Q&A with Greg Hatem, owner of the Pit Authentic Barbecue & Empire Eats

Greg Hatem, owner of The Pit Authentic Barbecue in Raleigh
Greg Hatem

Today we chat with Greg Hatem, owner of The Pit Authentic Barbecue located in the Warehouse District and founder and owner of Empire Eats which owns a total of 9 restaurants in Raleigh.

This Q&A is a part of our series called interviews with locals where we interview local Raleigh business owners and entrepreneurs to share their story with our community.

We have eaten at The Pit several times and I (Craig) am a big fan of their Big Boy Burger!

Where did you grow up and go to high school? How long have you lived in Raleigh?

Greg Hatem grew up in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and moved to Raleigh in 1979 to study chemical engineering at N.C. State University. Aside from a year as a college exchange student in Idaho and a year living in Beijing, China, in the mid-1990s, he’s lived in Raleigh ever since.

How did you get into the industry you are in now?

I started buying historic buildings in downtown Raleigh and renovating them in 1996. After years of trying to encourage restaurants to open in one of our spaces downtown, I decided to open my own restaurant, partnering with David Mao to open the Duck and Dumpling in a historic space across from Moore Square, which we own.

As we bought and renovated more buildings in downtown Raleigh, we added more restaurants, first The Raleigh Times, then The Pit, The Morning Times, Sitti, Gravy, The Pizza Times and the Mecca.

We also opened The Pit in Durham in what was the old 7-Up bottling plant. We also own Square Burger. It’s in a new building, though, in the recently renovated 200-year-old Moore Square.

Give us your 30 second elevator pitch for your business?

IMG 9922
The Pit Authentic BBQ

For us, it’s never really about selling anything in particular, it’s about preserving our heritage.

That’s why The Pit is so important. It gives people the opportunity to see how real Eastern North Carolina barbecue is made and how it tastes back in Halifax County, where I am from, without ever having to leave the Triangle.

Most popular dish that you sell at The Pit? 

Our whole-hog chopped barbecue is of course our best-seller, one that really speaks to who we are.

It’s made the same way it’s been made in Eastern North Carolina for the last 300 years – slow cooked over hot coals for 12 hours, chopped together and sauced with our spicy sweet Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce.

Your favorite dish that you sell at The Pit? 

Of course, I love our Eastern North Carolina barbecue. But I do love the Brunswick Stew and the Soul Rolls.

Chopped BBQ with Baby Back Ribs
Chopped BBQ with Baby Back Ribs

What would a traveler learn about Raleigh by coming to The Pit?

They would know how we’ve been cooking barbecue in North Carolina for hundreds of years. They would learn the heritage of Eastern North Carolina, which is the birthplace of barbecue in America.

There are no shortcuts with our style of barbecue. You have to cook the whole hog and you have to cook it slowly over charcoal over a pit.

What’s special about The Pit is that we’ve been able to work through code issues to move the barbecue pit inside the restaurant. A lot of places use gas or rotisserie cookers. That’s just grilled pork. That’s not real barbecue.

At The Pit, you also get a great tour of traditional Eastern North Carolina sides that go so well with barbecue, from Brunswick Stew to fried okra to our heirloom cabbage collard greens.

We take great pride in working with local farmers that grow our AWA-certified hogs and the vegetables that we cook from scratch every day in the restaurant.

If you had a friend visiting, where in Raleigh would you take them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? 

Of course, we’d take them to Empire Eats restaurants!

The Morning Times for coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit; lunch at The Raleigh Times for a burger, fries and a beer; and Sitti for dinner for a taste of some of the best Lebanese food around.

Outside of Empire Eats, we’d take them to Big Ed’s for breakfast, Char Grill for lunch, Lucettegrace for a mid-afternoon treat, either Capital Club 16 or Garland for dinner and Two Roosters Ice Cream for dessert.

The Morning Times / The Raleigh Times
The Morning Times / The Raleigh Times

Best thing about living in Raleigh?

The people.

How did you pivot in your business during the 2020 pandemic?

We always offered food to go, but when the pandemic hit, we expanded that part of our business. We were already working on creating a new online ordering system at The Pit, but this just accelerated that plan, not just for The Pit but for all of our restaurants.

Back in early March, when we saw the pandemic worsening, we started removing chairs and cutting capacity to 50 percent, well before it was required. We also studied CDC guidelines to come up with more intensive cleaning regimens.

We started wearing masks well before it was required and recommended to make sure we were keeping both our staff and our guests safe.

We started offering family meals for 2, 4 and 8 people in April, and making frozen meals that people could take home and put in the freezer and use when they wanted to make it more convenient.

We set up small grocery stores in our restaurants selling our sauces, spices and rubs, certain cuts of meat and even toilet paper by the roll. That was more along the lines of a public service than something that added to the bottom line. 

