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Wood-Sourcing Regulations Fire Up Restaurants

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By Korsha Wilson October 2014 Legal

With 34 locations, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill is no stranger to the expansion game. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, the upscale restaurant opened its first unit in 2000 and won over diners with its wood-grilled steaks and fish. Three years later, however, when Firebirds wanted to open posts outside of North Carolina, it ran into an unlikely problem: It couldn’t transport North Carolina wood to neighboring states.

Many states have laws prohibiting the movement of firewood across state lines, including the wood used in wood-fired grills. The major concern is not the type of wood, but what may be living in it. This affects many restaurants, as they cannot necessarily create a consistent flavor profile across locations.

Firewood acts as a Trojan horse for invasive pests, as they settle invisibly into the wood and then travel with it wherever it goes, says Brian Haines, public information officer for the North Carolina Forest Service. If firewood crosses into new borders, the insect can infest forests in the new area, spawning more infestations and even lumber shortages. Firmly limiting the movement of certain wood, Haines says, is a way to contain the insects’ damage.

Even in the same state, laws may prohibit people from moving firewood outside a certain region or forest, he says. Regulations vary between states based on the type of pests. In more than 20 states, including North Carolina, moving wood is restricted because the emerald ash borer has infested trees across several states, and can ultimately kill them.

Restaurants that rely on wood know the headache. At Tahoe Joe’s, a chain themed like a ski lodge with locations across California, almond wood is the star. It distinguishes Tahoe Joe’s from competitors, as all of its steaks are grilled over the almond wood fire, imparting a nutty and sweet smoked flavor.

When the company began opening locations in Northern California, it had to consider different types of wood that could be used with the grill. The almond wood that the company is known for is local to the central valley of California and was not as widely planted in northern regions of the state. Oak wood was substituted—and customers could immediately tell the difference.

“Over on the coast, in [San Luis] Obispo, up until six or seven years ago we used oak because it was more prevalent,” says David Glennon, vice president of Tahoe Joe’s. “The food tastes so different. It’s such a big part of our brand to have that almond wood flavor.”

The company looked for almond wood distributors locally. Finally, after the San Luis Obispo location was in operation for more than six years, the restaurant was able to switch to the almond wood that the rest of the company used.

For Firebirds, wood sourcing brings up similar challenges. Firebirds uses its wood-fired grill to prepare most of the proteins on its menu and even to impart a smokey oak flavor into sauces.

“We do, in some cases, have to use different species of wood,” says Steve Sturm, the executive chef for Firebirds. The majority of the time the restaurants can find oak, Chef Sturm says, but sometimes the brand installs multiple types of wood to achieve the signature smoked flavor. In Arizona, for example, it uses pecan and oak.

Distributors play an important role in ensuring the wood imparts the proper taste. Both Firebirds and Tahoe Joe’s agree that working with local wood distributors is one of the best ways to ensure their firewood and practices are legal. Glennon says Tahoe Joe’s has worked with two primary distributors for nearly 16 years. “They do a great job aging our wood for us,” he explains. “Two or three years in advance they harvest the wood, put it under cover, and let it sit.”

The manner in which restaurants store wood is as important as the wood’s classification; improperly stored wood can attract pests and spread wood shavings in foodservice areas. Firebirds stores wood both on the exterior and interior of its restaurants. “All of our locations have outdoor covered storage,” Chef Sturm says. Inside, a stainless steel box houses the wood so that the kitchen employee working the grill can easily access the wood without it becoming a fire hazard.

Tahoe Joe’s similarly stores its wood outside and under cover in the back deck area. Employees go out and bring in 15–16 pieces at a time. The restaurant also cleans its hoods more often, usually on a monthly basis, as wood throws off more soot than a gas grill.

One upside of using wood is there is little chance the supply will run out. Both Glennon and Chef Sturm say wood is one of the best renewable resources used to grill. Glennon adds that almond trees live 20–25 years before they need to be replanted, making them extremely cost-effective and environmentally friendly, while Firebirds works with a forester who replants trees in an effort to replenish the resource.

Asked what advice he would offer to restaurant owners working with wood vendors, Haines at the North Carolina Forest Service offers one simple rule: “Just use local wood.”