Fire it up: Outdoor grilling law opens up new options for Asheville restaurateurs

SMOKE SIGNALS: Dustin McMillan tends the smoker on the patio outside Gan Shan Station. Since passage of new state legislation in May that allows outdoor grilling at restaurants, Gan Shan Station has implemented a charcoal grill for smoking meats, charring peppers and more.
SMOKE SIGNALS: Dustin McMillan tends the smoker on the patio outside Gan Shan Station. Since passage of new state legislation in May that allows outdoor grilling at restaurants, Gan Shan Station has implemented a charcoal grill for smoking meats, charring peppers and more. Photo by Cindy Kunst

“I don’t know of anyone who is taking advantage of this law, let alone if anyone really knows about it around here,” says Foothills Meats owner Casey McKissick, almost beaming with excitement. On the verge of opening two new brick-and-mortar locations — one in West Asheville and one in Black Mountain — to serve his legendary Cubans, burgers and scratch-made hot dogs, McKissick recently learned of the passage of a new law that could stand to make his business a little easier to manage.

SB-24, better known as the Grill Bill, had its fair share of fanfare in the eastern part of the state but has slipped into effect rather quietly here in Western North Carolina. Lobbied for by the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and sponsored by Sens. Tom McInnis, Jeff Tarte and Jim Davis, the bill, which was unanimously passed by both the state House and Senate at the end of May, makes it legal for restaurants to use grills outdoors, provided there is a commercial kitchen on the premises.

There are a number of stipulations: The grill must be stainless steel or cast iron, rest on a concrete pad, be 10 feet from any combustible structures, and closed and covered when not in operation, and any food cooked on it must be prepared inside a kitchen first.

“I think it is a very democratic way to relieve some of the regulations that I don’t think are necessary,” says McKissick, who adds that he believes the law is simply common sense. “If people are already handling food in their establishment in a safe fashion, then they can also handle this. So I think it is a refreshing step away from being a nanny state when it comes to food regulation. I think it is fantastic.”

Restaurants and caterers had previously been allowed to use outdoor grills through a Temporary Food Service Establishment Permit, most often used during festivals and block parties. “All festival food vendors get TFEs,” McKissick explains. “So you get a permit, you set your grill up under the tent, you have to have your hand-washing stations and all that stuff. It costs $75 to do it, and it has to be centered around an event. But this new law really relaxes that a little bit, to where you can cook a steak on your grill and serve it at your restaurant.”

According to McInnis, who represents Richmond County, which is midway between Charlotte and Fayetteville, the bill was intended to boost small businesses. “The genesis for the outdoor grilling bill is a small, family-owned restaurant that needed the ability to attract new and regular customers,” he says. “Prior to the passage of Senate Bill 24, a restaurant could not cook outside and bring the food back inside to sell unless they were a barbecue restaurant that was grandfathered. … This law will allow for all types of special events where the restaurant or food service establishment can add additional income. The outdoor grilling law is a win-win for the public, the restaurants and the providers of raw products.”

Both McKissick and chef Patrick O’Cain, owner of Gan Shan Station, were informed of the bill’s passage by Felissa Vasquez, the food and lodging supervisor for Buncombe County Health and Human Services. O’Cain has already started putting a grill to use outside his Charlotte Street establishment.

“I don’t know of anyone else using it now,” he says. “We have started doing a lot of outdoor charcoal cooking on grills — smoking meats, charring peppers and a bunch of different stuff. It really allows us to get a flavor that we haven’t been able to get before, because we didn’t have a hood that was rated for it, nor was outdoor cooking legal at that point. We just have it set up right outside the door under a covered area, which is great, because everyone comes in that door, and it is a conversation starter. Everyone wants to know what’s cooking.”

Other local restaurateurs do seem to have at least a cursory interest in taking advantage of the new legislation. “We have received a few inquiries regarding the bill, mostly seeking guidance for compliance,” says Vasquez. “We want to be able to assist permitted establishments that would like to begin grilling outside. We strongly encourage permitted establishments to contact their local environmental health division before purchasing or constructing something that might not be in compliance with the new rule.”

McKissick observes that the freedom to use outdoor smokers and grills has the potential to totally change the way restaurant kitchens can be run. “Now, technically, someone could open up a new barbecue restaurant and just set their smoker up outside, and it would be perfectly legal,” he says. In South Carolina, it is common to see smokers out in front of a restaurant. Neighborhood joints like True BBQ in Columbia, S.C., often place them in the parking lot by the front door as a point of pride.

It is also worth noting that many restaurants in Asheville have no choice but to cook without grills or fryers because installing hoods in ground-floor storefronts often requires costly alterations to the floors above. This law could give those kitchens a lot more flexibility. “Now a restaurant that can’t build a hood and has to cook everything on a panini press could technically have barbecue all of a sudden,” says McKissick. But he also points out, “We’re still not sure how the fire marshal factors into it — especially within the city limits — and those types of things.”

O’Cain adds that some kitchens, like Buxton Hall Barbecue, have had to invest in massive hood systems that are built for solid fuels in order to achieve wood-fired flavors. The new law, “removes the need for that so that you can do it on a smaller scale,” he says. “We do all of our pork shoulder smoked now; we do smoked half chickens that turn out pretty nicely. We do peppers and charred eggplant — it is certainly having an effect on the menu. … Something that would normally smoke up the entire restaurant we can now do outside, and that allows us to do a lot more with a little.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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