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Salt + Smoke

The barbecue scene is sizzling at Salt + Smoke in St. Louis, Missouri, where 'cue has deep roots.

Salt + Smoke Barbecue elevates the form while staying true to its soul. We chatted with owner Tom Schmidt to unlock his secrets.

How would you describe Salt + Smoke barbecue in three words?

Friendly backyard barbecue. It’s a full-service restaurant, and with our red-checked linens and bistro lights draped above, it’s like you’re eating a picnic under the stars. The staff is friendly and engaged, and we have a great time. We also work hard to put out the best barbecue possible. We take that seriously.

Where does your restaurant fit into the city’s crowded barbecue scene?

Barbecue has a long, rich history here, rooted in the Midwest cattle-processing industry and the African American culture of coal-driven roadside stands. But in the last 10 years, it seems like barbecue has taken over the entire town. Many owners—myself included—made a contemporary push, with full-service restaurants where you’re not getting your food handed to you on a tray and piling coleslaw out of a tub. At Salt + Smoke, we make everything from scratch, from fries to pies.

You opened in 2014, and by the end of 2018 you’ll have three locations. That’s a lot of meat!

We have five pits working 24-7 to keep up with demand. So we’ll put on the pork butts at 1 p.m. to come out at 6 the next morning, then put on the briskets at 3 p.m. to come out at 6:30 the next morning. Then we put on a couple rounds of ribs and chicken, wings and salmon, and try to finish all that to get the pork butts in at 1 p.m. again. This Saturday, we’ll smoke about 8,000 pounds of meat just for that day.

What is Salt + Smoke’s signature dish?

Brisket is definitely what we’re known for. But the menu is like a greatest hits album. Our St. Louis ribs—I think they’re the best in town. We also make a jalapeno-Cheddar bologna from scratch. We smoke huge logs of it, then slice off thick slabs and pan-fry it to order. That’s a sleeper on the menu. People who have tried everything else, they try it and say, “Why didn’t we have this the first time? I’m never going to get anything else again.””

What’s the key to great brisket?

We only source prime brisket, and we smoke it for 14 to 16 hours over post oak. We offer fatty or lean cuts as well as burnt ends because we’re doing the whole primal cut. A lot of restaurants just do the flats; we make the whole brisket. And we require a minimum of 21 days of wet aging, which helps develop that deep, beefy, ironlike flavor and makes the beef really tender.

How has Sysco been a key partner in your success?

I’ll give you one example: We continuously check out all the meat options in the market, and several years ago, we found a prime cut of brisket that we felt was the best thing out there. But the purveyor wasn’t in Sysco’s normal scope. Being a good partner, our local Sysco supplier began sourcing that meat just for our restaurant. Then Sysco ages it for 21 days at their warehouse before they ship it to us.

What else do you buy from Sysco?

It really is everything, from ramekins to racks of ribs. We’re about to get our first shipment of branded wet wipes. Sysco found a producer and worked out the contract, and they’re going to warehouse the 500,000 we ordered and send us cases as needed. Also, we were breaking 2,000 pint glasses a quarter. We worked with them to create a logo’d cup that’s durable and looks cool. Over three months, they presented 27 options until we found the one that worked with our aesthetic. With Sysco, it’s not just, “We have this salt or that salt.” They’ll actually go out and create solutions for you.