Michael Johnson Jr. makes his living by harnessing fire. He welds barbecue pits for his company, Cen-Tex Smokers, with his father, Mike, in their shop outside the Central Texas town of Luling. It’s dangerous work dealing with cutting torches, massive pieces of steel, reclaimed propane tanks, and the molten metal that bonds everything together. So Johnson never thought the piece of cooking equipment that would endanger him and his family would be the small charcoal grill in his backyard.

It was a Saturday morning in April earlier this year. Johnson’s wife, Paige, was out having brunch with her sister. Johnson was at home with their six-month-old daughter and eight-year-old son. He lit the charcoal in a Weber Kettle grill in their backyard, then went inside to get the pork steaks ready. First he needed to change the baby’s diaper in a back bedroom, and he closed the door behind him. The smoke detector went off. “I opened the door and I just saw the flames,” he said. He immediately heard frantic knocking on the front door. Chris Siefert, a stranger to the Johnson family at the time, had been driving by the house, saw the flames, and stopped. Johnson’s son answered the door, and Siefert told him to get out on the front lawn. Johnson then handed Siefert his infant daughter so he could search the house to make sure the dogs were out. 

Johnson stood barefoot in the Dollar General parking lot across the street and watched the house burn until the fire department, and then his wife, arrived soon after. Siefert handed him a pair of shoes, and Johnson realized that’s what it felt like to have lost it all. Despite the fast response of the fire department, the hundred-year-old house was a total loss. Thankfully, everyone in the family, including the dogs, was safe.

As he watched his house burn, Johnson had an inkling the fire was related to the grill he had lit in the backyard. An investigation by the fire department and the insurance company found the culprit. A recent storm had blown leaves off the trees in the backyard and up against the wood deck. An ember that fell from the grill had been blown into that pile of leaves, and it ignited along with the deck and the house. After telling me this story, Johnson was reminded of his wife’s words after the smoke had cleared. Paige suggested he not tell people exactly how the fire started. “You build barbecue pits for a living, and you burnt your house down barbecuing,” Johnson said she told him.

But he had to offer some explanation to all his customers waiting on barbecue pits. Cen-Tex Smokers had a backlog of orders that would have to wait a little longer. Thankfully, the welding shop was behind his father’s house, nowhere near the fire. Michael Johnson Sr., who goes by Mike, has been welding most of his life, both professionally, as a pipeline builder for Citgo, and as a hobbyist. He’s now in a management position at Citgo, and most of his welding is done in service of his son’s business.

At first, Mike didn’t think very highly of his son’s plan to build barbecue pits in his free time. Michael, who was working for Marathon Oil in its office in Kenedy, read a Texas Monthly article on welders building thousand-gallon smokers. He sent it to his dad, whose response was: “Run from that as fast as you can, because you can’t make no money on them.” Even after Michael received his welding degree, he said his dad taught him most of what he knew about the craft. And what Mike knew from experience was that customers who wanted smokers built thought the work should be quick and cheap. Michael told him Sunny Moberg of Moberg Smokers had a two-year waiting list at the time, and Mike assumed Moberg was exaggerating. Today, Cen-Tex Smokers has a waiting list of over a year. “I’ve been eating crow ever since I made that statement,” Mike said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 and oil prices sank into the negative, Michael still had his job, but he could see the writing on the wall. He reached out to pitmasters, looking for his first customer. After his cold calls were rejected, even with the promise of a money-back guarantee, Michael felt dejected. Then he got laid off—and felt relief. “I had all the time I needed,” he said. The company’s plan was to bring him back when the economy stabilized, but Michael said his plan was “to get as deep into this as I could so that wouldn’t be an option.”

Ronnie Killen of Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland was the first to come through with an order. Michael delivered it to the new Killen’s Barbecue location in the Woodlands in May 2020, and more orders followed. There are now Cen-Tex smokers in the pit rooms of Brotherton’s Black Iron Barbecue, in Pflugerville; Butter’s BBQ, in Sinton; and Burnt Bean Co. in Seguin. While I was touring the shop, Lance Eaker from Eaker Barbecue, in Fredericksburg, came to retrieve his new smoker. I was there to see Eaker mount the nameplate that read “Harold,” after Eaker’s late father, just above the firebox door.

The smokers from Cen-Tex have the same basic components as other Texas-built steel smokers. They begin with reclaimed propane tanks, mainly of the thousand-gallon size, each with a tall exhaust stack at one end and a large firebox at the other. Cen-Tex also offers smaller ones and has a secret stash of rare 750-gallon tanks. Michael and Mike have also designed some features to set the smokers apart, like the massive bearings and carefully calculated counterweights on the pit doors to make them as easy to open as washer lids. “I tell people I’m saving them money by not having to buy new rotator cuffs,” Michael said. There’s also the intricate damper mechanism on each firebox door to regulate the airflow. Even after the pieces have been cut, it takes ten hours to weld them together to form a door. A finished door weighs in at three hundred pounds, which requires some sturdy hinges.

After several years of using his dad’s welding shop, Michael is now looking for his own place, to hopefully give him more space to build. Back on the home front, he hasn’t been comfortable cooking barbecue at his family’s temporary rental house. Nomad sent him a portable grill, which he set up on the tailgate of his truck to grill some steaks. Paige came outside and told him, “I think it’s still too close to the house,” so Michael moved his truck. The couple has nearly settled on the plans for their new home, which will be built on the lot where their house once sat. There is an outdoor kitchen with a grill in the plan, and a pool placed between that kitchen and the house to dampen any errant embers.