Interview: Travis Mayes of Meshack’s Bar-Be-Que
Pitmaster: Meshack’s Bar-Be-Que, opened 2009
Smoker: Wood-fired Brick Smoker w/ gas assist
It was a Monday morning and Meshack’s was closed like normal. Travis and I had arranged this time to meet since the tasks to get ready for Tuesday were pretty slow-paced. There were two would-be customers leaving the window when I arrived. They looked forlorn that the place was closed, but Travis assured me they were locals who should know better. As we sat to talk no less than a half dozen more people came up to the front window yelling or knocking, hoping for a bite. All were turned away as Travis would rattle the metal CLOSED sign against the window until it got their attention. He said there were about fifteen people that came by before I got there. It seems he has this down to an art, just like his barbecue, which is evidently in high demand. But it wasn’t always that way. Travis ran this joint for nearly ten years before being forced into a thirteen-year barbecue hiatus. Now, despite long lines, no indoor seating, poor parking and a secluded location, he’s back and more popular than most every barbecue joint in the area.
Daniel Vaughn: What’s your normal schedule on the days that you’re open?
Travis Mayes: I get up around 3:00 in the morning and I get here around 5:00. The first thing I do is check my beef because I leave it cooking overnight.
The phone rings. Travis says he’ll call them back.
DV: The beef goes on overnight, so do you cook everything else in the morning?
TM: Basically. It all depends on what’s going on outside. My pit takes a long time to warm up. The cooler the weather, the longer it takes to cook ribs. In the winter time I change my whole style of cooking. I start cooking ribs the day before, but I don’t cook them all the way. I get them to about an hour before they’re done then wrap them up and freeze them. I stack the ribs in the pit in the morning to finish cooking them. I then prep more ribs in the morning and get them on the pit. They usually get about 4 ½ hours before I open. If they’re not done when I open, the ones I did the day before will be ready.
Someone yells outside the window. Travis rattles the sign.
DV: One of the challenges you have is that you have one pit. You have to do everything in that one pit. You have to cook meat and hold meat. How do you manage that?
TM: That’s a bad pit, man. The top rack cooks faster than the bottom. I run with a hot fire in the morning. I have a ½” gas line running to the pit. I stack my wood up and turn the gas on. That’s what starts the wood. I then run the wood and gas together for about an hour to heat the pit up. If it’s really cold I’ll keep the gas on longer to get it warm.
DV: Did you build this pit or inherit it?
TM: It was built in 1973. I know the guy that built it. I can’t remember his name. He comes by here and buys barbecue. My father-in-law started running the place after the Claytons were here. I never saw the place until I took over.
DV: Your wife Donna must have been familiar with it, right?
TM: No. She had never seen it either. Her father had four barbecue places. There was one on Oakland and Pennsylvania, one on Lamar and one on Lancaster where TD’s BBQ is now. We’d always go to the one on Oakland and Pennsylvania. That was my favorite hang out. I drank beer then. I wasn’t a Christian then. Donna’s uncles had a liquor store next door. You didn’t have to go outside to get into the liquor store. I get those beers with the pop-top. It didn’t matter what brand.
DV: Is that the Meshack’s down in South Dallas where Donna worked?
DV: Is that where you got some of your recipes?
TM: The beans were from Van out in Lancaster. I jacked them up a little different. The sauce is a recipe from the Meshack family. The potato salad was Aunt Vera’s.
DV: Is that Donna’s aunt?
TM: Yes. Do you remember Dwight White from the Pittsburgh Steelers? Vera is his mother. He’s my wife’s first cousin. Vera would sit by the front door [of the South Dallas Meshack’s]. The only things she did was mess with people and make potato salad.
DV: What was Donna’s dad’s name?
TM: We called him Big Daddy. His real name was James Meshack.
DV: Did you learn how to barbecue from him?
TM: I really didn’t. I always had a knowledge of cooking. My mother taught me how to cook. I grew up out in the country. The others went out to work in the fields, but I would stay inside and help mom in the kitchen. When Donna and I got married I cooked on a tiny grill outside our apartment. Donna loved my chicken. Man, I just cooked this pork loin last week. I split it in half and put on applewood bacon, yellow peppers, brown sugar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, liquid smoke and Worcestershire sauce. I put it in a pan in the oven and kept basting it until it was golden brown.
DV: A barbecue man using liquid smoke?
TM: That’s for the house. I don’t use liquid smoke here. I just use a dry rub. I got that recipe off the Cooking Channel.
DV: Do you watch a lot of food television?
TM: Sometimes. Who’s that guy who drives the convertible and has the spiked up hair?
DV: Guy Fieri.
TM: Yeah. I like to watch him. That booger can eat, man.
DV: You’ve been on TV recently too, right?
TM: I was on Storage Wars Texas. I gave them an estimate on a grill. They wanted a pitmaster to help. That was a nice grill. That joker got hot quick! It was a good looking grill. I think we cooked some links on it.
DV: Nowadays you’re a famous barbecue man. You’ve been on TV and featured in multiple magazines. Let’s go back a while. What did you do before you ran this barbecue joint?
TM: I did warehouse work. I’m a professional forklift operator. I can put a dime on the floor and pick it up with the blade. I worked at Alliance Data Systems. They were a junk mail company. You know, like advertisements and brochures. Just don’t get mad at me, but all that junk mail came from me.
DV: Did you get laid off there?
TM: Yes. They laid me off on February 2, 2009.
DV: Is that when you decided to open the barbecue joint?
TM: No. I had already been here. I did barbecue from 1986 to 1996 in this building. After my father-in-law passed away in ’86 a friend of the family named Van helped me out. He basically taught me how to cook ribs. Now he’s got a place in Lancaster called Tiger’s BBQ.
