LeAnn Mueller hails from a famous barbecue family, but all she ever wanted was to be a professional photographer. Now she has the photography career and one of the state’s most highly regarded barbecue joints, which is ironic for someone who wanted nothing to do with barbecue just a few years ago.
Mueller grew up in Taylor, Texas with a famous pitmaster for a father, and two future pitmasters as brothers. Her dad, Bobby passed away in 2008, which is when her brother Wayne took over at Louie Mueller Barbecue. John Mueller has his own joint in East Austin after a much publicized falling out with LeAnn in 2012. It’s a family that doesn’t get along well, but if they did we wouldn’t have so many good barbecue joints to choose from.
I sat down with LeAnn at a picnic table at La Barbecue during SXSW. It was one of their busiest days ever, and the two week long festival was just getting started. Later this year the trailer will be no more and La Barbecue will move to a brick and mortar location in South Austin. Until then you can get some of the state’s best barbecue at Cesar Chavez and Brushy Street on Austin’s east side.
Daniel Vaughn: What are your first memories of Louie Mueller Barbecue?
LeAnn Mueller: I remember going as a child. It was one of the only times I could see my dad because he was working so much. My mom would bring us in there and we’d eat barbecue sandwiches, or my grandpa would drop me off after school if my mom was doing other stuff.
DV: When did it go from you just hanging out there to actually working?
LM: It was about the sixth grade. That’s when my parents decided I would work weekends and the summer.
DV: Did you have a choice?
LM: No. Then, during high school it was like all summer. That’s when my friends and I would work there. That was back when they had the beer bottles you could recycle. We’d load them up, but put full beers in there before we took them back to the car. We would be set for the weekend.
DV: Did a lot of friends join you at Louie Mueller?
LM: Some, but most of them did other jobs like counting bugs.
DV: When did you go from cleaning up the place to helping with the food?
LM: I got off tables around freshman year. That’s when I started working the middle.
DV: What’s the middle?
LM: The middle is where you get the sauce, beans, potato salad, pickles, and onions. It was about running back and forth.
DV: It was between the meat cutter and the cash register?
LM: Yes. I like to call it the heartbeat of the business. The middle controls the flow. You get people through the line.
DV: Who worked along with you at that point?
LM: My mom, my dad, and Lillian. Mom worked weekends. There was another guy, Don. When I came in he went to trays and tables. Jesse wasn’t there yet, but he was there for a long time. He literally worked there every day until my dad died, and then he never came back.
DV: Where did he go?
LM: I don’t know. He just didn’t come back.
DV: Did you ever want to get into the cooking or sausage making?
LM: I made slaw, John made potato salad, and dad would get the meat going. I liked the sausage part too. There would not be jalapeño sausage or chipotle sausage without me. I nagged my dad and John about putting jalapeños in the sausage. We did a jalapeño cheese and it did not work out. We were using the longhorn cheese that they had and it wouldn’t stick together. We did a good turkey sausage, then chipotles became popular so I told them to try it. You’ve got to remember, every time I told my dad about a new sausage idea, he’d roll his eyes and tell me “No” about a hundred times. Then he’d finally give in.
DV: So, the jalapeño and the chipotle were the only ones that stuck?
DV: The jalapeño sausage is my favorite one there, so thank you.
LM: It’s good, but it’s so simple. It’s just pickled jalapeños. For the sausage, I also had to cut up the frozen bull meat. My dad gave me a dull knife and chunk of frozen bull meat, and was like “Go for it.” Sometimes I wondered if my dad just found stuff for us to do when business dropped off in the afternoon. It was character building. They had me grind the sausage, but I was never able to perfect stuffing it. That is an art form all its own.
DV: What made you decide to not work at Louie Mueller and go off to college?
LM: I was in and out of barbecue so much. I’d go to college, then I leave and try to get a job at Eyemasters or something. Dad or John would always take me back. For the record, John did fire me twice at Louie Mueller.
DV: Why did he fire you?
LM: Because we fought. I’d get hired back again with a pay cut.
DV: Then you went off to photography school?
