A month ago, Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton was a great, small-town barbecue joint notable for its bevy of desserts and house-roasted coffee. On March 17, that changed dramatically. It launched an online store called Miller’s Grocery List and began a curbside pickup system on the street outside the restaurant that co-owner Dusty Miller calls “a redneck drive-through.” Thanks to lots of walk-in cooler space and the steps it took two days before Bell County shut down restaurant dining rooms, this little joint has become a grocery store and bakery while still thriving as a barbecue joint.
“I have the blessing and the curse of a CPA’s background,” Dusty Miller told me. As soon as the coronavirus reality set in, he calculated what it would take to keep everyone employed at Miller’s. To stay at least cash-flow neutral, they could afford to lose only 42 percent of their usual revenue. Right now they’re remaining near 100 percent, thanks to grocery preorders, but they need to keep selling a lot of those groceries. “The items that restaurants rely on to beef up their margins have basically disappeared,” Miller said. There are no sales of fountain drinks or lattes, and many of their desserts aren’t even available. The ovens are instead being used for baking bread and sandwich buns, which they sold 2,800 of in a single day last week.
The current Miller’s Grocery List includes bacon, ground sausage, ground beef, cold sausages, jerky, and coffee beans. These are all items the family usually produces for the restaurant, their coffee roasting operation, and the deer processing operation they used to run. They still own the deer processing facility, so Miller turned its dormant coolers back on. He bought every egg from Whitehurst Farms in Brenham, became a distributor for Mill-King milk in McGregor, and bought cheese by the pallet. Miller said their barbecue customers “can drive by and get some essentials—milk, eggs, bread, cheese, and meat—and they can get on with their life without having to get out of their car.”
The Millers continue to expand their online stock. There’s also plenty of chilled barbecue on the menu. This week they added bulk chili, hot dogs, chicken potpie, and brisket potpie. “They’re things people can take home and make easily,” Miller said. As far as other products they’d like to offer, Miller said the rule is, “I don’t want to sell anything during this time that I won’t sell twelve months from now.” Then again, he admits, “If this holds out for another four to six weeks, what happens to consumer behavior?”
Miller is also happy to offer advice to struggling barbecue joints out there. “There are things people can do to stop the bleeding,” he said, switching into his CPA mode. If a restaurant owner also owns the building, “Call their bank and ask for deferments.” Ask your landlord for relief. Apply for a loan from the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Plan, even if you’ve know about (or witnessed) the rollout disaster or heard that funding is drying up. There’s already talk of additional funding coming to the program. Miller’s overall advice is to be proactive where you can be. “We can’t really worry about what we want to do or what’s comfortable,” he said. “We have to do what the market is demanding right now.”