Another patron arrives looking for barbecue, but is turned away.
DV: Did he teach you how to run the place?
TM: Yeah. I had cooked, but I wasn’t used to that large of a pit. We weren’t cooking much then. We’d do about 150 pounds of meat on Saturday. Now we do about 600 pounds and sell out in four hours. One Saturday I sold 700 pounds. That gets tiring handling that much meat. You’ve got to lift it out of the box, unwrap it, wash it down and season it, then put it on the pit. I’ve got the process down now. This is what I do.
DV: You also had to get used to this pit. That had to take a while.
TM: Yes. I don’t like to push it since it’s an old pit. I‘m closed on Sunday for church and to let the pit cool down, then I can clean it on Monday. I like to keep it clean so I’m not afraid to let it run overnight. When I start that fire again on Monday it doesn’t go out until Saturday night.
Another disappointed potential customer yells outside…
DV: You said you hadn’t seen this Meshack’s location before you took over. What made you want to take this one over after your father-in-law passed away?
TM: Donna and I didn’t have much experience and we didn’t have much money. The lease was cheap here. If I learned it I could keep it going. If I didn’t, then I hadn’t lost much.
DV: Did you have a warehouse job somewhere before taking over?
TM: Yes. I worked nights. It was rough. I would work here until about 2:00, then huff it into Dallas to get to work by 3:00. I didn’t really know how to cook that well either. I couldn’t get my beef right. I’d try to come in in the morning and cook the beef and it wouldn’t work. One day I put a couple briskets on at 1:00 in the afternoon hoping to get them started before I had to leave. I was planning to take them off when I left. I didn’t know what I was doing. Anyway, I forgot to take them off the fire. The next morning I was on my way here when I remembered the briskets. I hurried here thinking I’d burnt them up. I opened the pit, stuck them with my fork and took them off. They were just right.
Another disappointed potential customer…
DV: So, your brisket method was developed by accident?
TM: It was a big accident. Then I had to figure out how to do it again. I had to play with it to figure out how much wood to have in there to keep it going overnight. I couldn’t afford to waste wood or lose any meat either.
DV: How long after you’d taken over did you get the brisket technique figured out?
TM: About two months. Now I’ve got it down. If the fat’s not caramelized and it’s still hard, then you got some cooking time left to go. If your finger goes AYEE-OHH when you touch it, then you know it’s hot and ready to cut.
DV: You might be the only one of the Top 50 pitmasters that had to close their barbecue joint in the past. How did you make the decision? What was the breaking point?
TM: We were just two days away from being ten years in business. I couldn’t afford to keep it open. The people around here just didn’t have any money. I was even offering credit. They’d pay me when Friday rolled around. The business wasn’t supporting anything. I wasn’t getting a salary so I had to choose between paying for the business or paying the bills at the house. I had to shut it down.
DV: What did you do then?
TM: I worked some odd jobs. I laid sod for some quick money, but I did it for about two years. It was rough. I didn’t even have a car. Then I got that job with Alliance Data Systems and worked there until 2009. My mind was already made up by that time that I’d go back to Garland and sell barbecue. God showed me in my dreams that we should work in this little place, but Donna didn’t want to go. She wouldn’t even come out here. Then, she woke me up one morning after I got laid off. She said “get up and put your clothes on. We’ve got to go to Garland!” I didn’t know what she was talking about. She said “I dreamed we were making big money in Garland.” We came out here and looked at it. I could see what I had to do to it. I took my unemployment money and paid for everything at the house, and I took my severance and opened this place back up.
Travis’s phone rings, and he turns it off.
DV: Had someone else been running the joint?
TM: Oh yeah. They burnt it. If you think it looks ramshackle now…the ceiling here was all burned.
DV: Did they start a pit fire?
TM: Yep. In March 2009 they let me get in here to fix it up. I didn’t pay rent until I was ready to open up. It cost me about $7000 to get things back right.
Another knock on the window…
DV: When did you open?
TM: May 23, 2009.
DV: Did your old customers come back?
TM: Oh yeah. Every day. Those were the ones. Some would help me work on the place, you know, do stuff to get open. They said they needed some good barbecue around here. After we opened we were kicking good. We had support from the police department and the city employees. Then you came along and started writing articles about it. Then people started coming in from all over. It exploded from there. Garden & Gun came along, the Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, CNN, and the Dallas Observer.
DV: Have you ever advertised?
TM: Nope. I don’t have time. I’m getting all the publicity I need.
Another knock on the window…
DV: Now you’re just shy of your second five-year anniversary.
TM: Yep. May 23rd next year. I’ll be sixty-five by then.
DV: This doesn’t sound like a relaxing retirement.
TM: Maybe I’ll have to move to just Friday and Saturday. They say Snow’s BBQ is only open on Saturday.
DV: You know they all have days jobs too, right?
TM: Oh. Is that lady still cooking?
DV: You mean Miss Tootsie? Yeah, she’s still cooking and she’s 78. You’ve got a ways to go.
TM: Yeah [laughing]. They’ve got a monster pit too. I want another pit like that. I’d like to open another place too. We just haven’t found the right deal. I’d like to get into South Dallas.
DV: Is that coming next year?
TM: I don’t know. I might retire before then [laughing].
DV: Who’s going to take over for you here? Do you have kids that are interested in it?
TM: My daughter would be a good manager.
DV: Do your daughters know how to do barbecue?
TM: No. They can’t handle that pit.
At this point we went into the pit room to check on the ribs
DV: The walls in here are covered in smoke. How long has it been since they were white?
TM: We painted it three months ago. It doesn’t take long. The health department takes off a point if you have smoke on the walls. I just go ahead and give them that point. There’s just nothing you can do about it when you’re cooking with wood.