We also worked with the City of Raleigh to add more outdoor seating in front of The Morning Times and The Raleigh Times and at The Pit. That extra seating has been wonderful for us on both warm and cold weather days throughout the pandemic.

And we worked to perfect our to-go packages for individual meals that we sent out to hospital workers and teachers, people who have been on the front lines and working under tough conditions for weeks and weeks.

The Pig Pen at The Pit BBQ
The Pig Pen at The Pit BBQ

In hindsight, what do you wish you had in place before the pandemic hit to better prepare for it?

Online ordering. We had been studying and working on websites that were more to-go friendly but we hadn’t put the energy in it. We almost had it done at The Pit. I wish we had done it that early for all of our restaurants. 

Can’t miss attraction in Raleigh?

Our great museums. We’re so lucky to have such great museums downtown, which are free and open to all.

Your favorite business in Raleigh that you like to frequent?

Read With Me, Great Outdoor Provision Co., Deco, Man-Mur Barber Shop, NoFo, Quercus Studio, Yellow Dog Bakery. Those are just a few. There are so many great locally owned businesses to choose from.

What are you reading right now?

“Reckless Daughter: a Portrait of Joni Mitchell” by David Yaffe.

What excites you the most about doing business in Raleigh over the next 5-10 years? 

What excites me is the extraordinary growth we are experiencing and how to continue to stay relevant and be true, because that’s where it lies. It’s all about truth.

Big Boy Burger at The Pit BBQ
Big Boy Burger at The Pit BBQ

What concerns you the most about doing business in Raleigh over the next 5-10 years? 

We worry that the community won’t manage the growth well. We’re willing to sacrifice our character for growth but we need to do it in a thoughtful way, so that we won’t sacrifice the opportunities for everyone who lives here.

We need to do a better job of work-force housing and inclusivity. In this community there should be no child that goes hungry at night or on weekends. That’s an embarrassment.

Which local Raleigh entrepreneur inspires you to do better?

Jim Goodmon. He’s always pushing to the forefront in the field of communications and he’s expanded into development with community-changing projects such as American Tobacco Historic District in Durham and Rocky Mount Mills in Rocky Mount.

If you had $1 million dollars to donate to a charity, who would you give it to and why?

The Empire Gives Back, which is our non-profit, because there are a number of really great charities that focus on children, education, childhood safety and food insecurity, and that’s the focus of our giving now.

As for my 11-year-old son, he would say the Wolfpack Club.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to start a business in Raleigh?

Raleigh is the most open place I have ever seen for business. There is more opportunity in Raleigh than there was in Beijing in the mid 1990s, and that was completely wide open.

People genuinely want to see you do well if your goal is to do great work and do great things for the community. They will support you every time.

What is your favorite task that you perform in your business each day?

I really enjoy working with the managers in different departments and companies to find out what issues they are having and help them work through their issues.

Especially now, when even the simplest of things are more challenging. It’s good to listen and find out what the challenges are and help them move past them.

Drink of choice?

Coffee from The Morning Times.

Pre-Covid at The Morning Times
Pre-Covid at The Morning Times

How do you relax and destress?

Camping with my kids or doing things with Scouts with my kids. I thought I enjoyed Scouting when I was in it when I was younger, but it’s even better with your son or your daughter.

What is your “WHY” for doing what you do?

For us, it’s always been about revitalizing the community. Not just about revitalizing old buildings but creating a community that people can enjoy and be proud to call home.

Preservation has been a great mechanism for that. Preserving history, preserving buildings and preserving culture.

Do you plan on retiring?

Yes, 30 seconds after I flatline.

Favorite getaway spot in North Carolina?

Atlantic Beach.

Favorite American city?

New York City with my family.

Favorite international city/country?

Machu Picchu, Peru.

When you hear the words “THIS IS RALEIGH” what comes to mind?

Festivals, especially Artsplosure and it’s wonderful sister event, First Night Raleigh. The whole community embraces both festivals and there’s something for everyone, all ages and all backgrounds.

A little closer to our hearts is ‘Cuegrass Festival. For more than a decade at The Pit, we have been blending great chopped whole-hog barbecue with bluegrass bands. The best part is that over the years, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for some pretty special non-profits in the area, many of which are working to improve the lives of children and eliminate food insecurity in our community.

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Go say hi to the guys at The Pit and tell them This Is Raleigh sent you:

2 thoughts on “Q&A with Greg Hatem, owner of the Pit Authentic Barbecue & Empire Eats”

  1. Really interesting how this folksy, aw-shucks interview doesn’t mention one word about Ed Mitchell – BBQ genius and creator of the BBQ Hatem’s so proud of promoting. Not a single mention. Of course, that would beg questions about how badly Greg ruined and screwed Ed over, so…Also, funny how there’s nothing about screwing over David Mao, or Ashley Christensen – the Saleh’s too. These fluff pieces about an absolute sociopath who is single-handedly strangling the downtown Raleigh commercial stock are really something.

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