This Georgia Pitmaster Wants to Build a Pig-Farming Empire
The path from welder to pitmaster might seem like an odd one. But for Bryan Furman, who worked in construction before opening B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in Georgia, pork runs in the family.
As a kid growing up in the Carolinas, Furman would spend time on his grandfather’s farm, where penned hogs literally ran wild. On special occasions, relatives would butcher a pig and roast it over coals, giving him a glimpse of what it takes to put pork on the table from an early age.
“Watching my uncles splitting pigs down the middle, you learn where to pop them in the head and cut the throat,” Furman says. “I just learned that growing up.”
Now 36, Furman runs arguably one of the best barbecue joints in the state of Georgia. His pitmaster ambitions started in 2011, when his interest in heritage breed hogs was piqued by a TV segment featuring Andrew Zimmern. Two years later, Furman took the plunge and purchased 13 hogs, which quickly multiplied to 70, including heritage breeds like Chester White, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Berkshire Duroc, and Large Black. He started roasting them for friends and catering events; business eventually took off enough that he left his construction job and opened B’s Cracklin’ with his wife, Nikki, in Savannah in 2014 (it expanded to a second Atlanta location last year).
Initially, Furman’s locally-raised pork was a tough sell. Farm-to-table sensibilities hadn’t yet caught on in Savannah, and most diners balked at their premium prices. The barbecue norm was a rack of rubbery ribs cooked using set-it-and-forget it-style gas smokers, not the type of ’cue that makes the pages of Southern Living magazine. But before the media accolades, what won the town over was some good, old-fashioned salesmanship.
“Savannah hadn’t caught up yet. When people saw the prices, they’d say, ‘Hold up,’” Furman says. His plates cost $13 to $18, a far cry from the typical $5 racks. “We used to give out free samples. We had to let people see what they were getting.”
All the pork at B’s Cracklin’ comes from hogs raised on Furman’s farm, where they’re fattened to a weight of 275-300lbs on a diet of mixed grain. Because of B’s success, Furman’s friend now manages the farm, but he still makes the hour-long drive to pick up the butchered meat. Once in the kitchen, each 100lb half gets a salt rub to help the skin hold up to the heat inside the offset smokers, which burn whole logs of oak, pecan, and cherry wood (the latter of which is a nuisance for local farmers, who are happy to get rid of it).
Nine to 12 hours later, those pigs have turned into some of the best pork you’ll ever taste. Although Furman is quick to shrug off the mystique surrounding barbecuing, the non-stop work required contributes to his thin and lanky frame, which is almost the antithesis of the typical burly pitmaster.
“People say it's so difficult, but you just throw the meat on the smoker and cook it until it's done,” Furman says. “It takes a lot of practice... it’s an art more than it is anything else.”
That practice has made for perfect bites, and we’re not just talking about pork. Part of the appeal of B’s Cracklin’ is that they aren’t boxing themselves into one regional style. In addition to pork, the restaurant also cooks chicken and brisket, with sauces on the table -- but never served on the meat. Like most pitmasters, Furman views sauce as a crutch to make up for a lack of flavor in the meat. Still, he’s happy to offer three options: Spicy vinegar, peach mustard, and Georgia red sauce, allowing customers to mix and match flavors.
His menu’s popularity has put B’s Cracklin’ at the top of the Georgia barbecue scene, as well as earned it national accolades, like making Thrillist’s list of the top 33 barbecue joints in America last year. This past spring, the restaurant held a spot in BBQ Alley at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, where Furman manned a Big Green Egg and cooked up a brisket moist and flavorful enough to impress even the snobbiest Texas barbecue connoisseur (yours truly).
Given that B’s Cracklin’ expanded to a second location after just two years in business, it might seem like the Furmans have had a quick road to success, but it hasn’t been without adversity. In 2015, their original Savannah restaurant burned down due to faulty wiring in their soft drink machine. For a small business just on the verge of popularity, it was a huge blow.
“When we started, it was just all me and my wife’s money, no loans or anything,” Furman says.
They got back on their feet with help from the city of Savannah and other area restaurants like Southern Soul Barbeque, which helped organize pop-up events and fundraisers. Four months later, B’s reopened in a new Savannah location and the crowds quickly returned. Despite growing demand, the restaurant still cooks a limited amount of food every day and once they sell out -- sometimes as early as 2pm on the weekends -- it’s gone.
That might change, though, if B’s expansion plans continue. Although he’s still in the earliest stages, one of Furman’s goals is to bring his whole-hog cooking style to places unfamiliar with it (like cities farther north), and use new locations as a way to grow the farming side of the operation so that he can continue supplying all his own pork. It’s a business strategy that’s hard to argue against -- most pitmasters pay upwards of $3 a pound for their pork, but through B’s integrated supply chain, their costs amount to about $1 a pound.
Though pig farming might seem like an unlikely endgame for a pitmaster, Furman now sees it as a natural progression, even if it never seemed like a possibility when he was younger.
“Part of growing up is learning different things from different people,” he says. “I didn’t know that I’d be a farmer raising my own pigs for a barbecue joint. I didn’t think that’d ever be the case.”