Discover great BBQ, whiskey & hot dogs off I-95 in Johnston County NC

by Oct 29, 2022North Carolina

Wanna Hot Dog?

Racing along Interstate 95 in North Carolina, you cut right through Johnston County, southeast of Raleigh. This is not just a gas and bathroom stop, though: Get ready for award-winning BBQ, one awesome local distillery and, yes, the home of North Carolina’s famous red hot dogs.


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Hop on Interstate 95 to race down the East Coast, you may be tempted to just get where you’re goin’. But how about a little exploration along the way? Say, in Johnston County, North Carolina, just a stone’s throw southeast of Raleigh with – do not doubt me – award-winning BBQ that sells out daily, a local distillery with some of the best moonshine around, and the maker of North Carolina’s way popular red hot dogs.

Stop in for a meal you won’t regret, a backstage tasting and distillery tour, or some dawgs for grilling at the beach. You may find that a quick break from your road trip along I-95 or even I-40 simply isn’t enough time in Johnston County.

Benson JoCo NC Mural

Johnston County,…where?

I’ll be the first to admit that Johnston County isn’t a place name that rolls off the tongue. In fact, folks would kinda wrinkle their nose when I said I was stopping there for a couple of days and add something like, “Why?” Maybe I was attracted to the area because I’m also from a somewhat maligned town in Central California – one that I suppose like Johnston County seems to be all freeway, billboards, and fast food … until you take an exit ramp. In college when I said where I was from, people would say, “I’m sorry.”

All that abuse aside, let’s get started with what to call Johnston County: Forget that full clunky name. Try on for size the insider moniker of “JoCo.” Ah, feels better already. Now, you can head out of Raleigh, back to town from the Outer Banks, or down the I-95 corridor to and from Florida, casually noting with a sassy toss of your head that you plan to hang in JoCo for some “cue” and country life.

But I do digress from the food and spirits to be had in JoCo. And that’s what you came for, right? So get off the freeway, and let’s go.

BBQ to eat in or to go at Redneck BBQ Lab

Explaining BBQ At Redneck BBQ Lab

Jerry Stephenson is the mad scientist behind Redneck BBQ Lab in Benson. Lines form daily for his award-winning Kansas City Barbeque Society fare.

If you bump into Jerry Stephenson at his Redneck BBQ Lab eatery in Benson, North Carolina, you won’t forget it. He’s a big man with a bushy graying beard and piercing blue eyes who has a passion for great barbeque that could be called an obsession. No, let me correct that.  Stephenson IS obsessed, has been since he first tried (and failed, mind you) at barbeque. Failure was not an option. Mediocre cue was also not an option. Getting it just perfect was a must, thus his obsession with detail. With the science of cooking and barbeque. With life.

“That fly is driving me nuts,” he said as we sat and talked in his restaurant with one singular fly buzzing around us. “It’s my OCD thing.”

Once Stephenson digs into something, all bets are off. That’s why the “lab” part of the name. Stephenson has turned BBQ into a science, weighing ingredients down the last gram to ensure a recipe is precise and can be replicated. AND that it’s nothing but addictively yummy.

Enjoying BBQ At Redneck BBQ Lab JoCo

Hey, I can’t just take notes and photos all the time. Gotta eat too!

To prove his success, shelves are lined with trophies, plaques, certificates, and ribbons won by his Redneck Scientific Team, as it’s called. This BBQ in Johnston County is the real deal, having earned 23 grand championships in the Kansas City BBQ Society invitation-only competitions. The path to the top wasn’t easy.

“I ruined so much chicken,” Stephenson explained. “I am the biggest failure. I’ve ruined more meat that most people eat in their lifetime.”

He recognized however that to succeed you had to fail. And today people line up at the door of his small shop right off Interstate 40. You do have to know it’s there in JoCo since Redneck BBQ Lab is kinda nestled behind a gas station, looking more like a fast-food joint than blissful, award-winning BBQ.

Redneck-BBQ-Lab-in-JoCo

Yup, that’s the home of award-winning Redneck BBQ, slightly hidden behind a gas station off the interstate. You gotta know it’s there — and people do.

