rankings, they state, “rankings are largely based on quality and quantity of reviews with at least 100 reviews required.” In other words, the best BBQ restaurant in the nation is whomever TripAdvisor says it is. Let’s face it, 100 reviews is a pretty low bar, if any bar at all. Look at the chart below and you will see that TripAdvisor’s numbers don’t add up.

While Joe’s is ranked #1 and Franklin’s BBQ is ranked #9 in Austin, Texas, they have about the same number of TripAdvisor reviews. However, Franklin has 34x more Facebook Likes and food reviews. Even though Facebook has 1.3 billion users and TripAdvisor has 78 million emailable members, they wind up with basically the same number of TripAdvisor’s reviews. All these #’s have a good rhyme and rhythm, until you look closely at Joe’s TripAdvisor reviews. They are way out of proportion on the high side. Good for Joe – he must have worked on the TripAdvisor reviews to get his numbers up. To be totally open as Joe has been, you have to also note that TripAdvisor has a subsidiary that works with businesses for a fee to improve your numbers. On their website, TripAdvisor states that on a scale of 1 – 5, if you get your reviews up 1 point you will increase your revenue 11.2 percent.

Here is what all this means for business owners. Yes, social media review site like TripAdvisor is the equivalent of an electric PR smoker, but it is vastly important.

However, it has nothing to do with who has the best product. They should rename TripAdvisor’s rankings to the Top 10 Best BBQ Restaurants Utilizing TripAdvisor in the U.S., instead of the Top 10 Best BBQ Restaurants in the U.S. The current rankings are totally offensive to BBQ owners like the Sweat family in Soperton, Georgia who stand everyday over an open pit putting out a world­class product.

If TripAdvisor truly wants to crown the best BBQ restaurant in the country, I have 6 recommendations for them that go way beyond 100 reviews that could be concocted over the weekend with your closest friends, neighbors, and kids. Here are the real criteria:

  1. BBQ restaurants are automatically disqualified from the #1 ranking if they don’t serve white bread with their plates and thin buns with the sandwiches.
  2. Don’t put too much weight on the sauce. It can cover up mediocre meat. If the meat is good, the sauce will be fine.
  3. They can’t sell beer or another food like catfish. For some reason, the best BBQ places are family run operations that have been around for generations and focus solely on BBQ. When Harold Jr. was asked why he didn’t sell beer, he said “Momma won’t allow it in here with all the nieces, nephews and grandkids working.” Harold’s was started in 1947.
  4. The owner has to do two jobs – watch and turn the meat, and collect the money at the cash register, so he hears all the complaints and compliments.
  5. Lots of high heels and work boot scuffmarks on the dining room floor so you know your superior products are attracting customers from all demographic and economic levels.
  6. On the way home from eating the BBQ, female guests have to complain about the smoke smell in their hair from the open air BBQ Pit.

I’m not so sure that folks from Massachusetts should be involved in ranking the nation’s best BBQ, no more than I should be ranking black cod from white cod. BBQ is serious stuff in the South where there is ongoing war between North Carolina and Georgia over coleslaw going on top of the sandwich or the side. It came to a brawl one time I was eating BBQ in South Georgia and a guy pulled up in a car with North Carolina license plates. After he ordered, he asked for coleslaw. The owner said, “Why do you need coleslaw? We have plenty of stew.” The customer said, “I’m gonna put it on top of my sandwich.” It was the first and last time I have been anywhere near a knife fight.

By the way, I’m not so sure about the kayak and plastic fish on the walls, but Joe’s BBQ is pretty good and has a friendly wait staff. He’s feeding a lot of people and making them happy. However, TripAdvisor is feeding y’all a bunch of crow.

Used with permission. Reach Cliff at [email protected]

About Cliff Oxford

Cliff Oxford, who is founder of The Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs and writes The Next Level blog for the New York Times, started his career at U.P.S., where he developed a technologically advanced help-desk system that was recognized for saving the company more than $250 million in its first year. In 1995, he left U.P.S. to start STI Knowledge, an information technology company with offices in the United States, Britain, South Africa, India, Hong Kong and the Philippines that made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America three years in a row. After selling the company, Mr. Oxford endowed Emory University’s executive M.B.A. program and created a fully accredited Entrepreneur MBA with Brenau University. More recently, he has started an education company, the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. Its mission is to encourage business economic development by helping business owners and CEOs thrive in fast growth. Used with permission.