Interview: Kent Black of Black’s BBQ
Pitmaster/Manager: Black’s BBQ, opened 1932 (current location since 1936)
Smoker: Wood-fired offset smokers and gas-fired rotisseries
Wood: Post Oak
Black’s BBQ is a family affair. After starting in 1932, they now have the fourth generation, Barrett Black, working at the restaurant. Three of those generations recently appeared together on CBS Sunday Morning. Black’s BBQ was featured along with Kreuz Market in Lockhart, and it was something special seeing Edgar Black, who is not in great health, sitting there with his wife Norma Black, their son Kent and grandson Barrett. I was lucky enough to watch the filming, and witness the entire conversation between the family members. It was about the legacy left by Edgar and Norma and carried on by Kent and Barrett today. That Black’s name will soon be carried to new locations in San Marcos, owned by Kent, and another in Austin owned by his brother Terry.
Kent and I had played phone tag for a bit until he reached me the evening before the interview. He had some free time while he drove a load of briskets to the airport to be shipped out via FedEx. I had to call him back the next day to conduct the interview, and he was planning another inevitable run to the airport just before Christmas. Online orders are up this time of year, but the barbecue joint still gets the primary focus.
Daniel Vaughn: Did you get to the airport alright yesterday?
Kent Black: Yes, but I may have to do it again today. We have a whole slew of orders.
DV: How much of your business consists of shipping barbecue?
KB: Maybe ten or fifteen percent. It’s growing, but we do most of it during November and December. We smoke it, vacuum seal it, and freeze it. Right now, we have an eighteen-wheeler freezer truck from US Foods that they loaned us so we could have the extra freezer space to store it all. There was a glitch in the ordering system yesterday, so we didn’t get everything packed in time for the delivery truck. My son Barrett has a connection with FedEx out at the Austin airport, so we drove the rest of the orders over.
DV: Your son Barrett is the fourth generation of Blacks to work at the barbecue joint, correct?
KB: He is.
DV: That’s a long family history.
KB: My family’s been in the barbecue business since 1932. We started out across the street as a meat market. This was in the days before refrigeration. Right before the meat was about to go bad they would barbecue it or make sausage out of it. The barbecue got bigger and bigger until it split off into its own business. Next door was a supermarket that we had open for forty-five years. Then the other business they ran was Lockhart Sausage Co. We were in all the Handy Andy stores in Central Texas back in the sixties and seventies.
DV: What was the name of the original meat market?
KB: We started out as Northside Grocery & Market since we were on the north side of the square.
DV: What did the business look like in 1932 when you started selling barbecue?
KB: We had kept the fire outside the building in 1932 in a stand that was connected to the building. Like I said before, we smoked the left over meat and made sausage with it. We have a big German influence here in the Lockhart area. My mother’s first language was German. We made a German style sausage. My father spent four years in the Navy after Pearl Harbor then came back to Texas to finish college on the G.I. Bill. He standardized the sausage recipe when he came back. He was also one of the first in the state to use brisket exclusively.
DV: When did he start smoking just briskets?
KB: He graduated from A&M in 1949, so that would have been in the early fifties.
DV: Was he still working out of the old meat market then?
KB: We moved our grocery store to an 8,000 square foot store across the street in 1937. We had a custom butcher shop in there. We had redfish from the Gulf. We’d get fresh produce from San Antonio. As a kid we’d get in the truck at four in the morning and drive down to the produce market where Mi Tierra is.
DV: The permanent barbecue joint that stands today, when did it open?
KB: The barbecue moved from across the street in 1936 to its current location. We’ve enlarged it about five times over the decades and we now have plans to add about a hundred more seats. We own the adjacent building and will cut some doors into that building.
DV: As a representative of the third generation, did you always work at the barbecue joint, or did you have another profession?
KB: A little of both. The business was really our home because that’s where the family was. I started out selling snow cones in front of Black’s BBQ in 1958. As I got older I’d clean tables. Then in the seventies, my brother Terry and I went to college. My parents encouraged us to go out and get an education outside of the barbecue joint. Now my brother is a CPA here in Lockhart. I went to Schreiner in Kerrville then Southern Methodist in Dallas. I was planning to go to law school in the seventies, but my dad got real sick and almost died.
KB: He had been told three times that he had six months to live, all before he was forty.
DV: What was the medical issue?
KB: He had an issue with his endocrine system. His body created tumors. He had experimental surgeries in the fifties. They told him that if he survived he wouldn’t be able to work again because he wouldn’t have any energy.
DV: I guess he proved them wrong.
KB: Yes. Then two years ago he had a heart attack. His heart was functioning at just ten percent. The doctor asked if he thought he could handle surgery. At eighty-six years old, he said “You now, I think I’ve still got some living to do.” He took on a quadruple bypass surgery and it took him seven months to get out of the hospital.
DV: Did you ever get that law degree?
KB: Yes. After working four or five years, I then went to law school down in Houston. I came to Lockhart after that, and I set up shop in a Victorian house right beside Black’s. I would still help out at the barbecue joint on the weekends, and I was city judge here for four years. My dad would call me at my office around lunch sometimes and say “Hey son, we got a line here. What are you doing right now?” I’d remind him that I was over in my office being a lawyer. He’d tell me to tuck in my tie and come cut some brisket. I enjoyed doing it so I would help out for a few hours.
