Interview: Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue
Owner/Pitmaster: Louie Mueller Barbecue; opened in 1949
Smoker: Brick pit with an offset firebox
Wood: Post Oak
I had intentions of talking to Wayne for this interview while we were both attending the Big Apple BBQ Block Party in New York. We talked a few times during the event, but there just wasn’t the thirty minutes of peace we needed for a real interview amongst the chaos. Instead he called back while I was in my hotel room in Colorado Springs overlooking the Rockies. I was on a break from BBQ University at the Broadmoor and was happy to reconnect to Texas after having been gone for a week.
Wayne has always been generous with his time when talking barbecue. The gift of gab served him well when working in advertising in Houston. It serves the barbecue community well too since he is so eager to share his “secrets” to great barbecue. I wanted to get a little more depth on the varied history of the barbecue joint that bears his grandfather’s name. I also wanted to know how he believes he fits in to that history, having only taken over the pits less than seven years ago.
Daniel Vaughn: Your grandfather Louie Mueller started the business as a grocery store. Do you know if he started the barbecue side of the business as a way to use up cuts not selling well at the meat counter, or was the idea to have a barbecue restaurant?
Wayne Mueller: It was a practicum to keep the spoilage from happening. He took what may be spoilage and made it a profit center. He started by drying and smoking meats. In our case, the immigrant population would swell the downtown during cotton harvest season. There weren’t enough eateries to feed them all. So grandpa looked at that and thought if he was smoking stuff he might as well cook for everyone. He then found out that this was where the money to be made. The smoked dried meats had a long shelf life, but also a long turn around time. The barbecue could be cooked and we’d see the return in a day.
DV: Fred Fontaine was the pitmaster at Louie Mueller for it’s first few decades. When did Louie hire Fred Fontaine and why?
WM: The story I’ve always heard is that Fred rolled in on the train to Taylor back in 1942 after World War II. Fred walked from the train station to Louie Mueller and asked for a job. Grandpa gave him a job as general help around the store. There were already a couple of guys working on the pits. It didn’t take long before the guys cooking had moved on, so grandpa asked if Fred wanted to learn how to use the pits. He agreed.
DV: Where did Fred come from?
WM: He liked to refer to himself as the flying Frenchman, but he had last lived in Rhode Island. He didn’t come in with any experience, but grandpa showed him a few basics of the pit, the meat and the seasoning . “Bring back to me what you’re doing and I’ll let you know if it’s worth consuming or not.” That was my grandfather method for quality control.
DV: What is Fred’s legacy at Louie Mueller? Do any of his menu items still exist on the menu.
WM: My grandfather wanted to bring brisket in, but Fred wanted to stick with clod. Grandpa told him that he was going to have to use briskets and he finally rode his ass enough that Fred started using briskets.
DV: When did your dad become the man who was making decisions in the pit room?
WM: My dad took over in 1974. Fred stayed around until 1987.
DV: What did your dad do to change things when he took control of the pit room?
WM: My dad was trying to find a way to keep briskets from drying out. He started wrapping them in butcher paper to keep them moist.
DV: What of your current menu was in place at the time your dad took over?
WM: The brisket was there. The sausage is my dad’s recipe. He finalized the recipe in 1965. We also had beef ribs, but they looked completely different from what they look like today. There were three bones and the bones were the size of a saltine, and the meat was about as thick as two stacked saltines on a good day.
DV: Are those beef ribs something you remember eating there?
WM: Oh yeah! I remember it very well.
DV: Did your dad develop the rub and the sauce recipe?
WM: The table sauce was there – the hot sauce on the tables in the little bottles. That was a Fontaine recipe. The dip [which they’re most known for] was a grandpa thing.
DV: How did the menu change when Bobby took over?
WM: Of course we had brisket and we added the sausage. We also had half fryer chickens. Mutton was there until dad took over. The spare ribs came about that time as well. The clod had already dropped off in the late fifties when grandpa made Fred switch over to briskets.
DV: When did you leave Taylor?
WM: I left in 1986 after two years at UT. Then I moved around to a few colleges in Texas until I found the right major. I went to Texas Tech and Texas A&M to study civil engineering and architecture until the subject matter got stale to me. I graduated from Southwest Texas State [now Texas State] with a finance degree, then to A&M Kingsville for my Masters. My life hasn’t been the straightest of paths, but it’s not one where I’ve lacked interest or experience.
DV: Where did you go after you got your degree?
WM: I went from Wimberley to Corpus Christi, then to Houston to work in advertising. I worked in there from 1997 to 2007 when I came back to Taylor.
DV: What made you come back?
WM: In 2006 my dad called and told me that he wanted out. It was time for him to retire. He asked me to come back home and start his exit strategy. This was just a few months after he won the James Beard award. When I got there, my father asked me to make a promise. He said “when I’m gone, you promise that you will keep this going.” How are going to say no? You just put everything on the line on their behalf. You’re vested now. You can’t say no. I started reassigning my agency clients to other folks back in Houston. I was a barbecue guy.
DV: So you came back to take over from your dad? [Bobby died a year later on September 6, 2008].
