Texas barbecue empires are few. Small operations have traditionally far outnumbered the corporate ones. We have our share of chains, but our most beloved joints—spots like Louie Mueller Barbecue, Franklin Barbecue, and Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q—are one-offs. But a few legends have branched out recently. Lockhart’s Kreuz Market had a short-lived second location in College Station, and the oldest barbecue joint in the state, Southside Market, will open its fourth location later this year. Still, none of those hallowed names took on expansion as boldly as Terry Wootan has over the past few years with Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.
The “original” Cooper’s started in Llano in 1962, but the first one was actually opened almost a decade earlier, in 1953, by George Cooper in Mason. Most folks refer to Llano as the original location because that’s the first that Wootan was responsible for, though he arrived long after it first opened. Wootan has since gone on to add five more locations, from New Braunfels to Katy. In the beginning, he was just trying to establish a stable income when he took over the Llano barbecue joint. His real estate business at the time was faltering. “In 1986, when I leased Cooper’s, I was wondering how I was gonna keep from going bankrupt,” Wootan said. “Cooper’s didn’t help much for a long time,” he added with a laugh as we sat at a table inside the Cooper’s Bar-B-Que in College Station, which opened last year. He didn’t have any idea back then that he would become a Texas barbecue titan.
It was Tommy Cooper, George’s son, who first opened the Llano joint. He died in a vehicle accident on Super Bowl Sunday in 1979. Kenneth Laird, who had worked the pits at Cooper’s, took over the lease for several years before moving to the other side of the river in Llano to open his own spot, Laird’s BBQ, in 1986 (it closed in 2018), and Wootan took charge. He needed to make money fast, but he didn’t have much to start with. “When I got [Cooper’s], it was an empty building with picnic tables. No inventory, no recipes, no nothing,” Wootan said. He got the keys to the place a minute after midnight on Labor Day. “We stocked the inventory and served the next morning,” he said. That must have been some hot and fast cooking.
Pork chops, pork ribs, sausage, brisket, and chicken were on the menu from day one. Wootan, who had worked the pits at Cooper’s while in high school, quickly brushed up on his barbecue skills. He enlisted three friends to help run the restaurant, but they were only available early in the week. His family helped on the weekends, but there were some days that he ran the place alone. After nine months, he finally hired a full time employee, Gaudencio Vences. “I thought he said Lorenzo, so I called him Lorenzo,” Wootan confessed. One day Vences told Wootan, “I can cook,” and he became Cooper’s pitmaster for twelve years. Even in Robb Walsh’s Legends of Texas Barbecue book, the recipe for barbecued sirloin steak is credited to Lorenzo Vences. That steak was added to the menu later along with beef ribs and cabrito. The latter can be had at the Llano, Austin, and College Station locations.
The barbecue business was a struggle for Wootan at first, but he and his staff kept it going. I asked him how long it took for him to realize it was going to be successful. “Seven years in,” he said, “when that article came out in Texas Monthly.” He’s referring to John Morthland’s piece “No Smoking,” from 1992, which praised the barbecue from Llano, a land where they didn’t use offset smokers like in Central Texas. Morthland lamented then that Llano’s barbecue was largely unknown in the state, but that changed quickly. The same year, Wootan added a new sign that read “Home of the Big Chop.” It referred to the thick-cut, bone-in pork chop that came off the pits. Wootan said he got the inspiration from Burger King and their “Home of the Whopper” signs. Cooper’s made our first Top 50 BBQ list in 1997, and had landed on every updated list since.
The expansion of the Cooper’s brand began in 2008, when Tommy Cooper’s son Barry asked Wootan about teaming up on another location. Wootan decided to partner with him rather than just sell a franchise. Working with various ownership structures, he has since added restaurants in Fort Worth (the largest) in 2010, Austin (the most profitable) in 2016, and both Katy and College Station last year. Those last two have identical footprints and can seat 450 compared to 110 in Llano. That means they have to pump out a whole lot more barbecue too, which Wootan puts into perspective: “We do more in one day than I did in Llano in the first month.”
Llano was hallowed ground for barbecue hounds for decades, and Wootan turned the Cooper’s name into a legendary brand. To this day, he’s referred to by most who see him in the restaurants as Mr. Cooper. He should also be credited with seeing the potential in barbecue expansion. The jump to New Braunfels in 2008 was far earlier than most of the other barbecue brands that eventually strayed from their original locations. Most recently, Wootan chose to plant his flag in College Station after watching Kreuz Market’s second location go belly up three years after it opened just a few exits north. Down the road from the newest Katy location, Corky’s Ribs and BBQ closed after just eight months. When I asked Wootan if those failures made him worry about his real estate choices, he told me sincerely, “I’m not saying it’s better,” before adding, “I’ve got a different product.”
