David Bancroft is a quick study.
The celebrated chef-owner of Acre in the university town of Auburn opened a second restaurant concept called Bow & Arrow in 2018. The vibe at his newer place is Texas-smokehouse-meets-Alabama-potluck, which is a lot; but it’s really a lot more than that.
The restaurant is a life lesson about listening to customers, recognizing what they want, and doing what it takes to make them comfortable and happy. The Bow & Arrow that people visit today is not the Bow & Arrow that Bancroft and his wife, Christin, originally envisioned: They changed that vision to accommodate their visitors.
We sat down with Chef Bancroft for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video from my partner Britney Faush.
Bancroft, who was born in Alabama and grew up in San Antonio, wanted to create a South Texas-style smokehouse at Bow & Arrow. The kind of place where you walk right in and straight up to a meat counter where your brisket and other barbecue is cut to order, weighed on scales, and piled on butcher paper-lined trays with white bread or tortillas. You can grab a dessert from the cashier, a soda from the fountain, an icy beer from a portable cooler. You get homemade pickles and chow-chow from a condiments table, pick up some plates and silverware, and then find a seat (probably next to a stranger) at a communal table.
No hostess. No wait staff. Just make a plate and make yourself at home.
But people didn’t really get that. The offerings were different from other barbecue joints. There was a brisket learning curve.
“All the families that were going through were just very stressed,” Bancroft says. “They would get up here … and would have what I call ‘line anxiety.’ There was a group of people that really loved what we were trying to execute at Bow & Arrow, but then, there were also the … families that were in a rush and hurrying back and forth and trying to get from gymnastics to the ball field to school to a meeting. The ordering style was a little stressful and it caused a lot of anxiety and people would get a little frustrated at the front of the line.”
So, when the early days of the pandemic closed his restaurant to all but steady and profitable to-go orders, handed off at the drive-through window, Bancroft decided to make some changes.
“It was really an opportunity for us to either go big or go home,” he says. “If there was ever a time to make a change, it was going to be right then and there.” Bancroft prayed hard about it and then decided he “was sawing it all in half.”
He drew plans on napkins and computer paper. He removed walls and built others. He took out the buck hunter video game (and sold it on Facebook Marketplace to a guy from Mississippi) and put in a server station. He built a hostess stand up front, a handsome bar in the back and cozy seating in the middle area that once was the meat counter line. He kept the bones of the place—the exposed beams, garage door walls, beautiful stonework, crisp whitewashed woodwork, chic lighting, and some of the leathered granite counters. He kept the sizable herd of trophy deer on the walls; each is labeled with the name of the hunter who contributed it—Bancroft, his friends and family, his dentist, his chiropractor, the guy who does pest control.
But his entire business model changed: He went from a handful of pit masters to a full-service wait and bar staff and today employs about 75 people at Bow & Arrow.
Elements of his original smokehouse remain. You’ll smell the smoke and hear the chop, chop of the butchers. You still can get slow-smoked ‘que by the pound served with white bread or tortillas. But the variety of dishes on the menu now allows this chef to show exactly what he can do and expand upon his Alabama roots and Texas upbringing.
Bancroft spent formative years on his family’s Alabama farm in Hartford hunting and fishing with his grandfather and learning how to smoke and grill what he caught. He watched his grandmothers Bebe and Mama Jean cook Sunday supper and learned to serve others with a gracious heart. Growing up in Texas, he remembers an abuela bringing tamales instead of orange slices for soccer game snacks. He and his baseball buddies, at age 16, would camp at the Medina River and cook cowboy breakfasts (tacos with chorizo and potatoes) over an open fire.
That history and his homegrown love of food are interpreted here in various delicious ways that reflect Bancroft’s growth as a chef.
“You know, the beauty of this restaurant is that you can still see all of that influence of my Grandpa Kennedy who is the fish farmer, the cattle farmer, cotton, pines, peanuts, chickens in South Alabama, and everything that you would see at their table—at Mama Jean’s long farm table—with old Country Crock tubs and Cool Whip containers (filled with) zipper peas and collard greens. … Everybody had that grandma who literally recycled every plastic container she ever received. … We’re still holding true to that style.
“We’re still going as far into depth of technique as we can just to get to a very simple acceptable Southern product. We’re spending the time, the effort, the labor making these things from scratch.”
But what guests find at Bow & Arrow is “a little bit more refined and has a little bit more technique” coming from all the things he’s learned at Acre. “It now has much more French technique, Spanish technique, German technique,” he says. “I mean, you name it, Mexican, obviously. All of that literally is the South. So now we’re not just drawing from influences from just grandmothers … All of what is the South—that is blended together now—is something that we’re honoring here.”
