Interview: Dirk Miller of Miller’s Smokehouse
Pitmaster: Miller’s Smokehouse, opened 2008
Smoker: Wood-fired offset smoker
Dirk Miller has never been this busy in his life. He called me from a van outside of his barbecue joint so nobody would bug him. He hasn’t taken a vacation in years, and he paces the floors of his barbecue joint Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton at night worrying about tomorrow’s meat. He’s also never been happier. He left a good job with his father’s masonry business and thought things would be easy when he opened a taxidermy and deer processing shop in downtown Belton. Owning a business nearly ruined him. He was this close to swallowing his pride to ask dad for his job back, then things started to turn around for him. Now he’s considered on of the state’s best pitmasters, and business has never been better.
Daniel Vaughn: Many of the pitmasters I’ve spoken with in the past are unsure about whether the next generation will have any interest in barbecue. In your case that’s already starting to happen, right?
Dirk Miller: My son Dusty will take over the barbecue business and my other son Dylon will take over the taxidermy and deer processing facility.
DV: Do you have any other children?
DM: I have a daughter Samantha that’s a junior in high school. She works here at least three nights a week. She’ll be going off to college after next year.
DV: How did you start in the barbecue business?
DM: I left the family business. Ten years ago I ventured off on my own and opened a taxidermy and deer processing facility. It was like a full time hobby. I decided I would finish this life up doing what I wanted to do.
DV: What was the family business?
DM: A masonry and fireplace company. I couldn’t tell you how many fireplaces and barbecue pits that I built out of brick at people’s homes. Now I’m cooking on metal pits [laughing]. I really want to build a masonry pit for the restaurant. I just need to buy the building next door. Our place is only nineteen and a half feet wide.
DV: Is the building that you’re in now where the taxidermy shop used to be?
DM: That’s where I started. I had a taxidermy business that I ran out of a metal building where my dad stored wood-burning fireplaces for his business. When I left the business I moved into this building and almost starved to death. I took every bit of my savings and bought coolers, mixers, grinders, everything. When I worked for my dad I worked on the jobsite. I didn’t realize how much it cost to run a business. We lived off my wife for probably four or five years.
DV: What kind of work does she do?
DM: She actually quit her job a week ago Friday. She makes all of our desserts, and she’s opening a bakery next door to the restaurant.
DV: So it’s safe to say that things have turned around for you?
DM: I’ll tell you what. I only dreamed about how things have turned out right now. My son is making good money working for me at the deer processing. That’s really what got us through was the deer processing and taxidermy.
DV: How did the barbecue part of the business begin?
DM: Dusty convinced me to start selling sausages out of the front of my shop. Then I started doing pulled pork. I didn’t own a pit, so I used a crock pot. I disguised it with barbecue sauce, but people liked them. Then I borrowed a pit and started doing one brisket a day. Then I found an old barbecue pit laying in a field, so I picked it up and starting using it. It just grew from there.
DV: And even then you weren’t yet a barbecue joint, right? This was out in front of a meat processing facility.
DM: That’s right. In our place, the whole back seating area used to be walk-in coolers. Where the kitchen is now was where we had the hoist for deer to lift them up and skin them. When the bell went off at the front door, I’d take off my apron and gloves, wash my hands and walk up and make them a pulled pork sandwich or a sausage wrap. One day we made over $100. We were so excited we thought we might do a little more. That’s when I started cooking briskets.
DM: Dusty told me that from this time last year, our business is up 196% today. I can’t keep up. I don’t oversleep. Every day that I get there I’m prepared for you to walk through that door. I don’t want you to catch me on a bad day. I don’t want any of my customers to catch me on a bad day. I’m a control freak. I drive them crazy in the kitchen asking “is that dry?” They begged me to go home early on Saturday night.
DV: You said taxidermy was really a hobby when you started. Do you have any time for it anymore?
DM: You know, my twenty-three year old son Dylon turned into a man about two weeks ago. We took in more deer than we’ve ever taken in our life this year. We did eleven hundred deer all of last year. Last weekend alone we did a hundred and ten deer. I told him there’s no way I could help him anymore because if the barbecue. I didn’t know if he could do it, but he’s running things. He’s a man now.
