A natural gas pipeline transformed Anthony Bowman’s barbecue restaurant.
Bowman’s Smoky Tony’s BBQ in Holly Ridge, N.C., had been using expensive propane gas to fire his smokers. When Piedmont Natural Gas extended a pipeline between Jacksonville and Wilmington, he signed on.
Workers digging a trench for the pipeline came into Smoky Tony’s BBQ for lunch one day and told Bowman about the Hampstead Gas Line Project, a 39.2-mile natural gas pipeline mostly along U.S. 17. The pipeline, which runs through Hampstead, was completed in November 2021.
For businesses and residents along this stretch, propane was the only option for gas as a heat source. Bowman jumped at the chance to switch to natural gas, which is more reliable than propane because it flows underground and won’t run out. Smoky Tony’s BBQ became the first business to connect to the pipeline.
All Bowman had to do was schedule the installation and convert his equipment to be compatible with natural gas. “That conversion went well,” Bowman said, “and we were able to light right up – didn’t miss a beat.”
“Unlike natural gas, the propane industry is not regulated,” said Paul Gonka, commercial and residential sales and marketing representative at Piedmont Natural Gas. “Every propane company can charge their own rates, while natural gas is regulated by the North Carolina Utilities Commission. We have one residential rate and two commercial rates.”
Access to natural gas supports economic growth.
“The Hampstead Gas Line Project can mean real savings for our local businesses that are currently relying on propane to operate,” said Laurette Leagon, president of the Jacksonville Onslow Chamber of Commerce. “Which in turn gives them the funds to upgrade or expand their business. It’s a proven fact that when natural gas is available on a highway corridor, it stimulates business growth in that area.”
According to a cost savings comparison by Piedmont Natural Gas, a household could save over $2,400 in one year if they use natural gas appliances for heating, water heating and cooking instead of propane. A large restaurant can save up to $30,000 in one year.
Smoky Tony’s BBQ saw costs drop about 35% after the switch to natural gas.
“It’s allowed us a little more flexibility and freedom in how we’re using our appliances, and how we’re using our smoker,” Bowman said. He said he is on track to increase his staff from about 19 employees to about 35.
That growth is a big pivot from where the business started. Although Bowman grew up in Mexico and learned the art of Mexican Pit Barbacoa, it wasn’t until after he went to college in the U.S. and worked a corporate job for more than 20 years that he opened Smoky Tony’s BBQ.
“I have always loved cooking,” he said, “and have wanted to own my own restaurants for years.”
Bowman opened in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, when dining restrictions were implemented. “We opened 100 percent takeout,” Bowman said. “It was rough.”
For a business like Smoky Tony’s BBQ, natural gas helps the production process and final output. The restaurant can regulate the temperature of the smoker more effectively, ensuring more consistency in the taste and texture of their product, like their bestselling brisket.
“That consistency in temperature is critical to be able to maintain the quality of the product we produce,” Bowman said.
A 2022 survey indicated that Wilmington is the seventh most popular city people are moving to in the U.S. That hints at the opportunity for more business and residential development along the coastal highway leading to Wilmington.
People moving to the area from states like New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio want to be near the beach, said Scott Shina, Carolina East sales supervisor for Piedmont Natural Gas. “The second-most important thing is that they’re used to using natural gas appliances.”
On the business side, Shina said many large commercial and industrial customers won’t build if natural gas is not available. “Homeowners, realtors, developers and builders prefer and request natural gas in their new communities and in existing residential homes,” he said.
The Hampstead Gas Line Project serves those expectations. Depending on the economy, Piedmont Natural Gas estimates more than 180 homes and 13 commercial turn-ons can be expected this year, starting with bigger commercial customers like schools and nursing homes. The connections are available for new construction and existing structures.
Piedmont also hopes to add a natural gas pipeline from Shallotte to the South Carolina line.
“Over the coming months and years,” Gonka said, “we hope to build upon the infrastructure and expand to make it available to many more new and existing communities.”