Interview: Arnis Robbins of Evie Mae’s Bar-B-Que
Owner/Pitmaster: Evie Mae’s Bar-B-Que; Opened 2015
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Arnis and Mallory Robbins opened Evie Mae’s Bar-B-Que last year in Wolfforth. They started in a food trailer along the highway, and quickly gained a following. A year after opening, they celebrated a new chapter in their brand new barbecue joint not far from the original trailer. Now Evie Mae’s (named after the couple’s daughter) is a full-fledged barbecue joint.
The new joint has brought its challenges. Of course there are many more customers, but the restaurant is no longer an unknown little barbecue trailer. “Every day the product has to be better than it was last week, otherwise people will question whether it was really that good last week,” Arnis told me. New visitors are coming in with high expectations, and Arnis understands how important consistency is to keep all those new faces coming back.
The Robbins’s don’t have a family history in barbecue. After selling their landscaping business in Tucson, they moved to Texas without any plans to make a splash on the barbecue scene. It turns out their barbecue was too good to be ignored. Last year, Evie Mae’s made our list of the twenty-five best new barbecue joints in Texas, and this year they’ll take another big step as the newcomer at this year’s Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival. We’re excited to have them aboard.
Daniel Vaughn: When you opened the trailer last year, what were your goals for it? What did you think it might become?
Arnis Robbins: We didn’t really have a plan. The idea wasn’t to use it as a stepping-stone to a brick-and-mortar. I had come from the landscaping business in Tucson that was so demanding and cutthroat. Having a barbecue trailer was almost therapeutic. I honestly thought we could work as much or as little as we wanted to.
DV: You had sold the landscaping company, so you had a bit of a financial cushion, right?
AR: Yeah. We had enough to start over. That was the winter of 2014. The city of Lubbock had an ordinance that wasn’t friendly to food trucks. They were working on amending it, but we didn’t know when it would happen. We needed a place to rent to keep the trailer, and I found a storage unit in Wolfforth. We were ready to open up, so we just opened the trailer in the parking lot out front. We thought that was our soft opening.
DV: And that’s where I found you.
AR: When you showed up we were in panic mode.
DV: Panic mode about what?
AR: Revenue. We were just breaking even, and had bills to pay. We also were looking for a new location. We needed to make a change. It was a terrible location. We were on a one-way service road along a highway in a bedroom community. We didn’t know how to get the word, so when you came along and exposed us, that’s when everyone started showing up.
DV: When you got here, what made you choose barbecue?
AR: Back in Tucson, I had bought an electric smoker on Craigslist. We didn’t grow up eating barbecue in Eastern New Mexico, but I liked it. I had also been diagnosed with celiac disease. I knew if I had to be on a strict gluten-free diet, I couldn’t really eat out anymore. I started investing in high quality meat and turning it into barbecue. I was using that small smoker, then I bought a Cookshack and experimented with it. Then I found a propane tank on Craigslist. I knew how to weld, and figured it would make a nice barbecue pit.
DV: That’s pretty industrious for someone who didn’t know much about barbecue.
AR: We were isolated out there. We weren’t really influenced by the barbecue renaissance. I like projects, so this was my next project. My neighbors didn’t understand it, but they thought is was the funniest thing they’d seen. Our lot was tiny. My neighbor pulled the tank off the trailer with his four-wheeler, then it sat there for a week while I did research on how not to blow myself up cutting into a propane tank. I had no idea the history of it. I filled it up with water to offset any lingering gases in there. I was working on it, and my buddy called with plans for a bachelor party in a couple months. I decided to finish it and cook a pig for the party.
DV: How did it turn out?
AR: It was my first real cook on a real smoker. I ran it at 225, and I didn’t think it would ever get done. I think we ate at 10:00 that night. Everything was phenomenal, but we’d been drinking all day.
DV: Not bad for your first try.
AR: Yes. I decided to make an effort to use the smoker more often. There was a neighbor’s birthday party, then another party, and then I caught the barbecue bug. I found a food trailer that used to be a carny wagon they sold corn out of at the fair. I fixed it up, and we parked in a lot and cooked overnight. We sold plenty. It was fun, but it was so hot.