DV: If I remember right, your dad never planned on doing barbecue full time either. Is that correct?
KB: Yes. He had a job lined up at Exxon in Houston when he graduated from college. His dad asked him to come back and help with the barbecue. Now, my grandfather started this place. He was a good businessman, but he was more interested in politics and dominos than barbecue. After my dad came back, he just never left. He was just good at it, and he liked being here in Lockhart. My parents were real active in the community too. My dad was a leader in integrating the Lockhart little league and the Lockhart swimming pool when he was president of the Chamber of Commerce. People swore they’d never come eat here after he hired African Americans to work here. He was always a leader in the community.
DV: I’ve also heard that Black’s has had some powerful political fans, especially LBJ.
KB: Oh yeah. LBJ was our congressman when he first started out. He came in many times. He was friends with my grandfather who was a county judge. When he was vice president we were invited to a birthday party of his. The Smithsonian Institute in DC had a Texas day while he was president, and he asked us to provide the barbecue and sausage on the grounds of the Smithsonian. When you cook for the president, the Secret Service has to be there to watch the food prep so nobody poisons the president. The Secret Service spent two days in Lockhart in our kitchen, then they flew it to Washington DC for the party. I have a photo here of my grandfather and LBJ shaking hands. I’ve been trying to find LBJ’s grandson to help recreate that photo two generations later. Lady Bird had a college roommate that lived here, and she would come visit after LBJ passed away. She would come in the spring when the bluebonnets were out. By the time she left the restaurant she would know everyone’s name.
DV: Black’s seems to be getting a lot of attention recently. Does the popularity ebb and flow, or is Black’s in a greater spotlight now?
KB: We’ve been around a long time and have always had plenty of business, but it does seem like right now more people are paying attention and some people have recently discovered Black’s. We’ve had a few national TV shows come in here recently. It’s gratifying knowing my parents are now getting recognized for a lifetime of work.
DV: You have also had some creative marketing moves recently. One of those was selling briskets on QVC. How did that come about?
KB: The first time we were on there we sold a thousand briskets in eight minutes. We did the show live in Philadelphia in their studio. We never dreamed we’d be in Philadelphia selling briskets. After the show you have forty-eight hours to ship the briskets. We had to have a thousand of them smoked, packaged and frozen before the show. It was a big gamble, but we sold them all. We shipped out five hundred the next day and the other five hundred the following day. We’ve done it four or five times since.
DV: You also seem to have a menu that constantly evolves. You’ve added a few sausage flavors, pork chops, baby backs, and you’re famous for those giant beef ribs.
KB: The way those beef ribs came about is that we kept getting requests. We couldn’t find the right beef ribs from our vendor, so I went to the plant and found these seven inch full cut short rib. They have this wonderful marbled meat. We didn’t know if people would pay $10 for a rib, but the customers really like them. They’ve become a big star of the menu.
DV: Absolutely. So the beef ribs were your innovation?
KB: Yes. We brought those in about four years ago.
DV: I think you’ve earned your title with that move alone.
KB: Well, thank you.
DV: Now you’re making another big move into expansion with a new location in San Marcos.
KB: Yeah. You can’t support three or four family’s out of one business, so we decided to expand. This will be a separate business from Black’s BBQ. My parents own the company Black’s BBQ. They’ve always told my brother Terry and I that we’re free to go do whatever we like, but we’re on our own. The one in San Marcos will be called Kent Black’s BBQ.
DV: When will that open?
KB: Next spring. It’ll be nice. There’s lots of trees on the property. We’ll have seating for about a hundred.
DV: There has been some recent discussion about a new location in Austin run by your nephews. They wanted to call it Black’s BBQ, but they blamed you for not letting them use that name. It sounds like you don’t actually have the power to let them use that name.
KB: Correct. It’s a separate business venture run by my brother Terry and his kids. I’m doing my own thing in San Marcos and he’s doing his own thing in Austin. Neither of them will be legally or financially related to the Lockhart location. I think we’ve got it worked out. They’ll call it Terry Black’s BBQ and they’ll do well in Austin. I wish them the best, but we didn’t want our customers to be confused because it won’t be an identical restaurant.
DV: Did you see the recent interview with your nephew Michael? He was angry about not being able to use the name and he also said he wanted to open the Austin location because he didn’t agree with the cooking methods at Black’s.
KB: Yes. I was pretty surprised to see that one. I don’t know if it was a misunderstanding, but my parents own the name, and they don’t want to see another Black’s BBQ while they’re alive. Michael is my nephew and I don’t wish him any ill will. I guess people like a good controversy, but I don’t like a good controversy. I can imagine Michael’s pretty excited. He worked for me for a few years and he’s got plenty of ideas. He’s a good kid and he’ll do well.
DV: Do you have any other plans for expansion?
KB: For years we’ve had people asking for us to come to San Antonio or Houston or Chicago. San Marcos is it for now. I’m pretty tired.
DV: Barbecue is now your full time job, so how and when did you get drawn back into it as your primary profession?
KB: It was in 2008. Our manager decided to move back to Houston. I was ready to get back into the business so I decided to take over as the manager full time.
DV: After five years back at it, do you think you made the right choice?
KB: Yeah, I do. My head doesn’t hurt as much now, but my feet hurt more.