Just one month ago, the team at LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue was celebrating the successful conclusion of its New School BBQ University course. Pitmasters and barbecue fans from across the country had descended on Austin to learn from Evan LeRoy and Sawyer Lewis, and they were packed tightly into the kitchen. LeRoy has been editing the film they shot during the class for a series of instructional videos. “It’s crazy watching big groups of people all together,” he says. It seems to him like it all happened a lifetime ago.
The merry band of barbecue misfits who staff this food truck in South Austin know how to think outside the brisket. They serve whole hog in beef-loving Texas, go through more pork lard than a tortilleria, and have traded brisket for smoked beef cheeks on their daily menu. They’ve even started bottling their signature barbecue sauce made from beets. But the severe dip in number of customers has forced them to get even more creative. Pitmaster Bradley “Chud” Robinson went viral last month for trimming a brisket blindfolded. And, as he often does, LeRoy went live on Instagram Tuesday morning to show folks how to make his venison and bacon sausage with jerk seasoning. It’s safe to say they aren’t dumbing down the menu.
For their lengthier videos, LeRoy has set up a Patreon page that he hopes to use as another funding source for the business (the fee is $30 a month to access the premium content). The first two premium videos are up. One covers how to make beef tallow from trim, and then how to use it. Now is not a time to let anything go to waste. A second video covers their process for smoked beef cheeks. LeRoy said a new instructional video will be uploaded every week, including their smoked brisket method and the smoked cheeseburger. He’s also thinking about a podcast, and on Medium he’s writing posts aimed at other restaurant owners. “We’re trying to push out as much content as possible while people are stuck at home,” he explains. “And then that way we can be in a good position to come out of it.”
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Video by Gray Beard Films
LeRoy’s latest article includes tips on how food trucks can safely serve the public. Even though the LeRoy and Lewis food truck meets all the state requirements for a takeout-only operation, it has also set up a drive-through. “We’re really encouraging people to call ahead or order online for the next day,” he says, though they still accept walk-up orders at a table set up away from the truck. The menu hasn’t changed any more than it normally does, but they have added some raw pork cuts and ham slices from their pork supplier, Peaceful Pork.
Although business is down, they’ve held onto their staff. LeRoy says it feels just like a slow week in the dead of summer. He tries to stick to the barbecue side, and praised Lewis for burdening herself with the financial side of the business. LeRoy says that doesn’t mean he’s in denial about what’s going on around him. “We’re also trying to process the entire global pandemic and keep the food truck running,” he says. He then expresses what I think we’re all feeling. “There’s this stress that everybody is carrying around now. It’s like everybody’s wearing one of those weighted vests,” he adds. Now he’s just waiting like the rest of us to know when that vest can come off.
One bright spot is that barbecue businesses seem to be doing better than other segments of the restaurant industry. “Almost every other sit-down restaurant in the city is closed or I feel are struggling to do some to-go stuff. Every barbecue restaurant I know of is open,” LeRoy observes. I know of a few joints that have temporarily closed, but it’s a low percentage. Maybe it’s because barbecue keeps so well in the freezer, or that it’s comforting in a way that a drive-through burger isn’t. Or maybe it’s simply that a rack of ribs can still feel like special-occasion food.
A couple of weeks back, LeRoy wrote about the challenges ahead for restaurants. He listed off a whole lot of unknowns, but there was one certainty. “Our business will change fundamentally and drastically,” he wrote. “And just as our business will change, so will we.” It’s really the only option.