Interview: Will Buckman of Corkscrew BBQ
Pitmaster: Corkscrew BBQ; Opened 2011
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Wood: Red Oak
“If I’m not here, we’re closed.” That’s why Will Buckman doesn’t take many vacation days away from Corkscrew BBQ. The hours are long, which leaves just a little time each evening for his two young kids, so luckily his wife Nichole is there to put them to bed while Will is singing lullabies to the briskets beside his massive steel pit.
Even with all the capacity in his current pit, it’s still not enough. Buckman and I spoke over the phone just after 2:00pm on a Tuesday and they were already sold out. Right now he’s focused on getting his new Oyler rotisserie delivered so he can increase capacity, and hopefully give himself a few more hours of sleep.
Before barbecue, Buckman was a lineman for AT&T. “I was up on telephones or down in manholes splicing copper.” Now it’s all playing with fire and slicing meat, but I don’t think he’s going back.
Daniel Vaughn: Are you already sold out?
Will Buckman: Yeah, we sure are. I can’t wait for that new pit to get here. I just can’t keep up.
DV: It’s only Tuesday.
WB: Tuesday is the new Friday.
DV: How long have y’all been open now?
WB: Two and a half years.
DV: What prompted you to open a barbecue trailer in Spring, Texas?
WB: I’ve been pretty much raised here, so it was a no-brainer. The barbecue part really happened by accident. It was a hobby of mine. I had a smoker in the driveway at my house. We had a potluck at AT&T where I used to work and I brought barbecue. After that I had coworkers who asked me if I’d cook a brisket for some occasion. It got to be where that was all I was doing. I would get home from work and I was out in the driveway with the smoker. It was my wife who said “maybe we ought to start charging people for this.” We came up with a name, she built the website, and we started charging people for it. Then we started to do a little catering. It got to the point where I was using up all my vacation time at AT&T to cook. Soon I was out of vacation time. We decided at that point to try the barbecue for a while and see how that went.
DV: So you started a barbecue joint because you ran out of vacation days?
WB: That’s right.
DV: Your friends and clients liked your barbecue, but what did you think of it at that point?
WB: I thought it was good, but I’m my worst critic. It was my friends and family who really urged me to do it. I just took their word for it.
DV: Had you learned from anyone in the family, or was this your first go at cooking real barbecue?
WB: This was something that I taught myself in the driveway. I worked at a barbecue joint for six years during my high school career and a little bit after, but I started as a bus boy and moved up to kitchen manager. It was Reed’s BBQ in Old Town Spring which is no longer around. The owner was the pitmaster. He didn’t want any help or need any help in that department. I didn’t pick up a whole lot other than the business side of barbecue. I just honed my craft at the house.
DV: Many barbecue joints have it the other way around. They know all about the cooking, but not the business side. Do you think that gives you an advantage?
WB: I think so. For restaurants, whether it’s barbecue or not, there’s so much more to it than the product you provide.
DV: A common problem I see is when places start off too big, but you started very small with just a trailer on a gravel lot that was off the beaten path. Did you have to do a lot of marketing to start out with?
WB: I know this sounds backwards, but I’ve never had a marketing budget, and I still don’t. Today with social media, it’s opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. All of our marketing is just on social media. When you have an army of folks out there talking about you and sharing it with their friends, I don’t think there is any better advertising so it just seemed kinda pointless to pay for it.
DV: When you first opened up, was it nerve-racking? Did people just trickle in, or did you do a good amount of business right away?
WB: It was a slow start. I think my wife Nichole was more nervous that I was. We didn’t have a whole lot of savings. I had a bit of a cushion to push us through until we got some recognition. It was sketchy at first.
DV: Did your wife quit a job for the barbecue as well?
WB: She is a stay at home mom. That was the other reason she thought we needed to start charging people to cook their barbecue. We needed to supplement our income.
DV: So that was a huge leap. You were the sole provider of the family income, but you jumped in anyways. Was your wife supportive from the start?
WB: Absolutely. We make all the decisions together. She’s here every day just like I am.
DV: Was it just the two of you when you first started?
WB: It was.
DV: You’re famous at this point for selling out during the lunch hour, so how long did it take to get that following?
WB: We were profitable three months into it. It didn’t take that long. We have a lot of businesses around us too. If you get one person from a bank, they tell everyone back at the bank and we’ll have fifteen people from that establishment at our place the next day.
DV: How did you handle the rise in popularity in your cooking? You’d been cooking small batches for friends, and presumably started with small batches when you opened the trailer. Was it challenging to cook those larger quantities of meat?
WB: Absolutely. I think I’ve grown as a pitmaster. It’s way better than it was when we started. Back then we were cooking two briskets, three racks of ribs, one turkey breast, one pork butt, and one or two chickens a day. As more people started coming, it was hard to estimate what I needed the following day. Now it’s a no-brainer. I cook as much as I possibly can, but wasted product was hard to handle back then. Some days we’d sell out and others you could hear the crickets in the grass. I’d call the fire department or some local shelters and donate the food. Back then we were open until 8:00 or 9:00 trying to sell it all. That’s a long day to try and sell a couple briskets. When you sell out of food every day, it really helps the consistency and quality of your product.
