After years of pop-ups and permit issues, Raleigh food veterans Marc Russell and Adam Cunningham open their barbecue joint on Edenton Street.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Trey Thomas
Good things take time — especially good barbecue. And sometimes, it seems, so do good barbecue restaurants. After nearly six years of pop-ups, pick-ups and permit issues, Longleaf Swine BBQ opened its permanent location in early November. Now, it’s serving up North Carolina classics like pulled pork and cole slaw alongside cold beer for lunch and dinner in a newly renovated historic building with a sprawling patio.
At the helm of the venture are Marc Russell and Adam Cunningham, two Raleigh food industry veterans who will serve as chef and general manager, respectively. Prior to Longleaf Swine, Russell had worked as a cook at Poole’s and, most recently, at Ashley Christensen’s Death & Taxes, while Cunningham worked front of house at State of Beer.
Longleaf Swine was born when the pair were ready to branch out on their own after years in the industry. “Adam and I both wanted to do our own thing,” says Russell. “We saw there was a missing piece and it was wood-fired barbecue.”
Cunningham and Russell both grew up immersed in North Carolina’s barbecue culture, and both always loved to entertain. They got their first smoker in summer of 2016 and taught themselves from there.
While food has always been a part of Russell’s culinary career, he’s learned barbecue the old-fashioned way: experimenting and absorbing from those around him. But his time at Death & Taxes lent to his expertise in smoked meats and veggies, which have landed a place on the Longleaf Swine menu.
The pair started with a food trailer and a pop-up at Fayetteville Street’s Foundation Bar in 2018, building momentum with offerings like a smashburger, Frito pie and classic banana pudding. In 2019, they started working toward a brick-and-mortar space inside the Transfer Co. Food Hall, but it fell through. In early 2020, Russell and Cunningham pivoted to meal delivery service and catering to ride out the pandemic — but the end goal was always to have their own restaurant.
Ben Davis, who’s now a business partner, met the duo through their catering, and knew he wanted to be involved. “I don’t have a background in barbecue, but a big reason I wanted to get involved was the character of these guys,” Davis says. “I tried the food and I was in.”
As broker and managing partner of Insight Real Estate, Davis’ real estate background proved to be handy when the perfect space, on the corner of Person and Edenton Streets, became available in late 2020.
“I was on a run and saw the ‘for sale’ sign going up for the old Oakwood Cafe space,” says Cunningham. “I called Ben immediately.” Davis enlisted Gordon and Lori Grimes as investors in the space, and they closed in November 2021.
The historic building was one of the original Walter Teague-designed service stations from the 1930s, an industrial design landmark on the way into Raleigh from points east. It had operated as Oakwood Cafe for the previous 21 years, serving Cuban and Argentine cuisine to devoted neighborhood fans.
Davis was excited to get Cunningham and Russell into their permanent space, but soon discovered that the cafe had been grandfathered in on many City of Raleigh rules for restaurants — and that Longleaf Swine would have to make major changes to the building to get it up to code. “We completely gutted the space,” says Davis. “We literally peeled back all of the walls.”
In the meantime, Russell and Cunningham kept up the catering end of their business with private events and holiday meal pickups. Through the back half of 2021, they took Longleaf Swine over to Standard Beer + Food on Sundays, serving up brisket, smoked chicken wings, nacho fries and BLTs on Standard’s picnic tables. Cov DeRamus, a partner at Standard, says it was serendipity to have Russell and Cunningham in their space.
“Back when we were opening, we felt like we needed a food option. Here, we had this full kitchen we weren’t using and a group of guys who we really like and respect,” says Deramus. In addition to their regular appearances at Standard, Russell and Cunningham lent their meat-smoking expertise to partnerships with other industry friends like Longleaf Lounge, Fine Folk and Locals Seafood.
The new space pays homage to its history: simple and no-frills, with exposed brick walls, original windows, polished concrete floors and industrial beams in the 13-foot ceilings. Outside, a massive angled metal awning over the patio offers cover for sunny or rainy days, and the food is served up on classic wooden picnic tables. “We really want to cherish the space,” says Cunningham.
Beyond the counter service, there are two full-service bars offering a cocktail and wine program, along with local draft and canned beer, to sip with your ribs, homemade sausages and seasonal veggies. “About 85 percent of our produce will come from the State Farmers Market,” says Russell. At lunch you’ll find an old-school barbecue slicing line — available ‘til it’s gone — with sides like slaw, mac and cheese with homemade pimento cheese, and a creamy potato salad.
Oak and hickory-smoked meats and veggies will grace the menus all day, from Southern favorites like boiled peanuts and sausage balls to a few unexpected sides like smoked cauliflower or Esquites, the Mexican-inspired corn off the cob.
“We’re trying to do something style-wise that no one is doing around here,” says Cunningham — not just the typical grab-and-sit barbecue joint, but a spot that invites folks to linger for a drink and order as they go. Today, you can order a collard green melt on Union Special’s sourdough or a classic barbecue sandwich for dinner, or simply sit outside for happy hour.
He notes that they’re especially excited to have a place for their industry community to hang out — they plan to serve brunch Saturday through Monday as well as late-night diner fare, aptly nicknamed the “Swiner Diner.”
Davis commends the resilience he sees in Cunningham and Russell. “These two are the heart and soul of the business,” says Davis. “Ten out of 10 people would have given up.” The community is behind them, too, their many pop-ups and partnerships a testament to all the friends in the industry who want the duo to succeed. “I can’t say enough good things about Marc and Adam,” says DeRamus. “They’re great people who really improve the Raleigh food scene.”
“For Marc and myself it’s a sense of relief and excitement,” says Cunningham about getting the restaurant open. “It’s been a real journey. We have finally found our forever home, where we can share our passion for food and drink with our community.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.