Beware, though, despite a deep menu with pork, brisket, chicken, ribs, turkey and “burnt ends,” plus sides from slaw and cornbread to jalapeno mac and cheese and collard greens, he sells out at least some items regularly before the official closing time. Stephenson said travelers heading south to the ocean or from the shore back to Raleigh, order in advance and stop to pick up bags of goodies. Of course, you can buy his sauces and rubs, too.

“BBQ transcends all of our problems, all of our issues,” he added. “People are happy, they’re eating. This is something that I found that I want to share with people.”

Backstage Action At RedNeck

Redneck’s “Pit Crew” stays busy, dishing out ribs, turkey, chicken, pork, beef, etc., etc., for all the customers.

What makes good BBQ? “Whatever brings people together,” came the simple answer. “We’re just making people happy.

Broadslab Distillery – moonshine with family legacy

Mash-at-Broadslab-DIstillery

Head moonshiner Jeremy Norris explains how whiskey is made on a tour at Broadslab. This is the “mash” cooking from the corn.

Wander into the bar and reception at the front of Broadslab Distillery in JoCo, and you will be walking where founder and head moonshiner Jeremy Norris once lived with his grandpa. Grandpa Leonard Wood was one of many bootleggers back in the day based in the area called “broadslab” for its terrain, and his grandson liked the idea of messing with moonshine.

But grandpa would have none of it from his teenager. “You need to do something else,” he insisted. But when Norris was of age and had a dream to transform the farm into a complex of bar, distillery, rental lodgings, and event space – making moonshine into a real business — grandpa softened. That was legal, so that was OK.

Broadslab Legacy Shine

“When we started, it was one still in a corner and a room full of barrels,” Norris said.

These days it’s more than OK and, per Norris, he’s “just getting started.” In part because he finally quit working other jobs in 2020 to focus purely on growing the Broadslab business. “This is just in my blood,” Norris admitted. Norris is a never-stop kinda guy, roaring around his 150 acres to show off the buildings, barns, new warehouse, rental lodgings, event space and distillery, as well as to address questions, pop in on tours, or have a sit in the bar.

Broadslab, the fifth distiller in North Carolina where today there are dozens, made its first whiskey in 2012, opened a tasting room and started tours in 2015, and just keeps adding to the fun. The bar is a bit of a locals’ hangout, too. Just minutes off the north-south racetrack of I-95, Broadslab whiskey distillers practices a grain-to-glass concept in Johnston County, growing his own grain – “My son is out on the combine right now – and Norris oversees all the distilling of his three current whiskey products and two rums.

A new warehouse completed in 2022 – still mostly empty, mind you – will hold 1,008 barrels. “I’m just going to distill it,” he said, “and see what happens.”

Broadslab Jeremy

I got to taste some future distilled treats at Broadslab with founder Jeremy Norris. Oh, yes, they will be yummy when it’s their time.

What happened so far is a list of five North Carolina distilled beverages, all corked and sealed by hand in American-made bottles:

  • Legacy Shine – a white corn whiskey, which is traditional moonshine, clear and not for the weak of heart,
  • Legacy Reserve – corn whiskey, which is what most today think of as whiskey, brown, and with a flavor enhanced with charred oak,
  • Legacy Appleshine – a corn whiskey infused with apple juice and spices and thus easier to drink (warning, not for pure whiskey fans, but “sippable,” as they like to say),
  • Carolina Coast Silver Rum – also a sippable beverage, sweet, distilled from sugar and sugar molasses and “that’s it,” and
  • Carolina Coast Spiced Rum – brown, traditionally blended with Broadslab’s “secret mix” of spices and aged in charred oak.
Broadslab-JoCo-tasting-whiskey

Take a tour and get to taste all the products, too!

As a whiskey fan, I can’t say the sweet and spiced ones made me jump up and down, but the more traditional aged whiskeys were enough to make this girl spin circles in glee.

