Looking back more than 20 years when Brian Bailey hatched the idea for Old Carolina Barbecue Company, he set out to introduce authentic ‘cue flavors to the Canton area. He remembers asking his mom to make barbecue for childhood birthday meals — though during his travels later in life, he realized that the Crock-Pot, boiled and baked version from home was not the “real deal.”
So when an abrupt layoff occurred in 1999, Brian explored other options. He landed another position in his field of software development, and he often treated clients to barbecue lunches. The most pivotal lunch, he recalls, was at a local joint in St. Louis called Bandana’s.
“There was a wraparound porch with wood piled up out front, the place was packed, the food was great, and as we sat at a lunch counter looking across an open kitchen, it dawned on me that Canton, Ohio, didn’t have any really good barbecue restaurants,” he says.
This moment grew into what is now a robust restaurant and catering business with six corporate locations, two franchise operations and a presence at hundreds of events each year. This year, it celebrates 20 years in business with a renewed focus on growth, including new restaurant openings on the horizon.
Cooking Up a Plan
When Brian realized he wanted to go into the restaurant business, he immediately reached out to Tim Hug, his high school friend, then also a regional manager at Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. The two visited Brian’s favorite barbecue restaurants in the Carolinas — a long-distance tasting quest to figure out the best Q and how to serve it.
“We learned from second- and third-generation pitmasters about low and slow cooking over hickory wood,” Brian says, adding that they also interviewed participants at Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Festival Ribs Burnoff. “Those vendors kept telling us to forget about a restaurant because it was too much work. Instead, competitive ribbing was the way to go."
They invested $13,562 in a smoker on a trailer and practiced all winter for their first event in July 2003 in downtown Akron. At the end of the summer, they won the Rookies of the Year Award. The next year launched a remarkable winning streak: nine People’s Choice Awards during 11 years of participating in the Canton Rib Burnoff.
The early success confirmed that it was time to try a storefront. The duo opened Old Carolina Barbecue in Massillon in 2006. Later that year, they planted a restaurant in Belden Village. By the time the third restaurant opened in Akron three years later, the business was big enough to support both of their families.
In fact, it supports many families as an employer offering a rewarding workplace, career opportunities and a fun, engaging environment. Brooke Guiley joined the team in 2016 after enlisting in Old Carolina to cater her wedding the previous fall. Today, she is director of catering services.
“Brian and Tim have infused that southern hospitality into the company culture — it’s so welcoming,” she says.
The South Carolina vibe rubs off on customers. Guiley shares how she was waiting at the airport for a flight, sitting at a restaurant table. The waitress circled back a few times, and Guiley knew she recognized her.
Guiley asked, “Have you ever ordered anything from Old Carolina Barbecue?”
With a huge grin, the waitress replied, “Yes! You catered my wedding!”
Guiley went on to recite the wedding date, linens colors and menu. “At that point, we were doing about 200 weddings a year, but whether they book a month prior to their event or a full year, I invest in every couple and we keep that communication and build relationships," she says.
That’s the Old Carolina way.
Love at First Bite
Why Carolina style barbecue? The region’s slow-cooked meat has a distinct taste and process. Brooke points to the vinegar-based sauces, which Old Carolina restaurants display in a self-serve sauce bar that allows guests to dress their own smoked meats. Plus, there’s the cooking method: low, slow and over hickory wood. There’s no rush in preparation, with a smoking time of up to 14 hours.
“It’s truly authentic,” Brooke says.
Brian adds, “I’ve eaten at many of the legendary barbecue restaurants in all regions of the country, including Texas, Kansas City, Alabama and Memphis. What drew me to the barbecue of North and South Carolina — even more so than the hickory-smoked taste of the pork — was the passion of the people about their local region’s take on barbecue.”
For instance, eastern North Carolinians use a vinegar-based sauce on chopped pork from whole hogs. In the western part of the state, a tomato-based sauce is poured over pork pulled from butts. In the central region, pork shoulders are the most popular with a tomato-vinegar sauce blend.
“Barbecue restaurants in parts of South Carolina won’t even have a tomato-based sauce on the table and instead offer multiple variations of mustard-based sauces,” Brian says.
At Old Carolina Barbecue, plenty of hungry diners and critics have claimed it the best. “It feels great when we get those five-star reviews, and we are regularly listed as one of the top 10 or 20 barbecue chains in the country,” Brian says.
Maintaining quality is a priority. That’s why Old Carolina has a “Love at First Bite or We’ll Make It Right” promise.
“All of our team members love our barbecue and know what a perfect pulled pork sandwich looks like,” Brian says. “If something doesn’t look as good as they want it to be, we empower them to redo it.”
The restaurant concept itself is simple and focused on the food. The stores offer counter service — inspired from the early festival days — and there’s a tangible emphasis on hospitality like what Brian and Tim experienced while touring the South.
Speaking of hospitality, the growing catering business has also amplified Old Carolina’s presence in the community.
“Being involved in the community is the most rewarding part of what we do,” Brian says, relating that the company donates to school fundraisers and speaks at nonprofit events.
He recalls catering for 4,500 people at Lebron James’ welcome home party at University of Akron in 2014.
“It took lots of planning, food delivered from four Old Carolina locations, and lots of staffing to make everything run smoothly,” Brian says.
The company has served food to celebrities like George Wendt and Robert Irvine, along with music groups like The Spin Doctors, Gin Blossoms, Black Keys, and Hootie and the Blowfish. And athletes visiting or being inducted into the Hall of Fame often stop into Old Carolina for some ‘cue.
But what Brian loves most is the diversity of guests. “I love walking into an Old Carolina and seeing a mix of people that enjoy our restaurant,” he says. “You regularly see blue collar workers on a lunch break in Carhartts and boots sharing dining room space with lawyers in suits discussing a business deal, families with small children spreading sauce on their faces, and retirees splitting a pulled pork sandwich and banana pudding.”
The Secret Sauce
Sustaining a successful restaurant operation isn’t easy. And Old Carolina has managed through tough times and continues to grow. Namely, Brian points to the pandemic and credits community support. “Fortunately, we were built to handle the demands of carryout and delivery,” he says.
While catering events were put on the back burner, everyday business boomed. And, the following two years introduced greater challenges in the hospitality industry, in general. “In 2021, we faced the Great Resignation, when employees quit working or job-hopped for unmatchable higher pay,” Brian relates. “We adopted a new pay scale and many of our employees came back and have stayed with us.”
Supply chain issues were also a concern. “In 2022, we had consumers ready to spend and staffing to handle the orders, but the prices of commodities skyrocketed and key products were often not available,” he says.
Through it all, Old Carolina continues to polish its systems and adhere to its quality policies. “We are now focused on using technology to tighten our training systems to ensure consistency and repeatability across all eight locations,” Brian explains.
Old Carolina will continue to celebrate its anniversary on July 20 for $5 BBQ Bowls and Aug. 20 for $20 Family Meal Packs. The company also has giveaways like sunglasses and frisbees. “Guests can register to win free barbecue for a year, plus other great prize packages,” Brian says, thanking the community for its support.
“Canton and all of Stark County is a community that goes out of its way to support local businesses,” he says. “The residents here appreciate honest and hardworking people delivering a quality product. We do have a lot of national chains in town, but I am grateful when fans notice which companies are quick to give back, and that has always been our philosophy.”
"Brian and Tim have infused southern hospitality into the company culture — it's so welcoming."
— Brooke Guiley, Director of Catering Services