By Bryan Mims
To spend a day in Lexington without sampling the barbecue is to tour Napa Valley without tasting the wine. It’s Calabash without the fried shrimp, New Orleans without the gumbo, Buffalo without the wings. Saucy metaphors aside, ’cue cuisine is a must-consume around here.
For the last century, much of Lexington’s identity has glowed with oak and hickory coals, smelled of pit smoke, and dripped with sauce as red as a Piedmont dirt road. A least a dozen barbecue restaurants keep the flames burning in and around Lexington, a city of about 19,000 people just off Interstate 85 in Davidson County.
At Smiley’s Lexington Barbecue, Grayland Kennel and his wife, Lorene, are finishing their lunch when they are asked a familiar question: What is the best barbecue establishment in Lexington?
“What I’m saying is all barbecue in Lexington is good,” Grayland says. “It’s just under different names.”
Barbecue may be Lexington’s main entree in marketing itself to the multitudes, but the city brings much more to the table. Central to Lexington’s growth plans is an area along the railroad that is being transformed into an entertainment, cultural and retail hub.
Dubbed the Depot District, the project is centered around the old Dixie Furniture Co. plant. Back in its heyday, Dixie employed more than 1,000 people in 15 buildings across nine city blocks, its property straddling the Southern Railway. The factory, which was absorbed into Lexington Home Brands beginning in the late 1980s, closed in 2006 and the city bought the site the following year. About 80% of the plant’s structures will remain standing, says Tammy Absher, the city’s business and community development director.
Eventually, the sprawling complex will house restaurants, retail and residential space. Durham-based Bull City Ciderworks already has its taps filling mugs of hard cider. Another brewery, Goose and the Monkey Brew House, expects to open later this year. And in 2017, aided by funds provided by Breeden Insurance Services Inc., a local agency, the city built an amphitheater and launched an annual music festival. After a one-year hiatus due to a fire at the plant, the second Depot District Music Fest will be held in April.
A key facet of the Depot District effort is the city’s plan for an Amtrak passenger stop in Lexington. “We’ve been working on the passenger-rail stop since 2004,” Absher says, adding that she expects the project to be in “full swing” in about five years. The city is in the process of gaining consensus from key state and local agencies, a necessary step before it applies for state and federal funding.
As the Depot District works to get small businesses and entrepreneurs on board, a big international business, Austria-based Egger Group, is getting to work on its $700 million plant at the I-85 Corporate Center just southwest of town. The family-owned company is one of the world’s top suppliers of wood-based materials for furniture and flooring. This will be its first North American facility, with plans to employ as many as 770 people.
Construction of the plant began in November, and production is expected to start in 2020. The company also is building a corporate office in Lexington.
Before barbecue heaped food fame onto Lexington, furniture and textiles were the economic bread and butter. Cotton mills named Wennonah, Nokomis, Erlanger and Dacotah each employed hundreds of workers through most of the 20th century. Furniture-makers including Dixie, Hoover Chair Co., Lexington Chair Co. and United Furniture Industries also built a big presence here in the early 1900s.
By the mid-1990s, facing increased technology and cheaper imports, many textile companies and furniture makers began sending jobs overseas. Between 2003 and 2005 alone, Davidson County lost more than 2,000 furniture positions. “There was an exodus of people associated with those jobs,” Absher says.
United Furniture is still in business, and the Erlanger textile plant operates under the banner of Gastonia-based yarn manufacturer Parkdale Mills. Still, traditional furniture and textiles will never again be the frame and fabric of the local economy. That means Lexington needed to do some rearranging to get people back in the door. Uptown Lexington, a nonprofit, has spent years polishing up Main Street, recruiting new businesses and showcasing the old. This being the self-styled “Barbecue Capital of the World,” it launched an arts initiative called Pigs in the City, planting full-size ornamental pigs on street corners and at storefronts, perfect for selfies.
On weekends, Main Street brims with daytrippers. Inside The Candy Factory, the wooden floor creaks beneath the crowds as they shuffle past the chocolate-coated pretzels and jelly-bean dispensers. Along with gobs of chocolate, the store offers Red Bird mint puffs made at the local Piedmont Candy Co. In November, three sisters sold this Lexington landmark to Wynn and Annette Conrad. “If you’re having a bad day and you walk in here, usually it’s a little better when you leave,” Annette says.
Across the street at the Conrad & Hinkle Food Market, the raved-about homemade pimento cheese keeps patrons smiling. “We’ve got a lot of regular customers, but I always see new customers every week,” says owner Lee Hinkle, whose grandfather, E. Odell Hinkle, started the store with his partner, W.E. Conrad, in 1919.
People also come to Lexington to admire the landscape paintings and home furnishings of native son Bob Timberlake, whose gallery on East Center Street Extension opened in 1997. They come to uncork wine bottles at Childress Vineyards, located off U.S. 52 northwest of town and owned by NASCAR racing team owner Richard Childress.
And, of course, they come for the ’cue. Cooking barbecue the time-honored way — with wood and smoke — is time-consuming, and many restaurants across the state have abandoned the sooty pits for electric or gas cookers. “It’s hard work, and it’s costly. That’s why so many places have gotten away from it,” says 57-year-old Steve Yountz, who opened Smiley’s Lexington Barbecue in 2002. As he stands at the kitchen window, the pit door opens behind him, revealing charred pork shoulders arranged like biscuits in an oven. “Gas or electric, you can turn it on and forget about it,” though Yountz doesn’t plan to make the switch. “Not unless I’m made to. I don’t see that happening.”
Named for Lexington, Mass., site of the first battle of the American Revolution, Lexington became synonymous with barbecue near the end of World War I. That’s when local pitmaster mavericks infused tomato paste or ketchup into the state’s signature vinegar sauce. They cooked shoulders rather than whole hogs, as is custom in the eastern half of the state. Thus commenced the eastern-western barbecue debate, the great divide that unites North Carolinians in good-natured ribbing over their beloved grub.
Barbecue made Lexington as a foodie destination, so the pork, red dipping sauce and red, mayo-free slaw are nutrients for the economy. When USA Today and the Huffington Post rank you among the top spots in the country for barbecue, the reputation builds. “It’s a staple for us, in terms of tourism,” Absher says. “It hasn’t diminished in its importance, but we’ve had a lot of other things to join it.”
Lexington celebrates its barbecue bona fides with the yearly Barbecue Festival, which takes place on a Saturday in late October. This year, it’s scheduled for Oct. 26. The inaugural event in 1984 drew about 30,000 people. Nowadays, the street festival attracts upward of 150,000 people. The festival also aims to bridge the east-west barbecue divide by hosting the North Carolina Championship Pork Cook-Off, pitting eastern whole-hoggers against the hot shoulders of the western chefs.
No, Lexington isn’t all about barbecue. You can eat Italian, or dine on salmon and tilapia at the stylish Café 35. But to stop in Lexington without a visit to Lexington Barbecue, the Barbecue Center, Speedy’s, Smiley’s, Smokey Joe’s or Kerley’s is to miss out on a savory piece of the community’s soul — one that can never be outsourced.