DV: You threw him into the fire, eh?
DM: He graduated college and wanted to work for me. I made him promise me that this is what he wanted to do. He looked me back in the eye and said he does not want any part of the barbecue. He was just on KCEN TV last night for dirtiest jobs in Central Texas.
DV: How do most folks choose to have their deer processed? Do you mainly make sausage?
DM: Standard processing is $75. That’s hamburger and steaks. For most people it costs more because they want a lot of sausage made. For the hamburger I add 10% brisket fat. It’s the best deer burger you’ve ever eaten.
DV: You keep the brisket fat trimmings from the restaurant and use them in the venison burgers?
DM: Right. Every morning when I trim I cryovac the fat and freeze it.
DV: Do you smoke venison?
DM: You bet. All the time.
DV: You’ve now taken over the whole building for the barbecue joint, so where is the processing facility now?
DM: Three years ago we moved it down Main street right across the river. It’s not far.
DV: What was the turning point at the barbecue joint when you knew you needed a dedicated space?
DM: In 2008 we started doing real barbecue and that was when the processing was growing like crazy. Now the barbecue is growing so much we can’t keep up. We have one cash register and one meat cutter. We really don’t have room for more. We have to cut the meat in the back too. I’d give anything to have the meat cut out there where people could see what they’re ordering. Every day we have a line out the door, and that just never happened before. People are waiting a half hour to order. That might not be much in Austin, but things are totally different here in Belton.
DV: So you’re just out of room?
DM: Yes. We just bought the building next to us that used to be a flower shop. We’re moving my wife’s bakery into there. She is selling pies like you wouldn’t believe. I’m also opening another sausage shop in the back of that building too. I just can’t make enough jerky these days. When she moves over there that will free up enough space in the kitchen to where we can have another cutting table in there.
DV: For a long time you’ve been in the shadow of Schoepf’s down the street. They have the big name and the billboards. Was that frustrating knowing that most travelers were never going to get back to your place in the middle of town?
DM: It was frustrating just because I’m a business owner. They’re working hard too, but the thing is that I stand out there by the pit just as long whether I’m cooking three briskets or thirty. I’d drive down the street and see a ton of people lined up and know that most of them don’t even realize I exist. There are people that I grew up with who still live in Belton that come in now, but didn’t even know I had this place a couple years ago. It’s amazing, but where we sit here in the middle of town is away from the Wal-Mart and HEB on the north side of town. Now I’ve got people coming in from out of state every weekend. I know that Belton has got enough people to support three barbecue joints. We’re all different. Mikeska’s does steaks and chicken fried steaks and Schoepf’s has a different cooking style than mine.
DV: Have you ever eaten at either one?
DM: I grew up in Belton, so when I was a kid we’d eat Mikeska’s in Temple, but I haven’t been to the one here. Before I started the business I would stop at Schoepf’s and get a pork chop.
DV: How did you learn how to barbecue?
DM: From the time I was in high school, I loved to cook. I used to carry a barrel pit around in the back of my truck through high school. If I was at the lake or something, I’d dig a pit, build a fire and put that pit over top in the dirt. Then a friend and I would enter these barbecue contests during our senior year in high school and on through college. We never won a thing. We went broke doing it and had to scrape up pennies to afford the meat, but we loved it. Also, every year a group of us would go out to our deer lease outside of Salado and I’d be the cook. I put about ten or twenty pounds on every person there, and they said I should start my own business.
DV: You literally drove around with a pit at all times in high school?
DM: Yes. Back then I was hunting or fishing every weekend, so I always carried my stuff.
DV: Did that impress the girls?
DM: I doubt it. I like girls just fine, but back then I loved to hunt and fish more than anything, so I really didn’t care.
DV: And now it’s all barbecue?
DM: Yes. I’d like to get out there more and try some other people’s stuff. I read about John Lewis at la Barbecue the other day. They wrote about his creativity and all that. I like that. Dusty is always trying other barbecue and asking me why I’m not doing this or that. It gets on my nerves when he does it, but at the same time I don’t want be left behind. I want to do what tastes best.
DV: Does Dusty cook for you or is he just your top critic?
