The spirits of the customers queuing outside Franklin Barbecue could not be dampened, not even by the construction crew that started noisily dismantling the street just feet from their eardrums. It was the morning of Tuesday, November 23, thirty minutes before Austin’s world-famous barbecue joint was to resume its dine-in service for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The grand reopening meant this was the first time in twenty months that Aaron Franklin’s devotees, of which there are many, set up coolers and camp chairs in the dead of night in the hopes of filling their bellies before the brisket ran out. There were familiar faces: Ivan Vires arrived at 2:15 a.m. to secure his eighty-eighth place in the Franklin line; Eric Christie, who lost count when his number of visits crossed into the triple digits, showed up a few hours later. But by 10:30 that morning, even the new faces felt like old friends. They weren’t so much competing for brisket as they were sharing the character-building experience of waiting a long time for the smoked meat that changed Texas barbecue. Lack of sleep, near-freezing overnight temps, and the construction noise and its accompanying dust were just more obstacles that brought the crowd members closer together. The dozens of prospective diners rallied, chanting “SHUT IT DOWN” at the construction crew and cheering whenever the concrete saw quieted even a decibel. They invited the crew to join the party. “Somebody get ’em a beer!” I heard a guy shout from the back of the line.
Aaron Franklin had not been certain it was going to go this way. “I’m preparing myself for the possibility that no one shows up,” he had told me over the phone a few days before. “But a little part of me thinks that that’s untrue.” And it was untrue. Incredibly so! People started lining up outside the restaurant shortly after midnight. By 8 a.m. the line stretched down the block. By 10 a.m.—an hour before the joint even opened—staff were turning people away, their meticulous method of moving down the line to ask for orders in advance having already revealed at what point they would sell out.
The exuberant eaters came from all over. Some were locals with a sports-fan-like devotion to Texas barbecue rankings, while others were introduced to Aaron Franklin via his MasterClass or the nod he got from Anthony Bourdain. I met a couple from Ireland who mingled with new friends from California and New York. I met a family from Toronto, and a guy from Indianapolis catching up on work emails on his laptop while he waited for his meat. Everybody was happy to be there, unbothered by the fickle Texas temperature, which had been 38 when they arrived but would rise 25 degrees before they even got their food.
The mood was celebratory, reminiscent of a similar day four years ago, when Franklin reopened after a fire devastated the pit room in the summer of 2017. That reopening took place on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, which was one reason Aaron Franklin and his team decided on November 23, 2021, for the official return of the post-COVID line party. The team also needed enough runway to transform what had become a takeout business back into a functioning restaurant. They moved all the curbside equipment out of the dining room, repainted and pressure-washed the building, and trained some of the newer staffers who had never worked a traditional Franklin service. “We did a lot of training to get people up to speed on how to cut [the meat] and talk to people at the same time, because everybody has been a super introvert for the past twenty months, and I think a lot of people lost their social skills,” said Franklin. “Maybe everyone.”
Not that you could tell that morning. The grand reopening was a veritable blowout, with staffers and customers alike reveling in the return to normalcy. Aaron Franklin flitted around in shorts and a hoodie over one of his restaurant’s official T-shirts, greeting the many customers he recognized. He stopped to take selfies that some of the newbies would later post to Instagram with captions like “Met the pit master himself.”
The coveted first spot in line was claimed by a Franklin fanatic who had flown in from St. Louis the night before, and had plans to return home just hours after the meal. Ryan Hoepfner had never been to Franklin Barbecue, but it was his birthday, and his wife Erin had surprised him with a one-night trip to Austin. He had watched all of Aaron Franklin’s YouTube tutorials and subscribed to his MasterClass, and a spin through the Franklin line has long been on Hoepfner’s bucket list. He arrived at the restaurant around 12:30 a.m., and was positively beaming when I met him at 8:45, having spent the early morning hours being regaled with stories by Ivan Vires, who runs the Instagram account @barbecue_social and has known Aaron Franklin for years. Hoepfner had become something of a celebrity throughout the line, the birthday boy who had never eaten Franklin brisket before. When the doors finally opened at 11, everybody was just as excited to see Hoepfner fill a tray as they were to get their own. Aaron Franklin was at the cutting station, and as he set aside the Hoepfners’ poundage, he handed a small piece to the husband and wife. Ryan Hoepfner took a bite, then held what remained of the burnt end triumphantly over his head.
“I have one question,” someone shouted from farther down the line, though I didn’t catch who it was. “Is it better than in St. Louis?”
“Hell yes!” Erin Hoepfner replied. “Is it even a question?” added her elated husband, to which the crowd actually cheered.
I know it’s just brisket, but I tell you what. I damn near cried.