The product at Cooper’s now is also a bit different from the early days of the Llano original. When I first visited in 2006, their barbecue fuel was mesquite wood burned down to coals behind the restaurant. Morthland described the same method in 1992, explaining that, “the logs are started in a separate enclosure called a firebox and moved to the cooker when they have turned to glowing coals.” Now Cooper’s uses mesquite lump charcoal. Wootan swears there’s no difference in the flavor of the barbecue, but he also admits that the change was prompted by the labor and expense required to bring in wood by the trailer-full every week. Wootan added that while harvesting mesquite wood, “We never got bit, but we killed a lot of rattlesnakes.”
If you run an operation with as many locations as Cooper’s and want to provide consistent barbecue, the desire to trade mesquite logs and steel pits for the predictability of charcoal and rotisserie smokers is understandable. Wootan was happy to provide a tour of the pit room in College Station, but as we passed through the door, he stopped and firmly said, “no pictures.” They have specially designed rotisserie smokers that allow lit charcoal to be loaded into a drawer that slides under the meat that’s cooking. Wootan said it’s an exclusive deal with the manufacturer and wouldn’t reveal the company’s name. There isn’t even a badge on the rotisseries in the pit room, but everything about them—the switches, gauges, and black diamond plating—looks like they’re made by J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite.
There are a few of the old-style flat pits in the pit room too. There wasn’t any meat cooking in them when I visited, but Wootan said the beef ribs are among the items cooked there. Huge vats of barbecue sauce also simmer in one of the pits. Wootan said they cook for more than a day. That sauce is one of things that makes Cooper’s unique. Unlike the sweet sauces of modern barbecue, theirs is thin and tart. A vinegar tang hits your nose before anything else. When you order a slab of meat from the pit, they’ll offer to dip it, which means to fully submerge the meat in the barbecue sauce before adding it to the tray. The flavor of the sauce is a nice counterpoint to the heavily salted meat, but if you get it dipped, then you’ll be paying for a bit of the sauce by the pound along with the meat.
A bill at Cooper’s is notoriously high. It’s not because they overcharge for their barbecue. Cooper’s prices are often a little lower than a lot of the newer barbecue joints opening in Texas. Instead it’s because of the way you order the meat. Hungry diners walk up to an open pit loaded with every meat Cooper’s offers. It’s like walking into the grocery store just before dinner. The options are dizzying, and it’s easy to ask for a little of this and a little of that, and before you know it you’re having an $88 dinner for two (as I did in College Station). It’s especially hard to eat on a budget if you start with their signature item, the Big Chop, which can run more than $15 on its own. It’s salty and juicy with a good dose of smoke. It’s worth the splurge. So are the beef ribs, which are chuck short ribs, so they’re a little smaller than the massive bones popular elsewhere. There are four bones on a rack, and I prefer the end ones. The edges are almost crunchy and a little dried out. I’m okay with that because there’s concentrated barbecue flavor in those bites, and the crunchy bits are so good after a dip into a cup of their barbecue sauce.
It’s not exactly a secret, but there’s an easy way to eat cheaply at Cooper’s. Ask for a half-pound of meat, and get the rest for free after paying at the register. Let’s start with the meat. The brisket is foil-wrapped to finish, and as a result it’s fall-apart tender. The spare ribs are good, but the meat-to-bone ratio is much higher in the beef ribs, and the beef ribs are about a half-pound each. I enjoy a slice or two of their sirloin—just make sure the one in the pit is relatively fresh. A half chicken is also a bargain at $8. Try the pork loin or turkey if you want something on the lighter side. Order the meat, don’t get it dipped, have it weighed up, and pay for it. Skip the sides and dessert. Just beyond the register is a massive pot of some of the best pinto beans in Texas, and they’re free. So are the white bread, pickles, onions, barbecue sauce, and the pickled jalapeños in a jar on the table.
My preferred method is to make some fold-overs with a little meat, pickles, and onions on a single slice of bread. A half pound of barbecue should be enough for three generous fold-overs. Bite the end off the pickled jalapeño and squeeze some of the juice on the meat. Then, fold the bread over the fillings, and dip it into the sauce for every bite. That’s how you get a great meal at Cooper’s for under $10.
Of course, there’s a whole lot of reasons to pay up for the sides and desserts too. The most recent additions of bacon-flecked green beans and creamy mac and cheese are my favorites. The pecan cobbler with a little ice cream is a decadent way to finish a meal. And all the way back at the pit where you order, there’s no shame in skipping the barbecue entirely in favor of a freshly grilled steak (served after 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday). It’s a heavily seasoned ribeye. In fact, if you’re timid about the salt you add to your steaks at home, just watch them cover the steaks with a pearl-clutch-inducing amount of seasoning here before grilling them over hot coals. Then savor the juicy saltiness of every bite. It’ll taste like steak night in the Hill Country, even if you’re actually dining next to the interstate in Katy.