Barbecue has been a tradition in North Carolina for some time, but Lexington’s The Barbecue Center has over 60 years of family history that separates them from the pack.
Michael Conrad, co-owner of the Barbecue Center, took over the family business with his brother, Cecil, in 2013. This changing of the guard occurred after their father, Sonny Conrad, died from a disease called polymyositis, which he struggled with for a number of years until eventual lung failure at 75. Michael had always planned to continue what his father started, but thankfully, he doesn’t walk the path alone.
Along with his brother, Michael’s 85-year-old mother still comes in to work full 8-hour shifts; Michael’s stepdaughter, nieces, and nephews also help out at the restaurant regularly. That makes 3 generations currently working at The Barbecue Center.
Despite their name, The Barbecue Center didn’t start out in the barbeque business. In fact, they were originally called The Dairy Center and exclusively served ice cream. In the late 50’s, they added barbecue to supplement their income during the winter off-season and found that they had a real knack for it.
Currently, what helps them stay unique is their style of cooking. Conrad explains that they “take hickory slabs, they throw those in the firebox, burn those down to coals and then they shove the coals under the shoulders.” Conrad believes the extra work is well worth the effort. "It is very labor intensive, but it has the smoke flavor, which you can’t get out of a gas or electric stove. It’s all about the flavor,” he said.
They also serve fan favorites like barbecue chicken, southern style slaw, and hush puppies. Yet they haven’t forgotten their dairy roots – they also serve a 3.5-pound banana split.
Now the Barbecue Center isn’t unique simply because of their southern chow, they’re also an active member of the community. Longtime customer and radio host Willie Edwards says that “the Conrads have not only been solid in the barbeque tradition but they’ve been a key part in building the community in Lexington.”
A large part of their community involvement is at the yearly food festival that they hold in the heart of Lexington, N.C. When Michael’s father helped start the festival in 1984, Cecil and Michael were skeptical at first. But after wild success, they knew it would be a tradition for years to come.
The festival is a time of laughter, community, and of course, a whole lot of barbecue. Michael and Cecil have assumed the mantle of coordinating this event after their father’s passing, including the iconic presentation of the first barbecue sandwich of the festival, which was originally given by Sonny Conrad to the mayor of Lexington every year. This duty now falls on Cecil, which he performs with great honor.
The Conrads know that there are many aspects of their restaurant that set them apart from the pack, but ultimately, it’s the family atmosphere that their father started that keeps people coming back, year after year.
Fox News’ Carley Shimkus met up with the Conrads at The Barbecue Center to find out what that family atmosphere truly feels like.