Bright Leaf red hot dogs by Carolina Packers – yes, RED

I’ll lay my cards out to start: I have never been a hot dog connoisseur. Or even much of a hot dog lover. Wieners, my parents called them growing up. Yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish, white squishy buns, and you had campfire food.


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Then, on my road trip in North Carolina and through Johnston County, I heard about these things called red hot dogs. Red? You are kidding me, right? And then I heard it was really a thing in North Carolina, and Carolina Packers has been making the Bright Leaf red hot dogs since 1941. This West Coaster had to know what it was all about.

Mr Hot Dog At Bright Leaf Joco

I dropped into the office and manufacturing facility in JoCo’s town of Smithfield to get up close and personal with these red dawgs. And I was greeted by a table laden with samples – “this is for you,” I was told of the spread that was guarded by a tall, rather daunting, funny-if-it-weren’t-so-weird statue of, yes, a hot dog squeezing mustard on itself. Then came the opening line, one I am quite convinced that Kurt Byrd, CFO and longtime Bright Leaf hot dog employee, has used many many times:

“Did you ever see cartoons of hot dogs?”

“Yes,” I reply.

“What color are they?”

“Red,” I say, playing right into his red-hot-dog-loving hands.

Apparently red hot dogs are a particular tradition in the south, with – I can’t prove this, mind you – only five companies nationally making them: 3 in North Carolina, 1 in Louisiana, and 1 in Maine, per Byrd. Bright Leaf owns the market in North Carolina, although with the red hot competition (pun intended), Byrd wouldn’t say how many Carolina Packers sells a year. “A lot,” was the answer, later actually saying, “millions.” Oh boy, that’s a lot of hot dogs.

Bright Leaf Dogs And Me

Visits in the manufacturing plant at Bright Leaf are not open to the public, but I got to take a peek, hair-netted and white-coated, in some of the “non-secret” areas. This room is where the daily red hot dogs chilled and cured. That was a lot of red hot dogs!

But the elephant in the room was the question burning in my soul: Why are they red? Turns out it’s just added color (same as in baked goods today) that was originally put in to simply make them stand out on the shelf. Yea, kinda deflating really. But those North Carolinans are a dedicated bunch, indeed.

“If it aint red, I ain’t eating it,” piped up Justin Raymond, Carolina Packers marketing boss.

These Bright Leaf red hot dogs are made with beef and pork, are gluten free, and have a “unique” blend of spices to give them a special zing, a bit of sweetness, and just a hint of tang. Or so say the afficionados.

Red Hot Dog Tasting

CFO and red hot dog disciple Kurt Byrd slicing and prepping a few tastes for me, the red hot dog novice. That big Mr. Hot Dog is watching over it all.

I tasted my way through Bright Leaf red hot dogs, the short and squatty version called Red Hots (trust me, not so hot, but a dash more spice), and smoked sausages, all of which were good with a pop when you bite into them. They are pre-cooked so, Byrd said, real red hot dog lovers will rip open a bag in the car after stopping at the plant’s retail store in Smithfield and chomp down a cold one on the way home.

All the hot dogs are made overnight and sold fresh and loosely packed in bags, which I was told keep in the fridge for 19 days, not 18 and not 20, but 19. The story is, being loosely packed allows them to continue to cure compared to the vacuum-sealed Oscar Meyers of the world. And just so you are prepared to eat North Carolina Bright Leaf red hot dogs correctly: The bun should be steamed or toasted, and the dog should be topped with yellow mustard, cole slaw and chili. Go with me on this.

Since Johnston County in the heart of North Carolina is split by Interstate 95 from Maine to Florida, and Interstate 40 coming out of Raleigh, you’re never very far from award-winning barbeque, top-drawer whiskey, or zingy red hot dogs. Whoever thought JoCo would be a culinary treat?



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Disclosure: Therese Iknoian was hosted for the food tasting, overnight at the Hampton Inn and other activities of this trip by the Johnston County Visitors Bureau. Any reviews, mentions and opinions here are our own, and are not approved, provided, or otherwise endorsed or influenced by Johnston County Visitors Bureau or any of the attractions mentioned.

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