Expansions Abound in 2014
If 2013 was the year of the new barbecue joint, 2014 will be the year of barbecue expansion. Some legendary Texas barbecue stalwarts who for decades were happy to be one-offs are looking to write their sequels. Southside Market (1882), in Elgin, Kreuz Market (1900) and Black’s BBQ (1932), in Lockhart, and Louie Mueller Barbecue (1949), in Taylor, will all expand their brands to a second location this year. Also included in this boom are new locations in Texas’s biggest cities for some of this century’s barbecue upstarts. In a field once dominated by the attitude that a second location would be irresponsible, or even disrespectful to the original, times are changing.
The motives for expansion are varied. With new locations in Plano, Lockhart Smokehouse and Smoke, both based in Dallas, are trying to serve a far-flung part of the community in which they’re already popular. A Plano family who gets down to Bishop Arts or West Dallas only occasionally can now skip the field trip to the originals and hit their local branch weekly. The early word on Lockhart Smokehouse in Plano is positive (Smoke’s Plano location won’t open until later this year), and success there will likely stir others to follow their path. Hutchins BBQ, in McKinney, has already started the journey, with a cryptic announcement of a new Collin County location, which will likely take over the Hutchins-family-owned Randy White’s BBQ, in Frisco, just fourteen miles away. Two Bros. BBQ Market, located on the north side of San Antonio near the airport, is looking to do the same with B&D Ice House, in San Antonio’s Southtown neighborhood. The grand plan seems to be working, with brisket porn from their new smoker already filling up my Twitter feed in their first week.
— Marshall Scott Owens (@WestTX_BBQ) March 22, 2014
The demand projections may make it look tempting, but adding a new spot in the same area doesn’t always work out well. Off the Bone BBQ, in Forest Hill, found this out two years ago. After being named the top barbecue joint in the DFW area in 2010 (in a D Magazine article that I wrote), they could barely contain the lines in their renovated Dairy Queen on the southwest side of Forth Worth. They were certain that the overflow would be best handled by opening down the road in Mansfield. Customers kept coming to the original, but the new place only saw a trickle and didn’t last long.
A similar story happened in Austin a decade ago, when John Mueller decided that his success on Manor Road could translate into a second joint on the north side of town. Former Texas Monthly staff writer and noted barbecue aficionado Joe Nick Patoski chided him back in 2004 for such a move. “How could John Mueller be two places at once? Wherever he wasn’t, he would surely be missed.” Those words proved prophetic when Mueller was soon at neither place after both locations were gone by 2006.
So what’s fueling this current desire among pitmasters to spread themselves thin? For Billy Woodrich of Billy’s Oak Acres, in Fort Worth, it’s a forthcoming television appearance. He’s banking that the publicity from the new show Hungry Investors will spotlight his isolated joint in northwest Fort Worth enough to warrant a second location closer to downtown. It better, since the new location is already in the works. In the case of an older place like Southside Market, Bryan Bracewell says the motives have more to do with family. “I want to be a good steward of the solid business that Southside has grown to be.” He also notes, “We’ll add forty to forty-five jobs and double our management staff, creating opportunity to promote from within.” They need another location to continue giving opportunities for advancement to loyal employees and family members.
But the time commitment required for running just one barbecue joint is enough to keep many out of the business altogether. And those who already work most of their waking hours will see their responsibilities doubled with a new offspring to watch over, at least in the short term.
Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue has some longer-term goals in mind. “It’s hard to turn your product over to someone else, but I can’t give sixteen-hour days for the rest of my life.” For Mueller, that someone else will be Jason Bedford, who has been rigorously training in Taylor. Both he and Mueller will split time between Louie Mueller in Taylor and the new location in Houston, some two and a half hours away. Mueller even closed the business on Mondays for several months just to train his staff. That effort is part of why he feels like the quality of the barbecue in Houston will match the original. “I’m finally getting comfortable with how we’re training folks.”
Another cause for these expansions that can’t be overlooked is that these older joints are now in the hands of the younger generation. Ernest Bracewell of Southside Market and Rick Schmidt of Kreuz Market are retired. Kent Black has taken over the operation of Black’s BBQ from his parents, and Bobby Mueller passed away in 2008. Wayne Mueller notes that his father would have never pursued a second location, and would probably frown on it today, but the market in Houston was too strong to ignore. “We’re looking at population densities and a growing enthusiasm for barbecue in Houston.” Mueller studied these trends for several years before deciding to make the jump, and now he’s excited to re-engage with a community where he once resided.
The Kreuz Market expansion plan had a quicker turnaround time. Kreuz owner Keith Schmidt explains, “I was approached by a development company in Bryan. It’s been in the works only since November. And that market is exploding so much with the growing population and all the new roads and tollways from Houston, we couldn’t pass up at least looking into a site that nice.” Serving the Bryan-College Station community, about eighteen times larger than Lockhart, is a big factor too. That it’s a hundred miles away from Lockhart will help them develop a new customer base rather than siphoning from the old one. Black’s will have a harder time doing this, with three locations thirty minutes apart—Black’s BBQ, in Lockhart; Terry Black’s BBQ, in Austin; and Kent Black’s BBQ, in San Marcos—even if neither new location is technically associated with the original.
Those bigger population densities are surely on the mind of Cooper’s, based in Llano (pop. 3,245), which is now in the midst of renovating a downtown Austin restaurant. They see the demand upswing and are looking to cash in on it now while barbecue is still a hot item. The refrain from the Cooper’s ownership in a recent article was that they aimed to be “the Hopdoddy of barbecue” in describing their motives for such a move. This isn’t Cooper’s first try. They have been successful in expanding to New Braunfels and Fort Worth in the recent past, although most Cooper’s fans still prefer the Llano original.
Black’s and Kreuz are looking at those same population stats, but that’s not what drives Southside Market’s Bracewell, who will be bringing his family’s barbecue and sausage to a town with a lower population than Elgin, where the original resides. “Bastrop gives us a great opportunity to be exactly who we are and simply do it in another community [his emphasis] that allows us to do business just like we have for the past 132 years.” It doesn’t hurt that Highway 71 through Bastrop is now almost twice as busy as Highway 290, which passes by the Elgin original. Bracewell also has some selfish motives for sticking with small town locations too. “We get antsy in the ‘big cities.’ Plus, I’ve got to have a nice big space to park my truck.”
Even after the population-density studies, the hungry investors, and the warm and fuzzy gut feelings about the right location, it can’t be ignored how hard it is to keep a grip on quality at multiple locations. “I’ll have my hands deep into it until I find that right person,” promises Kreuz’s Schmidt. Let’s hope for his sake that happens before November when the new spot is scheduled to open. Now we’ll just have to wait and see if all these sequels can be as good as the originals.