The country’s best pitmasters unite to help one of their own after B's Cracklin' Barbecue suffered serious fire damage.
“We’ve got to reopen,” pitmaster Bryan Furman says. “I would be doing Atlanta bad if I don’t reopen.”
On March 6, one week after Furman was named a James Beard Award semifinalist, his beloved B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in Atlanta’s Riverside neighborhood was severely damaged by a fire. Furman’s wife and business partner, Nikki, got a call from their security company at 2:42 a.m. Something was wrong with the sensors at B’s.
“I live like, I wanna say, 1,000 feet from the restaurant,” Furman says. “If you look out my bedroom window, you can see the top of my pit house.”
Furman rolled out of bed, peeked out the window, and saw that the pit house at B’s was aflame.
“I just threw on some clothes and jumped in the truck and ran the red light because it’s across the street,” he says.
He started spraying a fire extinguisher, and then the fire department arrived, but the blaze spread and resulted in serious damage, including a collapsed roof. The cause of the fire is still being determined.
Furman, who also has a B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in Savannah and an outpost at the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena, hopes to rebuild and reopen his destroyed restaurant. He’s also looking at other locations nearby just in case. He says he’s committed to Riverside as the place where he lives and cooks.
The crazy thing is, Furman, who’s known for making spectacular barbecue with heritage pork, has been through this before. His original B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in Savannah burned down in 2015 after a soda machine exploded. This happened not long after Southern Living named the restaurant one of the South’s top 50 barbecue joints. Furman, who ended up reopening B’s at a different Savannah location, had even more momentum on his side before this month’s Atlanta fire.
The Super Bowl was in Atlanta last month, and Furman was profiled during that February weekend by CBS This Morning, which called him the king of Atlanta barbecue’s scene. Then Martha Stewart popped by the restaurant that same weekend. Later that month, Furman was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue had previously been honored as Eater Atlanta’s restaurant of the year in 2017 before being picked by Food & Wine as Georgia’s best barbecue in 2018. A 2018 Bon Appetit profile, written by an editor who used to live in Atlanta, explained how Furman had become a local legend who hip-hop icon André 3000 was excited to meet when they ran into each other at a Whole Foods. Another prominent rapper, Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, had previously urged Furman to open a restaurant in Atlanta. Atlanta couldn’t get enough of Furman, and it seemed like more locations of B’s were on the horizon.
“I just thought this was going to be my breakout year,” says Furman, who still has an eye on expanding B’s while he works toward reopening in Riverside. “You know how it always is: As soon as you’re growing and growing, you always got something that’s going to try to set you back.”
But Furman feels like he’s in a better place than he was after the 2015 fire. He says he’ll be fine. He’s mostly been concerned with taking care of 35 employees while his restaurant is closed. He has insurance, but he knows sorting that out will take time. A couple of his Atlanta pitmasters are now cooking in Savannah.
“The staff is like family,” Furman says. “Family doesn’t just consist of blood around here.”
Furman knows he can do pop-ups if he needs to make some extra money beyond what he has in Savannah and at the Hawks arena.
“I’m not going to say it’s nothing, but I’m going to say I don’t think it’s a hard goal to accomplish,” Furman says of his plan to reopen. “That’s just cooking barbecue and making money and reopening.”
After telling me that, Furman, a former welder who learned about barbecue from his father, explains why creating a legacy with B’s is important to him.
“It’s not about being cool,” he says. “I’m not in it for the fame and glory and all that. I’m in it because it provides for my family.”
It’s about feeding his family, but that’s just the beginning of Furman’s motivation. It’s also about building something with his family. Furman and his wife run B’s together. One of Furman’s sons, 16-year-old Nasir, has been with him in the pit since the age of 12, when B’s first opened in Savannah. Furman also gets help from his 17-year-old son, Dustin. Furman’s daughter, 9-year-old Nahla, is at the restaurant when she’s in Atlanta during the summers.
Furman fully expects Nasir to be in charge of his own pits someday. The king of Atlanta barbecue, in fact, recently posted on Instagram that he can’t wait for the moment when his son’s barbecue outshines his own.
“Me showing my son how to do this is a key component that I feel our culture doesn’t show enough of,” Furman says. “That’s why our businesses never get passed down, because we don’t show them how they’re supposed to do it in the right way.”
This, ultimately, is what drives Furman. He cares deeply about his family, and he also cares deeply about the sustainability of family-owned businesses and black-owned businesses. When Matt Horn, an on-the-rise black pitmaster who has plans to open an Oakland restaurant with his wife, reached out to Furman, a bond quickly formed.
“We just talked about barbecue,” Furman says. “I was telling him how to start a business, and how he could come out here and just watch what I was doing. What I’m doing is so simple. Just go back to Cali and copy it.”
Furman likes to say that making his barbecue is a simple process, but that isn’t the same thing as saying it’s easy for anybody to do. You can copy the steps, but it requires time and the willingness to wake up early and stay up late. It requires learning how to control fires in the pit, which, Furman says, is something you don’t see much about in the YouTube videos that teach people how to make barbecue at home. It requires having the skill and discipline to deal with unpredictable weather and unforeseen circumstances. It’s about instincts, about making adjustments just based on how something feels. It’s also about keeping your head up when things are out of your control. As Furman unfortunately knows too well, you can’t always be there to battle every fire.
“How I look at barbecue is: If it’s not something that you have a passion for, it’s the wrong thing,” Furman says. “In as many days as I’ve been cooking barbecue, I’ve never had a day that was exactly like the day before.”
When you look at your life and your work this way, even something like a devastating fire just becomes another variable to overcome. And Furman knows he’s not in this alone. A GoFundMe page has been created to help B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue reopen, and some of the country’s most prominent pitmasters will be cooking to support Furman at a fundraiser at Truth BBQ in Brenham, Texas, on March 30.
Beyond Furman and Truth’s Leonard Botello IV, the lineup includes Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue (a multi-generational family business that’s Food & Wine’s pick for the best barbecue in Texas), Elliott Moss of North Carolina’s Buxton Hall Barbecue, and California stars Horn of Horn Barbecue and Burt Bakman of Slab.
“It makes me feel great and blessed,” Furman says. “I would do the same.”
He hasn’t even met Botello before, but their shared passion for their profession means they have a connection. Mueller, meanwhile, is also planning to do a pop-up with Furman in Atlanta.
“Nothing could be more simple than cooking barbecue and getting back on your feet,” Furman says. “I don’t see where this is going to hold me back at all. I’m getting some rest now. I’ve got a lot of other things coming in the works.”