A 12-seat restaurant in an unassuming strip plaza in north Waterloo, started in 2009 led to the development of one of Southwestern Ontario’s premier barbecue and blues venues. The Lancaster Smokehouse in Kitchener’s Bridgeport neighbourhood was the brainchild of barbecue aficionado Chris Corrigan, founder and CEO of The Lancaster Co. Group of Companies.
Corrigan left the world of office equipment behind him to test his mettle in the smoky, carbonized pit-master realm of competition barbecue in the 2000s. It turned out he was pretty darn good and won some gold. That success inspired Corrigan and his wife Cathy to put their hearts and souls — and smokers — into a bricks-and-mortar business, and Waterloo’s Hog Tails Bar-B-Que was born. They sold Hog Tails in 2015 (it has since closed), but only after having expanded operations and taken over The Lancaster Public House, a dog-eared Kitchener tavern that was once an 1840s railroad hotel. Before the Smokehouse opened in the fall of 2011, they knew the new venture needed a lot of work.
“It was a huge challenge. We knew that The Lanc was an iconic landmark as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously operating taverns in Waterloo Region, but the building was very tired. We knew there were going to be a lot of infrastructure challenges and when we needed to do one aspect of reconstruction, something else had to be done first,” Chris Corrigan says.
The investments of time and money, and the perseverance, paid off. Eight years later The Lancaster Smokehouse, “The Lanc” in homage to its public-house history, is going strong, and has maintained much of the original infrastructure it had 100 years ago. With the creaky wooden floor and the pervasive and appetite-arousing smoky aromas, Corrigan says the busy restaurant is virtually always at capacity.
He acknowledges that the business came on board at the very peak of the southern barbecue trend, but it has been the solid management with his daughter and co-owner Caitie Agostinho, and corporate chef and co-owner Tim Borys, along with consistently good food that has allowed them to grow and prosper. “We caught the wave, there’s no doubt,” he says of barbecue’s popularity. “It has subsided somewhat though it is still a very popular style of cuisine. I’m also glad to say that we were able to take the ingredients and traditions of Waterloo County fare and draw on them in ways that complement the southern barbecue scene.”
Despite the market having shifted toward other styles of food and dining, The Lancaster Smokehouse keeps southern barbecue in high demand by keeping things simple, honest and plentiful, Corrigan says. It’s a full-service casual restaurant featuring southern barbecue dishes that are made from scratch in-house, with the best local ingredients they can get their hands on, and using traditional southern methods. And Corrigan knows from the U.S. south and low country: he travels there regularly searching for inspiration and new ideas and flavours, as well as hitting every nook-and-cranny of a venue that is cranking out the blues.
“We continue to explore new foodways through our travel and research in the southern U.S. but at the same time, my heritage keeps our so-called Waterloo County roots close to how we want to develop our cooking style,” he says. That means the injection of an occasional Mennonite country cooking approach to the Smokehouse menu. “We are known in the community for barbecue, but there is a tremendous commonality between the two styles of food. I believe that people are trending away from fine dining but do not want the processed food available in either fast food or fast casual. We can fill that void and want to continue to educate our customers about our goals.” He’s cautious, though, and ensures that the menu doesn’t veer too far from the southern sweet spot of pulled pork, chicken, ribs, brisket and jambalaya. “If we diverged, we’d see some customer push-back.”
The menu is classic southern U.S. fare, from pork rinds, fried green tomatoes, and gumbo to an intensely hot Nashville-style “chikan shak” chicken sandwich and fried shrimp po’ boy. Pulled pork rules, as does the brisket, and (in limited availability) Flintstone-esque Texas short ribs, along with sides such as jalapeno hush puppies, cheesy grits and braised collards. The smokers run virtually all night and, according to Corrigan’s estimates, in the course of a week the kitchen prepares about 100 pork shoulders and another 100 briskets. They will go through approximately 25,000 racks of ribs in a year.
The bar features only Ontario craft beers and wines and has a southern-inspired cocktail list. The sense of local pervades the outfit’s philosophy. “We believe that small business is the foundation of the local economy, and family-owned and operated small business is the cornerstone. That’s what we are. We employ about 60 full- and part-time staff. Hard working family members, as we like to call them. We own the real estate and made a commitment to the community and the city by reviving and growing a thriving business in a tough industry. Our taxes, wages and spending stay in the community. That, I believe, speaks to the importance of local jobs and the economy,” says Corrigan.
Live music is a barbecue foundation at the Lanc too, and it’s an important component of the business model. It takes place on Wednesday and Friday nights. Corrigan himself plays a mean blues guitar and says, “We want to provide local musicians with a venue for performances rooted in the genre.” There’s a Smokehouse food truck and the restaurant’s catering operation is wide-ranging and busy. Inside The Lanc the new Crumb Bakehouse is overseen by baker Martha Borys. It serves the restaurant’s internal needs and has a growing retail presence too. The Langdon Hall alumna makes a variety of pies, cakes, cookies, bars, milk buns, baguettes, beignets, cornbread, pastries, and breads of all sorts.
Whether it is office equipment or barbecue, Corrigan has always been keen to ensure customers have a great experience. “We’re committed to quality local ingredients from great suppliers, inspired menu items, authentic southern and Waterloo County cooking, as well as well-trained and knowledgeable staff able to demonstrate southern hospitality.” The Lanc, he adds, continues to work with local food producers and to promote what he calls “our fantastic and independent grassroots food movement.” The business has carved a niche in the Waterloo Region culinary space — one that he says stills surprises him after a decade, given the wide range of food and restaurant choices available to customers.
“I never thought it would be this big,” Corrigan says with a hint of incredulity. “I’m proud and delighted that we feed and entertain a lot of people every day.”
The Lancaster Smokehouse
574 Lancaster Street West, Kitchener
Monday-Saturday: from 11:30 a.m.