At Bow & Arrow, there are barbecue plates with Texas brisket, St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and jalapeno-cheddar sausage. There are platos of Creole-fried Alabama catfish, “chicken fried” chicken with sawmill gravy, and wood-grilled skirt steak and Gulf shrimp brocheta with pineapple pico. Appetizers include goat cheese guacamole, chili-lime wings with poblano ranch, and chips and house-made salsa. Sides range from green beans and hash brown casserole to sweet corn rice and smoky borracho beans. There are salads and sandwiches and a variety of tacos made with fresh flour tortillas.
The popular “beef ‘n’ cheddar” soft tacos (shaved brisket, homemade queso blanco, cheddar, crispy onions, and sweet rib sauce) are Bancroft’s cheeky take on Arby’s classic sandwich.
Wood-grilled fajitas feature meats—skirt steak, chicken, and Gulf-fresh shrimp—basted with butter using rosemary branches. These come with sauteed poblanos and onions, guacamole salad, salsa de fuego, grill butter and flour tortillas alongside sweet corn rice and borracho beans.
Enchiladas are inventive. The 30A version features two cheesy blue crab enchiladas, lemon-chipotle crema, salsa cremosa, avocado and crushed tater tots. Christin’s enchiladas are two chicken enchiladas with queso blanco, salsa cremosa, radish, cilantro, goat cheese, and pico de gallo. The “King George” enchiladas (named for George Strait, not British royalty) are two cheesy carnitas enchiladas with sliced brisket, queso blanco, chili con carne, hill country hot sauce, and tortilla strips.
The bar that anchors the back of this restaurant serves a variety of specialty cocktails (a cucumber mojito, kombucha lemonade, any kind of mule you’d like) as well as local and regional craft beers and more than a dozen variations and versions of margaritas.
Four different barbecue sauces cater to just about any regional taste. There’s a Texas red sauce; a mustard sauce; a sweet rib sauce; and an Alabama white sauce that Bancroft made sure passed a taste test with his friend Chris Lilly, of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q fame.
It’s those personal touches that matter.
They make their own bacon at Bow & Arrow (curing the pork bellies, pressing them into shape, slow-smoking and then hanging them to air dry). That bacon makes the collard greens some of the best anywhere; it takes the cheeseburger to a different level. A tortilla press cranks out fresh bread daily. Memaw’s eclair is the perfect way to end a meal. Christin’s grandmother’s recipe is that time-honored combination of graham crackers, Cool Whip and French vanilla pudding layered and shingled and topped with homemade fudge. “The kind of fudge that you’ve got to crack with a spoon,” Bancroft says. “When people get that first bite … I’ve had famous chefs come and get that with a scoop of ice cream, and they’re like, ‘What was that?!’”
Bow & Arrow attracts a variety of customers—people in business suits, construction workers, teachers, moms, students, grandparents—and it’s family friendly. A thoughtful (and nicely priced) kids’ menu is printed on a page cleverly illustrated by Paulina Arroyo with a maze, a word search, a dog named Dolly, kids named Walker and Kennedy and lots of things to color.
Bancroft made a national name for himself and created an outlet for his self-taught skills as a farmer, forager, and chef when he and Christin opened Acre restaurant in 2013. That restaurant—with its modern interpretations of traditional Southern cuisine—is on an acre in downtown Auburn, and it’s landscaped with edible plants; Bancroft and his staff pull seasonal produce from this garden for their guests.
He has been a 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: South” award, and he won Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown competition in 2017. Bow & Arrow was named one of the “Best New Southern Barbecue Joints” by Garden & Gun magazine.
Accolades, no doubt, will continue. Clearly, Chef Bancroft is doing lots of smart things here, but he’s especially happy that he got Bow & Arrow right.
“We want everybody to feel welcome,” he says. “We want everybody to enjoy the ambiance, the energy, the flavors, the aroma, but we also want them to know how much effort we put into the food. … I think people can see it right when it hits the table … and when they taste it, and they go, ‘Oh, yeah. We get it.’ … Families get to really share now, with a little bit less stress of having to order at the counter. I think they’re leaving happy.”
He says the thing that makes him most proud of this 2.0 version of Bow & Arrow is the team that got him to this point. “Just the adversity that we had to go through, the challenges that we had changing from one model to another after the first year of business. … We all came out stronger,” he says.
“There’s always an opportunity to make a change. There’s always an opportunity to find improvement, and it’s hard to do, but this team did it,” he adds. “This team is successful now because they went through that. They will always know that they do have an option, that they do have a choice—to either sit there and suffer through things or find something that makes them passionate and happy.
“The number one thing that happened here is now we are truly connected to the … heartbeat of this business, and it’s so much more fun for us to share that story now having gone through all of that.”
Bow & Arrow
1977 East Samford Ave.
Auburn, AL 36830
Phone: (334) 246-2546
Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
To-Go Window/Online Ordering
Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.