DV: When are you normally selling out these days?
WB: It still varies, but it’s pretty rare to make it past 3:00. All last week and this week, it has been 1:00.
DV: Two hours, and its all gone. That’s a nice way to run a business.
WB: I’m still not a big operation. I’m maxed out at twenty briskets a day. That’s just what this pit will hold. When I bought this pit it was twice as big as the one I started with.
DV: And you probably thought you’d never need another one, right?
WB: I thought I’d be good for at least a couple years, but I’ve only had it for a year now.
DV: When’s the next pit coming in?
WB: It’s ready. They’re just waiting on me. I’ve got concrete that I’ve gotta pour. I just need to call them and have it shipped after the Fourth. It’s hard to coordinate things like this when I cook every ounce of meat at the restaurant.
DV: With all of the improvements out there, it looks like you’re there to stay.
WB: I’m definitely looking to make a career out of this. I don’t have a whole lot of quit in me, so we’re still looking forward.
DV: You talked about the barbecue getting better, especially the brisket. Was there a target out there that you were after? Was there a barbecue joint you were trying to emulate?
WB: Unfortunately, no. I didn’t have a whole lot to go on. I didn’t really travel much, and as the sole provider of the family, we didn’t have a whole lot of expendable income or the time to travel. It’s something that I regret, but with cooking you know where you want to go. I set my sights on the best that I can be, not trying to be better than somebody else. One of the reasons we opened a restaurant was because we always felt ripped off when we went out to eat. It’s expensive to eat out, and we’d spend our hard earned money on reheated meat or previously frozen foods. I just think that our hard work is for quality. You’ve gotta believe in what you do, and do it day in and day out.
DV: At this point you’re one of the best places for barbecue in the Houston area. Until you came along, there weren’t many barbecue joints in Houston getting accolades for barbecue. Where do you think Corkscrew BBQ’s role is in cementing the reputation for Houston barbecue?
WB: There are so many people with the capabilities to do what I do. There were people here before me doing a fantastic job, there have people who have come up since we opened, and there will be people coming in behind us.
DV: When you got the Texas Monthly issue with your name in the Top 50, was it a surprise, or something you were expecting?
WB: That was huge. I’ve gotten those Texas Monthly issues since 1997. When we decided to do this, that was my number one goal – to be on that list. When we got that issue and saw our name there, it was like “wow. What’s next? Where do we go from here?” It has done wonders for our business and our morale. Our only goal now is to be up higher on that list.
DV: What does your normal day look like?
WB: A normal day starts, well, it starts the day before. At 5:00pm the briskets and pork butts go on. They’ve got to cook through the middle of the night. My pit will only run unassisted for an hour at a time. That means every night, I’m stoking the fire every hour, and checking the briskets. At 5:00am the briskets start coming off the pit, and that’s when the ribs, chickens, and turkey go on. People ask me when I sleep, and I tell them “Sunday.” That’s when I get a solid, uninterrupted six hours of sleep.
DV: That’s the life of a pitmaster, eh?
WB: Yeah, but with the new Oyler pit, it should get better. They say it can run for fourteen hours unassisted, but I don’t really trust those numbers. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll be able to get some sleep at night.
DV: Is Houston barbecue getting better?
WB: Along with the overall quality of barbecue in Houston, the community within the barbecue industry has really improved as well, but I had a rough time with that barbecue joint down the street.
DV: Is that how you thought it would go with everybody?
WB: I did. But the tables have turned in that sense.
DV: How much do you think the Houston BBQ Festival has done to foster the barbecue community?
WB: It think it has a lot to do with it. It puts us all in the same location, and it puts you in a situation where you need to get along. In a city the size of Houston, we have to work together. We have to put Houston on the map together. J.C. and Michael [the Houston BBQ Festival founders] have a lot to do with turning that around. We owe a lot to them.
DV: Tell me more about the barbecue joint down the street? Pitmaster BBQ gave y’all a good amount of publicity. Can you summarize what happened with them?
WB: We were unwelcome here. They had staked their claim to territory that doesn’t exist, and they weren’t happy with me opening up here. I’ve still yet to meet them, but they made a lot of phone calls trying to get us shut down. They called the health department, TABC, and even the police department. It got pretty nasty for a while, but I haven’t heard anything in a good bit. It has forced me to become permanent with grease traps and restrooms. I really have them to thank for all of that. They’ve really spurred my growth
DV: So Pitmaster BBQ is partially to thank for the long lines at Corkscrew BBQ?
DV: You’ve done these expansions along the way and you’re getting a new pit, so what’s next? Brick and mortar?
WB: We’ve considered a lot of things, but I’m big on quality over quantity. There’s a lot that we have left to do in our small facility. We still have some room to grow here, and I want to keep my hands in it as long as I can. I don’t want to get so big that I have to focus on the money side instead of the quality of the product. We’re gonna ride this for as long as we can.