Is Minnesota’s Health Code Stifling a BBQ Renaissance?

Is Minnesota’s Health Code Stifling a BBQ Renaissance?

Barbecue purveyors in the Twin Cities say yes.

For a long time, all it took to sell barbecue in the Twin Cities was a sweet-tangy sauce and fall-off-the-bone ribs—what longtime Market Barbecue owner Steve Polski referred to as the “boiled and baked” school of ’cue.

But at the pigtail of a national barbecue renaissance, several purveyors have brought a more authentic style to the metro area, including Q Fanatic (in Champlin and Minneapolis) and Revival (St. Paul and Minneapolis), while Market is relocating its pit smoker to Northeast Minneapolis and Travail in Robbinsdale prepares to open a smoked meat emporium.

Operators say this renaissance of authentic smoked barbecue has been slow in coming due to state and county codes, which are structured to avoid fire and exhaust rather than foster a great barbecue culture.

Charles Johnson, owner/operator of Q Fanatic, which recently expanded to far South Minneapolis, argues that health codes requiring smokers to be surrounded by walls and thus extensively vented (rather than sit outdoors, as is typical in much of the U.S.) add cost and complexity to every barbecue startup. And many commercial smokers are not designed to comply with Minnesota code.

“I had to buy a trailer for my smoker [to comply with code] because the [alternative] was walls and a ceiling,” he notes. Johnson complains that state and Minneapolis code are often more stringent than federal health code, and the state code is too infrequently updated to reflect changes in technology and knowledge about food safety.

Minnesota’s code for food has not been updated since 1998, but it will change in 2019, says the Minnesota Department of Health’s Steven Diaz. He says the department is now committed to updating its code as the federal code is updated every other year.

Diaz admits that code for smokers is difficult to create and that often optimal operating parameters run afoul of other state and city rules, such as fire codes.

Complaints include inspectors who are ignorant of real-world factors related to smoker operation and safety and who approach restaurateurs with a combative rather than problem-solving approach. One local barbecue operator suggested there have been several local startups that never got off the ground when new entrants realized the up-front costs they faced to comply with all the local codes related to smoking. Based on conversations with the parties, it doesn’t sound like a great solution is in the offing.