Bennie Washington 05Owner/Pitmaster: Whup’s Boomerang Bar-B-Q; Opened 2000

Age: 64

Smoker: Wood-fired Offset Smoker

Wood: Mesquite, Post Oak, and Pecan

Bennie Washington’s business may only be fifteen years old, but his barbecue experience goes back four decades. As a delivery truck driver for Pepsi, barbecue was a hobby, then a short-lived foray as a professional in the nineties. His full time job didn’t allow for a barbecue side-business then, so he waited a few years, then quit in 2000. Now it’s all barbecue all the time.

Mr. Washington and I spoke in the afternoon at a small table beside the ordering window. Most folks take their food to-go at Whup’s. When it gets hot out, the only comfort to those eating on the patio is a small fan that hummed next to us during the interview. I could have talked barbecue with him until the sun went down, but he had to get back to work and ready the restaurant for the coming dinner crowd. When we finished up and I stopped the tape, he made an unnecessary apology about not being well-spoken. He explained, “I’ve still got about three pounds of country on me.” It was just one of a few great lines throughout our talk.

Daniel Vaughn: You just turned 64, so that’s a year away from being retired. Is that a possibility?

Bennie Washington: If that’s what you want to call it. If I’m still cooking, there won’t be no retirement.

DV: How long have you been cooking.?

BW: A long time. I started in the backyard like most people with my father and my uncles. They cooked quite a bit, so I picked it up just watching them and waiting on them to finish. I took a few notes from each of them, but when you first start buying meat and cooking it yourself, that’s when you really learn how to cook because that meat’s pretty expensive.

DV: Did your dad ever let you take over the backyard cooking?

BW: Well, I guess he did. He retired from the railroad, and he’d sit back and enjoy it. I was probably a teenager drinking cold beer and playing dominoes…well not a teenager, but a young man…I could buy alcohol at the time. They’d start pawning the cooking off to me. By then when we had a gathering, I’d draw the straw for cooking. I guess eating somebody else’s barbecue is always better than sitting around doing your own. My wife, Patricia, was the biggest critic because she’d had theirs, so I was trying to get to that level. She’d let me know where I stood and say “You’ve got some more work to do.” She’d compliment me on it too. I worked on it and got pretty good.

DV: When did you start cooking it on your own?

BW: I guess I got good in my mid-twenties, then I started doing different events for the church. I got a job and got a larger pit. I had to start paying for it. You can’t just leave a $1500 pit laying around.

DV: What kind of pit did you start with?

BW: The one I started with was an old 500-gallon propane tank with a box on the front.

DV: 500 gallon tank? That’s one heck of a starter pit.

BW: Oh yeah. That’s a nice pit. In fact I’ve still got it. Later on I had another one made, then I had this one that’s back here made. I’ve probably had a total of three. The other one, I kinda burnt the firebox out of it and a friend talked me out of it, so I let him take it. I’ve been cooking on them right at forty years.

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DV: How often do you sit down for a meal of your own barbecue?

BW: I eat it every week and every day that I’m down here cooking. It’s like whenever I take some home and put it in the refrigerator. I’ll eat it Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday. That’s when it seems like it’s real good. I think my barbecue is better the next day. For some reason, when you’re cooking you don’t get that smoke flavor or you just don’t taste it as good as afterwards.

DV: Do you eat cold ribs right out of the fridge?

BW: No. I take them and warm them up in the microwave for a minute and it’s pretty good. I guess that refrigerator sort of locks that smoke flavor in.

DV: Is that the same way you serve the barbecue here, or is it fresh off the pit everyday?

BW: I’d be lying to you if I said it was fresh everyday. I receive meat on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I can’t cook everything everyday. So my briskets, they cook all night. This is Friday afternoon, so I put on fifteen briskets of whatever I have available. I’ll get back down here at 12:00 or 1:00 in the morning to check it out. I’ll put a few more sticks on there. I’ll get back at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning to check it out, and finish cooking them. After that, I take it off and put it in the refrigerator. I don’t ever know how much I’m going to sell. Then I’ll grab some ribs and put them on the smoker. When they’re finished, I’ll put the briskets on for the day to reheat it. We just take it out as we need it. Right before I talked to you, I took a few more out and put them on the pit for later on. We have to guestimate what we’ll need.

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DV: If you were cooking forty years ago, how long ago did you open up this place?

BW: We’ve been here since 2000, so it’s been fifteen years.

DV: What were you doing before that?

BW: I worked for Pepsi. I was a salesman then I started driving what they called a bug truck. I would go the major chain stores and deliver to them. I worked at Pepsi for twenty-five years, but I always wanted to work for myself. Driving a truck, I’d go all over Texas. The thing about barbecue is that once you smell it, you already know what you want for lunch. Several blocks away, and you smell some good barbecue, that’s where you’re going for lunch. I got out and tried a bunch of people’s barbecue, and they were pretty good.

