Scoop: Barbecue heavyweights will launch a true Carolina ‘cue festival this May

Left to right: B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue founder Bryan Furman, Master Blend Family Farms owner Ronald Simmons and Sweet Lew’s owner Lewis Donald are all part of a new barbecue festival. Photo Courtesy of Lewis Donald

Lewis Donald’s barbecue life is more about friendships than meat.

From early in his career as an apprentice at the Greenbrier Resort to his own Sweet Lew’s Barbecue in the Belmont neighborhood today, the meat’s always been secondary to good company.

So anybody who knows him will hardly be surprised by this news: Donald’s rounding up his pals to bring a true regional ‘cue festival to Charlotte this May, with all proceeds going to charity.

The Carolina Barbecue Festival, built entirely around pork, slated for May 22 at Camp North End, will include an all-star list of pitmasters and owners from North and South Carolina:

Why it matters: Charlotte has long been thought of as an OK-at-best barbecue city in a proud barbecue state. Now, on a Sunday in May, it’ll be a gathering spot for the best of two states.

What to expect: For a $75 general admission pass, you get four hours of beer, music and three distinct types of barbecue, at Camp North End’s Boileryard:

  • Furman and Nelson will cook whole hog with a South Carolina mustard-based sauce.
  • Monk and Moss will be doing pork shoulders with Piedmont-style red sauce.
  • And Matthew Shepard of Emerald Isle’s Shepard Barbecue, along with Matthew Register of Garland’s Southern Smoke BBQ, will be doing vinegar-based eastern North Carolina style.
  • Master Blend Family Farm, a family-owned farm in Kenansville, N.C., will contribute the hogs.
  • And Donald and Kirkman will be doing a VIP event with their barbecue and oysters for $150 per ticket.
Lexington Barbecue

Chopped sandwich at Lexington Barbecue. Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

Of note: The proceeds will help nonprofits Piedmont Culinary Guild, World Central Kitchen and Operation Barbecue Relief.

  • Live music will include: Emanuel Wynter, Justin Fedor & The Denim Denim, DJ That Guy Smitty and Carolina Gator Gumbo.

What he’s saying: “It’s barbecue-focused. The beer and music is secondary,” Donald told me yesterday. “It’s continuing the heritage. One of our slogans is ‘Divided By Sauce, United By Coals.’ Yeah we may use different sauces, but we’re all doing the same thing. It’s mass production barbecue vs. slow and steady. We’re slow and steady.”

whole hog barbecue at Sweet Lew's

Whole hog barbecue at Sweet Lew’s. Photo courtesy of Lewis Donald

Backstory: Donald founded Sweet Lew’s in 2018 after working for several years at Reid’s. Before that he spent a career traveling across the country learning recipes and techniques from some of the leaders in smoking.

  • When he opened, he wanted it to be one of those small joints that stopped serving when the food ran out each day — sort of like Jon G’s does on Saturday.
  • But Charlotte “is just a totally different market,” Donald told me. And soon people started complaining about showing up to find the restaurant was out of this meat or that meat, so he changed the approach.
  • He donates hundreds of meals each year to charities like Heal Charlotte and World Central Kitchen.

Between the lines: The Carolina Barbecue festival will create an interesting complement for the traveling Beer, Bourbon and Barbecue Festival that will be in Ballantyne the day before, May 21.

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