WM: July of 2009 was his target date for retirement. I got to work with him for a year and a half before he passed away. On the morning of September 6th, 2008 my mother called me at 8:00 in the morning and told me I needed to get to their house – now. Something was wrong with my father. That was a rough day.
DV: Obviously that was a rough time for you and the whole family. Once the shock wore off and you were no in charge, what went through your mind about your place in the business?
WM: I was pretty numb for about two years. I still seems like it’s been one long day since then.
DV: Did you have any help then?
WM: Lance [Kirkpatrick, now at Stiles Switch in Austin] was there for about another year. Our relationship was so strained. It was obvious to both of us that he was going to have to quit or get fired, so he quit. He walked out mid-shift on a Saturday. In a way it was really the first break I had since taking over. We had constant battles, and I was glad to have them over.
DV: So you were on your own essentially?
WM: I had those eighteen months when I was working with dad to glean everything I could from him about the recipes and the processes. Nothing was written down. It was all in dad’s head. I got most of it, but I never did get his pork sausage recipe. That kills me. I fully realized then when people think about Texas they think about cowboys, oil, cattle, big cars and barbecue. My dad’s place in that group was huge. In every list about barbecue that Texas Monthly had ever put out, dad was listed at the top of the list. That was all because of dad. It was all him. He didn’t have a whole crew behind him. He was a Texas icon. Even with all that he was the most humble man you could ever meet. He didn’t see himself as a celebrity whatsoever and couldn’t figure out why people wanted his autograph or to get their picture taken with him.
DV: Do you see yourself tied to the way Bobby did things? Is your only job to uphold that legacy, or do you feel like you can make your own mark on Louie Mueller Barbecue?
WM: Each generation has its special talent that it brings to the business in order for the business to thrive instead of just survive. It’s like a Broadway play. Louie Mueller was the producer that had the idea and built the stage. Fred was the early director who brought together the cooking process we still use. My father came along as the new director and the lead actor. He provided the extra level of care to finish off the process. So my job is really just not to f— it up.
DV: I think you’re doing alright. When Texas Monthly came for our official Top 50 BBQ joint visit you were smoking all the meat on a mobile steel pit in the alley behind the building. How does that cook differently than the brick pit that is being repaired?
WM: Back in the fifties and sixties people were building brick pits which is ideal. You can bring the temp up higher on the deckle. The airflow is directional and carries the mass of the heat. It’s like a space shuttle reentering the atmosphere so you need the big point end to face the heat and take the brunt. You want to keep your flats in the tailwind. If you can visualize the airflow then you get a good idea how you’re going to use it. It’s harder to visualize in the mobile pit, so it was harder to get used to.
DV: It was your idea to bring in the mobile pit so you could work out of town festivals. What else have you done to change the business?
WM: We’ve stabilized all the processes that were brought before us and I’ve also added to the mix. I’ve also brought us an exterior presence through marketing and advertising. We were the most famous unknown barbecue joint in Texas. In many ways my dad just wanted to live a normal life. He also didn’t want to extend himself at here beyond what he could control and do well since he was primarily a one man show. He didn’t want it to grow beyond that.
DV: Other than that, how has Louie Mueller changed since you took over?
WM: 2007 and 2008 were the beginning of this ascension of Louie Mueller and Texas barbecue. Dad won a James Beard award in 2006, but that didn’t really move the needle for us. We were on the first season of Diners Drive Ins and Dives and we saw business go up forty percent the first time it aired in 2007. It brought us a whole new audience of travelers.
DV: How has the mix of customers changed since then?
WM: In 2008 before the Texas Monthly Top 500 BBQ joint list came out our local business – within a ten-mile radius of Taylor – was about seventy-five percent. Today we see about eighty-five percent of business coming from outside of that radius?
DV: Does that upset some of your local regulars.
WM: Yes, but I tell them to call me. Put in a call-in order and we’ll have it ready at the counter when they walk in. They don’t have to stand in line, but some choose not to come at all, especially on a busy Saturday.
DV: Did you see an article in the Austin American Statesman over this past weekend where the writer complained about waiting in line at Louie Mueller?
WM: I read it. It sounded like a guy who wanted preferential treatment. There were so many inaccuracies in the story, not the least of which that he didn’t know my own name [the article called him Wade instead of Wayne]. He represents himself as a local of the community, but I don’t know him. I haven’t seen him. He lives an hour away anyway. He was mad that I was cutting meat behind the counter for the Texas Monthly bus tour, but I wasn’t back there. Tony was cutting meat for the customers. I was in the kitchen and out of sight. We did have a room reserved for the bus tour, but once it left the room was still reserved for a local councilman. He had a graduation party for his son. Now that’s a local and we’re happy to accommodate folks like that when we can.
DV: Does negative publicity like that bother you as a businessman?
WM: As a businessman I’d like to serve all of our customers in a timely manner. That’s not always possible. Look, we don’t have the capacity to deal with the crowds we’ve been seeing recently. We’re trying to deal with that by opening up a take out counter in the side building to help alleviate the line. We do what we can do. I don’t know what more I can do.