DM: He still lives in Austin. He worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers as a CPA out of college, but now he works for an oil company that lets him off on Fridays and Saturdays so he can be here. He’s my best critic. Dusty is the most quality control driven person you’ll meet. He’s also the innovator. He has pushed me every step of the way. I wanted to work four or five months a year in the deer and taxidermy business, then go fishing the rest of the year. Now I’m working seven days a week and I might as well sell my boat.
DV: Who else helps you in the kitchen?
DM: We have Robert Reid. Thank God for him. He’s my right hand man. We have some high school kids too. We need another guy before I die, but it’s tough to let things go. My wife and I have had two vacations in the last ten years. The last one we had was just a few days, but every morning I made Robert text me a photo of the fire going because I’m so worried about him oversleeping. I needed to see a picture of everything burning around three in the morning or I was driving home.
DV: That seems like a lot of worrying.
DM: Well maybe, but I got a letter the other day that crushed me. We were at the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival and I wanted Robert to be there. We brought him and we let another guy run the place for that night. I thought it would all be fine, but an eighty-year-old man sent me a letter to say that he ate down the street all the time and when he came to visit the sauce was so hot that he couldn’t enjoy his barbecue. He said he’d never come in my place again. Well this guy running the place that night decided to do a little something with the sauce and he overdid it with some habanero. Robert went back and tried it and said he couldn’t hardly talk after eating some of it. I don’t know many customers had a bad experience like that, and that’s why I have a hard time leaving.
DV: If you want it done right….
DM: There have been times I’ve been so frustrated and tired that I’ve told Dusty “if one more employee pisses me off I’m gonna yank my favorite pit and set up on Main Street where I can make $400 a day.” I could at least relax and enjoy life.
DV: Nasty letters aside, you’ve got a good thing going there that seems to be supporting the whole family pretty well.
DM: I keep thinking I’m gonna go broke paying all these people, but it keeps working. Everybody pulls their weight. I’ve got a gung-ho family here, and we’ve got ahold of the same end of the rope.
DV: You said you don’t have enough room inside, but have you been able to add any pits outside to keep up with the new demand?
DM: Not really. I cooked thirty-six racks of ribs for Friday and another thirty-six for Saturday. Last year that would have been enough ribs for a month. Now we run out of brisket every weekend.
DV: That sounds like a good problem to have.
DM: Yes, but it’s a tough business until you finally get over the hump, and this Texas Monthly deal has done so much for us. I put my life into this. Luckily my family works up here with me and we get to have a good time. I even gave up my deer lease.
DV: How much do you get for brisket per pound in Belton?
DM: $12.95 per pound, which makes for a fine line between making money and not making any.
DV: What would happen if you charged $15 per pound?
DM: You know…I don’t know, but I might just do it one day to see what happens.
DV: You’ve got a lot more people coming in these days, but most are coming in with high expectations. Is that tougher to deal with?
DM: I can’t relax anymore. I’m always chasing “perfect.”
DV: How much have you learned about barbecue since you opened in 2008?
DM: More than I could tell you.
DV: Do you look back now and laugh a little at what you were serving then?
DM: Oh yeah I do. But then I wonder now if my brisket seasoning is right or if I should change it to just salt and pepper. It would be a whole lot easier to do than what I’m doing now. Then again, not everybody likes my style of barbecue now. It’s got the bark and the fat.
DV: Then they can always eat the homemade sausage.
DM: You know, I think more places should start making their own sausage. Do you how much cheaper it is to make sausage than it is to buy the stuff? I have about $0.50 in every link, and they’re a quarter pound each. That’s $2.00 per pound which factors in the labor too.
DV: That would be some low quality sausage if you bought some for $2.00 per pound.
DM: You ain’t kidding. We also use picnic and brisket in ours. It’s not any bad cuts of meat in the sausage. Sausage is so much fun. I’ve got all these ideas. I want to try out different stuff. I’d like to try hanging some sausages or making some with beef navels or something.
DV: So, you’re still enjoying this barbecue stuff?
DM: It’s been fun. I won’t lie to you. My favorite part of the day is the mornings. I wouldn’t trade that with anyone. Until 8:00 it’s just me with the smoker. I get to think and you know it’s pretty cool being able to make a living barbecuing.