DV: What did you call it?
AR: I wanted to call it Bullpen Barbecue, but a neighbor suggested we use Evie Mae’s after our daughter. He said it sounded more southern. It stuck.
DV: What made you decide to move to Lubbock?
AR: My parents relocated to Lubbock after selling the farm I grew up on. They were running rental houses and needed help. We sold our business and moved in September of 2014. The barbecue trailer was just a side business.
DV: Did you bring the old trailer?
AR: No. We got a new one. I just about had it done, and went to put the smoker on the trailer. It bent the trailer frame, and I couldn’t shut the back doors of the trailer. There was no turning back at that point. I wasn’t going to build a new smoker, so I ordered another axle. Now we had a heavy-duty three-axle barbecue trailer.
DV: When did the windows first open on the trailer?
AR: February 18, 2015. We first opened just on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
DV: When did the new place open?
AR: April 28th of this year.
DV: Now there’s really no going back.
AR: A year ago today, I don’t know if we had any real expectations of having a permanent restaurant. Even now we keep wondering when the newness is going to wear off. What day are we going to show up and the customers aren’t going to come? That’s always in the back of my mind.
DV: But you’re bringing a new level of barbecue quality to the area, so the people are going to come.
AR: Yes, but I tell people all the time that when we were in the trailer, nobody knew who we were and it was easy to impress people. Now they come in with high expectations, and they’re skeptical. It better be the best they can get. That’s what keeps us from cutting corners. We were hoping to ease into over the first month. We got some extra capacity with a new pit, and you think you can ramp up slowly, then people show up like crazy and you’re right back at full capacity. It’s been crazy.
DV: There are worse problems.
AR: We haven’t been in business long enough to understand our seasons, but summer should be slower here with school out in Lubbock. People started moving back in a couple weeks ago, and we’ve started cooking more. Even the building itself seems to be shrinking. It seemed so huge when we moved in here from the trailer, and now it feels undersized.
DV: How many employees do you have now?
AR: We have seven in addition to Mallory and me. Everybody’s close to 40 hours.
DV: After running the trailer, it must be nice to have some help.
AR: Once we were in the building, I was still doing all the trimming, seasoning, and cooking. A month into it I hired a guy who is showing some serious potential. I taught him how to trim and he’s been doing all the briskets. Once he started that, I could focus on cooking. It was huge.
DV: How many briskets are you cooking these days?
AR: 30 to 40 a day, and my preferred case weight for 5 briskets is 85 pounds, so we’re cooking big briskets.
DV: How many were you cooking at the trailer?
AR: At the most we’d do 20, but that was if we had some catering or call-ins. Now we can do 40 briskets. We did 32 racks of ribs yesterday. They’ve become a huge seller. When we first opened it took forever for ribs to catch on. I cooked 4 or 5 racks a day and it was hard to sell those. Everyone wanted sandwiches when we started.
DV: Have you seen a shift in that in the new building?
AR: Oh yeah. We have more dine-in traffic, obviously. We use Square, so it keeps track of new and returning customers if they use a card. Up until two weeks ago, new customers were 70% of our business. This week it was 60%.
DV: As the school year comes in, are you looking to expand your hours?
AR: I’m trying to figure out what our real capacity is. We’ve thought about setting up the trailer near the stadium during game weekends. It also comes down to how much we really want to take on. We don’t want to jeopardize quality.
DV: You also want a life with your family. And you have a new baby, right?
AR: Yes. And even being open just three days a week means at least a five day work week, and usually six.
DV: Don’t burn yourself out too early.
AR: My hours are the same, but my tasks have reduced. Six months ago, Mallory and I were doing everything. I’d trim and season meat, I’d cook it, make potato salad, and sauce. She’d make desserts and that was daily. It’s crazy to see how it’s evolved in a short amount of time.
DV: Looking back, was the landscaping business more or less stressful than barbecue?
AR: They’re both stressful in different ways. The barbecue business is very stressful during those hours of service, but the landscaping business is stressful 24/7.
DV: Which one is more rewarding?
AR: Definitely barbecue.