Interview: Kathleen Mann of Mann’s Smokehouse BBQ
Pitmaster: Mann’s Smokehouse BBQ, opened 1996
Smoker: Gas-Fired rotisserie smoker
Wood: Pecan and Oak
In a town that’s all about the meat, Mann’s in Austin boasts sixteen side items. It’s cut from a different cloth, which makes sense if you know that Jim and Sallie Mann opened this place after moving from a small town in Georgia. They didn’t know much about Texas barbecue and they knew even less about the restaurant business, but they made a go of it anyway. Now their daughter Kathleen has taken the reins, and she has been tasked with running the business and the pits. This isn’t too common in Texas. We all know about Tootsie at Snow’s as the shining example of a female working one of the most famous barbecue pits in Texas, but there aren’t many more women pitmasters in the state. Kathleen is young, and has plenty of years in front of her to try and make a similar mark as Tootsie has, but for now she’s just trying to keep the family business going strong. Texas barbecue may be a man’s world but Kathleen is for damn sure doing more than just living in it.
Daniel Vaughn: Tell me a bit about your family’s business and how you got involved in it.
Kathleen Mann: Mom and dad grew up in a small town in Georgia. They were raised on Sprayberry’s Barbecue in Newnan. My dad also went to Harold’s in Atlanta with his dad. We moved to Austin for dad’s job, but my parents had always talked about doing a restaurant venture together. They wanted to do a barbecue joint. The opportunity arose and they bought an old Donn’s BBQ. We’ve had it going over seventeen years now.
DV: How long had the family been in Austin before Mann’s opened?
KM: We moved here in 1990 when dad was still doing banking consulting. He was looking for something to do that didn’t require travel, and where mom could work with him. I was still in Atlanta at the time and I flew to Austin to visit. They were like “hey, we bought a barbecue restaurant.” It was all a big surprise.
DV: Did either of your parents have any experience in running a restaurant?
KM: No. When they bought it they didn’t have any restaurant experience at all.
DV: Did you think they were crazy?
KM: I was shocked. I still thought it would be so cool, but we didn’t have any idea how much work goes into running a restaurant. It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve been able to incorporate a lot of my grandparents recipes into the menu.
DV: When Mann’s first opened, was the idea to replicate what they had eaten at Sprayberry’s, or to do Texas barbecue?
KM: Back then barbecue wasn’t a big competitive market. We were doing it for fun. We tried to incorporate pulled pork when we first bought it, but nobody wanted it. Mom and dad would smoke it for themselves to eat. They were never able to find anything like we had in Georgia. It just took a while for the pulled pork to catch on. Now we’ve incorporated Georgia staples like Brunswick stew.
DV: Does yours have squirrel [a traditional Brunswick stew ingredient] in it?
KM: [Laughing] No, it does not. We just put chicken, beef, and pork in ours.
DV: Are there any other Georgia touches that you’ve brought over to Texas?
KM: We do black eyed peas, turnip greens…a lot of the southern style sides. We also do a non-sweet cornbread. I bake it in a cast iron skillet. That’s what we served at last year’s barbecue festival. Pulled pork and Brunswick stew with a piece of corn bread stuck in it.
DV: When you sit down for a meal, is it Texas-style brisket or Georgia-style pork?
KM: It changes every day. I could eat both every day. Also, I was only eight when we moved here, so I grew up on brisket. When I cook at home it leans more toward the brisket side.
DV: So, you cook barbecue at home too?
KM: All the time. I cook barbecue and everything else. I’m always trying to experiment, especially during football season when I can invite a bunch of friends over. It’s like a stress free way of having a dinner party.
DV: How long have you worked at Mann’s?
KM: I was in high school when they started, so I worked on and off. I did that through college too. For the last five years they’ve stepped back from running the pit and doing the cooking, and they’ve let me take over that role.
DV: What did you go to college for?
KM: I went to SFA for a business degree, but I ended up moving back to Austin to find work. I haven’t technically finished school. I’m about half way there.
DV: So, you worked for someone else in Austin before you came to work for your folks?
KM: Yes. I worked in sales for a while. Then, the company decided they didn’t want to be in Austin anymore. I called my parents and they said “come on in!”
DV: When you decided to make barbecue your full time job, did you just observe or did you ask your mom and dad to let you shadow them? How did the training work?
KM: I shadowed them both for about two weeks. I had to learn all the meats and the seasonings. Then I learned the sides. Soon I just started taking over all the cooking.
