Great barbecue brings people together, whether they favor Texas mesquite-smoked brisket, sweet Memphis ribs or Carolina vinegar-soaked pulled pork. At Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters, a diverse group of employees each has their own idea of barbecue and The Q, a smokin’ hot concept, has been hitting all the taste buds (even for vegans!)
Stepping back to The Q’s beginning, Microsoft’s Eurest culinary team knew they needed a smoker, because where there’s no smoke, there’s no true ‘cue.
“The Q originated in one of our café remodels [Café 112 in 2015] when we decided we wanted to do barbecue,” says Mark Freeman, senior manager of global dining services at Microsoft. “We had been looking to put a smoker inside the café, but we thought different. So we now have our smoker in a separate location, the catering commissary,” allowing for more space (the smoker handles 750 pounds of meat at a time) and cuts down on the smoke permeating the air inside the café.
Once the smoker was in place, it was time to light the fire of barbecue. Craig Tarrant, regional culinary director with Eurest, did some tasty research and development at a barbecue competition in Memphis, learning about real-deal brines, rubs, sauce and sides from veteran pitmasters.
Tarrant decided that Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas barbecue would be the three main pillars of the concept, chosen in part because of the different woods represented in each barbecue style.
“We wanted to make sure we had regions that focused on different wood types,” Tarrant says. “From a flavor/culinary perspective, that’s what drew us to these different regions.”
In a smart menu move, the three regions aren’t mashed up together; they rotate every week, swapping out the regional styles, meats (and plant-based protein) and all the tempting sides that go with them.
“The reason we rotate is that we know variety drives sales,” Tarrant says, adding that one of the initial goals of the concept was to enhance customer variety perception. Here’s the breakdown of the menu rotations:
· Carolina BBQ: This succulent meat is coated in a brown sugar-spice rub, slow-smoked over hickory then seasoned with vinegar or mustard. Menu items include: pulled pork, Charleston mustard chicken, Carolina Gold hickory smoked brisket and smoked tempeh steak. Sides include bacon-braised greens, corn on the cob, two types of slaw, mac ‘n cheese salad and cornbread (a favorite of both Freeman and Tarrant).
· Texas BBQ: Mesquite-smoked meats have a bit of sweetness. Menu items include brisket, chicken, baby back ribs and smoked tofu. Sides include cowboy beans, roasted red potatoes, corn salad and slaw.
· Tennessee BBQ: Meats are hickory and cherry smoked, featuring pork spareribs, chicken, brisket and smoked-tofu stuffed bell peppers. Sides include hoppin’ John, BBQ spaghetti, potato salad and cucumber salad.
The meats are sold as small plates ($5.95), full plates ($7.95) and as a sandwich ($5.95). The check average is $6.41 on 64 daily transactions. Customer feedback has been so positive that after the first location of The Q opened, several more followed, including the innovative shipping container spot that makes for a unique user experience.
“We have an outdoor meeting space with conference room treehouses,” Freeman says. “We were searching our brains and getting creative and saw that a shipping container had the opportunity to go with Café 31.”
So, working with a local firm that specializes in converting shipping containers into usable business space, the Microsoft team designed the pod version of The Q. Adjusting the temperature of the structure has been a challenge, Freeman says, and heating and cooling systems had to be installed and that getting a pod up and running “wasn’t all roses and cake.” But it’s been worth it, Freeman says, since the result has become the jewel of Microsoft’s barbecue offerings, a one-of-a-kind outdoor scene.
“The barbecue concept really fits with the rustic, treehouse setting,” Freeman says. In an employee survey, one Microsoft worker raved, “The outdoor barbecue is sincerely the highlight of my life here at MSFT!” A prime example of what great barbecue can do.