DV: What were some of the barbecue joints you tried?

BW: I don’t wanna name nobody, but there were a few good ones that I went to.

DV: Did you have a favorite?

BW: Nah. My favorite was mine. I’m sorry, but that’s why I felt like I could be competitive in the barbecue business. There was one that I really liked called the Hickory Stick in Waco [in the 1997 Texas Monthly Top 50]. It was pretty good. You could get seafood and barbecue. Theirs was good. Sometimes it was chewy, but it always had a good smoke flavor to it. I thought there’s was the one I’d go back to the most. I don’t even know if they’re in business anymore.

Bennie Washington Hickory Stick
1950’s postcard from the Hickory Stick in Waco. Image from Matchsets on eBay.

DV: They’re not.

BW: Being on a route, I’d go check out a lot of places. There was one in Salado about twenty years ago.

DV: Do you still eat at any other barbecue joints?

BW: I get enough of my own. I wouldn’t mind trying other people’s barbecue, but when I go out to eat I’m looking for something different. I look for fish, steak, burgers, or fajitas.

DV: When you first opened up, was it in this building?

BW: No. When I first opened up I was still working for Pepsi. That was back in 1990. It was up on Williams Street. I named it Whup’s Bar-B-Que after my father. Everybody around here knew him by Whup. There were twelve of us siblings – four boys and eight girls. I knew that most people coming into Marlin knew one of the Whups. I came up with this one of those nights I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking of a place because I felt pretty good about my barbecue. I wanted something a little different which is why I went with green and blue on the building. Most barbecue places you see are red or white. I wanted mine to be different, and I wanted it to be that boomerang barbecue. When you get some, you want some more.

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DV: Was the original one you opened up a green building too?

BW: No. I was renting that building. We did well, but I was working forty-eight hours a week there. My wife managed, and I did all the cooking. She did the banana pudding and stuff like that, and I would cook the meat. I had to be at work [for Pepsi] at 4:30 in the morning. I’d go by and check on my meat, then go to work. I’d get off work at 2:00 or so, whenever my route was over. Sometimes it would be 4:00. It was too much on me, so I told my wife and kids we had to close it. We stayed there until 1994.

DV: What did your dad think about having this place named after him?

BW: I lost my father in ’85. It would have blew his mind. He never saw it happen. I think the biggest problem in barbecue is that when people start making money, they forget what got them there. They stop putting out a good product and start taking shortcuts. The mind starts seeing dollar signs and not patience. Most people tell me how much they enjoy it. I can take that to heaven with me, but I can’t take any of that money. You know what I’m saying. I get off on the compliments.

DV: Who all helps you I here?

BW: My son Charles, a friend of the family’s daughter, and a couple of my grandkids come through.

DV: And who was in the photo in Texas Monthly?

BW: That was my youngest daughter, Charles, and myself. The photographer, Wyatt, he wanted me to get that toothpick out of my mouth. He was a good guy.

Pitmaster Bennie Washington with his son and grandaughter

DV: I’ve got to get your photo for this interview, but I promise it won’t be as good as Wyatt’s.

BW: I had a lot more hair then and all my teeth. I’ll try not to smile.

DV: Are you from this area?

BW: I was born and raised right here. My parents used to have a house right over here. This was their land. We had cows and hogs right here and a garden. My folks lived off the land back then. His job was on the Santa Fe railroad for forty years.

DV: And he had a farm to take care of?

BW: Well, we did most of that work.

DV: I guess there were twelve of you. Did any of your other siblings get into barbecue?

BW: I only have one brother living now. It’s my younger brother. He knows how to cook too, but he just enjoys mine. My oldest brother played football for the Washington Redskins. His name was Fred Washington. You probably don’t remember, but Vince Lombardi coached the Redskins one year. My brother was a lineman that year. He was blocking and the running back Larry Brown accidentally hit him and messed his knee up and he had to retire from football. Fred then had a son that graduated from TCU in 1990. His name was Fred Jr. He played with the Chicago Bears for one year. He had an automobile accident – hit some black ice up there in Chicago, and it killed him and his girlfriend.

DV: That’s tragic. Are you training your son in the ways of barbecue?

BW: Yeah, but he can’t stand the kitchen. Its too hot in there for him. I try to teach him some things, and I look around and he’s gone. It’s a hot job. This is old, tough stuff, and they aren’t tough enough anymore. I don’t know what y’all are gonna do for barbecue later on. It’s hard work, but I was brought up tough.

DV: Do you still enjoy it?

BW: I do. Like I said, the thing that motivates me is the compliments. When they keep coming in and telling me how good it is. They say “I went over there, and I don’t need to go there anymore.” That makes me feel good because I’ve had that experience before. They may be lying, and they may not be, but I still like a good lie, you know?