DV: Did you find some room to put some of your own touches on the menu?
KM: Yes. I’ve been incorporating stuff of my own like pot roast on Fridays or chicken fried steak. We do fried pickles sometimes. I’m also doing some paleo specials. I recently started making some Georgia-style sauce to go with our pulled pork. I didn’t know if it would take, but people have been positive about it. That’s kinda cool.
DV: The Texans like it alright?
KM: They do. One guy came up and asked why we hadn’t been serving it all along.
DV: Do you feel like you’ve got a handle on this pitmaster gig after five years on the job?
KM: Definitely. I can do it in my sleep now.
DV: They use a lot of hickory wood in Georgia. Is that what you use as well?
KM: We use oak and pecan. We used to use mesquite. My dad used to go out on his property and cut mesquite and bring it in. It was a lot of work and we stopped using it. That’s when I learned that I’m allergic to mesquite.
DV: Are you allergic to the smoke?
KM: Yes. In the mornings my eyes would get red and blood shot. Then my nose would start running and I would start sneezing. It was weird stuff. When we switched to pecan, none of that happened anymore.
DV: Now that you’re in charge, do your parents still come in to help?
KM: They’re retired.
DV: Mann’s is all yours to take care of now?
KM: Yes. This has all happened in the last six months. They had been cutting back on work. Then we found out dad has an illness. Now mom is taking care of him and they’re doing some traveling.
DV: I guess now when things go wrong, it’s all on you.
KM: Yep. It’s a little bit of pressure. I’ve just know that I need to take care of it. I had already started taking care of a lot more of the business side.
DV: Do you have any help?
KM: We’ve got Chuy who has been with us for seventeen years and a guy who we’ve had since the summer. Those are the only two people I need and trust right now.
DV: Mann’s has just three employees?
KM: That’s about it.
DV: That makes it easier to keep the books.
KM: Yes. It also keeps the food consistent.
DV: If you hadn’t put yourself in this position and prepared yourself by working there, is it safe so say that Mann’s would be closed right now?
KM: Most likely.
DV: It’s good to see that someone was there to carry on the family business.
KM: Thank you. The biggest difference is getting in front of the line and building the relationships with customers. I used to stand in the middle between mom and dad. There was a lot of banter between them and the customers. Dad would say whatever he wanted to. People would come in to see what he would say next. He used the term “flava” around our place. People would ask if “flava” meant fat, and he said “we don’t use that word around here. We use flava.” If you ordered chicken, he ask you if you wanted it running or flying. I’ve now had to step up and build those relationships now. That’s been the biggest change.
DV: Have you had regulars coming in who ask for your mom and dad instead of wanting to get their food from you?
KM: Pretty much daily. They’re not mean about it, but they’re curious and concerned. I tell them that I’m their daughter. They need to know that I’m the cook, but that I’m family.
DV: Not every new generation at a barbecue joint takes over of their own free will. Some are almost forced into it, but it seems like this is what you’ve always wanted to do.
KM: I did, but I didn’t always know it. When I worked sales I liked the flexible hours. When I started working with my parents, I was like “7:00? That’s early!” I don’t want those hours. Now I wouldn’t change it for anything.
DV: How early do you get there now?
KM: I try to get there between 5:00 and 5:30. Now I have such a passion for it, it doesn’t matter.
DV: When you were learning the ropes, did your mom and dad share all the cooking duties, or did one of them work the pit?
KM: Dad primarily worked the pit. Mom did the sides. A lot of those recipes are from the family. I learned everything from both of them.
DV: I’m not sure if it’s on your radar, but do you know what it means to be a pitmaster in Texas who is female? There aren’t many. What does that mean to you if that’s something you’ve thought about?
KM: I was aware. When we were at last year’s barbecue festival, one of my friends who was helping me out kept looking around and he said “Kat, do you realize you’re one of the only female pitmasters I’ve ever known?” I know that Snow’s has a female pitmaster, but other than that I hadn’t heard of one. There were other women working at the festival, but none of them were the actual pitmasters.
DV: At this point in your life I’m guessing completing that degree at SFA isn’t high on the priority list anymore.
KM: No. Not with what I’m doing now. I’m probably not going to make it back to SFA. My brothers and sisters all went to college and graduated, but my dad always said to me “If you want to take this seriously, we’ll teach you everything you want to know. You’ll learn more from us doing this than you will from college.”