LM: I really wanted to pursue photography. I quit drinking for a year, saved up every paycheck minus my rent, and just did it. I sold everything I owned and went to Brooks in Santa Barbara in 2000. That’s when my parents weren’t really happy, but they were proud. Nobody in our family moved out of state. Then the bottom fell out a month later.
DV: What happened?
LM: My dad bought the place from my grandpa for $1. That was the concept with John. Dad was thinking a sweet retirement was coming up…
DV: Is that when John left the business and came to Austin?
LM: There was a lag there, but yes. My mom was calling asking if I was done with school yet. It freaked my parents out because they were left with so much debt. These people just worked and worked. They wanted me to come back, so I felt really selfish.
DV: Did you feel selfish for leaving, or selfish for not coming back?
LM: I felt a little selfish for leaving, but then I felt really bad to stay when they needed help.
DV: Did you come back?
LM: I was married to my partner Emily. We’re divorced now, but were together for twelve years. I remember talking to Emily. It was in 2003. We were at a pizza restaurant in Ventura, California drinking a pitcher of beer, and I was like “we’re doing this. You’re gonna cook and I’m gonna shoot and we’re going to own Louie Mueller Barbecue. She was like “Okay!” It was that quick. We moved a month later. One of the funniest summers was living in that office. The office was originally made into a facility for shipping meat. They realized they had to have a USDA guy there all the time, so they stopped. It was John’s apartment after that, then it became the office. When you stay in there it’s pitch black. You don’t know if it’s day or night, but it’s haunted. I mean haunted. You would hear footsteps walking up and down what used to be the alleyway. One night my mom, Emily, and I were back at Ed’s [a burger shop behind Louie Mueller Barbecue], and I came back in and the sign that says “Louie Mueller Complete Food Store,” it hadn’t had filament in it at all. It was glowing bright and my eyes were as big as saucers. I went back to Ed’s and got everybody. We came back and it was still on. If you walked under it, it was frigid cold and it was July.
DV: Who was haunting it?
LM: I don’t know. John said he could hear people and horses. You could hear conversations. It was crazy, but it was really fun because you could get up at any time and get some cheese, or drink a beer. It was awesome.
DV: What about the meat?
LM: My dad didn’t cook overnight.
DV: He just started early in the morning?
LM: Yeah. Everything was shut down. There wasn’t a fire going.
DV: You were back working at Louie Mueller. What was the shift like from living on the West Coast?
LM: We were in my grandparents old house rent-free. We really thought we were going to do this, then I started this magazine.
DV: What was the magazine?
LM: It was called Interlude. It lasted maybe two issues, but I designed the whole thing and did all the photos. Another girl wrote it all, but it was cool. I started to wonder what would happen if I didn’t go for it.
DV: You were in your early thirties by then. You had moved back home, living in your grandparents house, working for your parents, and you hadn’t graduated college yet…
LM: God, you make me sound like a loser.
DV: It sounds like you felt like that at the time.
LM: I did. I was in Taylor, Texas, and I knew that I wanted to shoot celebrities and do album packaging, so I decided to move New York.
DV: Did you have any work in New York before you moved?
LM: No. I went there blind. I had some calls with Rolling Stone, but I was really just cold calling all these places in New York for a month, then I got the rep I have today. Things took off from there.
DV: How did you start working as a photographer for Texas Monthly?
LM: Right before I left for New York, I went into the office and talked to Leslie [Baldwin, photography editor for Texas Monthly]. I gave her my portfolio and said “By the way, I’m moving to New York in a week.” They called me with the Shiner Beer Brewery assignment. It was all on film. I got to New York and had to edit and scan it. That’s when my dad called and said he was coming to New York. That was for the James Beard Award.
DV: Did you know what that meant?
DV: Did he really know what it meant at the time?
LM: He really had no idea. He just knew he had to rent a tux.
DV: But he knew it was important enough to travel to New York, obviously.
LM: Now that you say it, but I’m really surprised they went out there. That’s just how humble he was.
DV: Did they enjoy the trip?
LM: I lived in Brooklyn. I remember we had to take a car all the way into Manhattan and all the way back into Bedford. This was before Bedford blew up and it was really sketchy. My mom was like “Please don’t stop here. Please don’t stop here.” Then we stopped. We rode the subway, and she said “All I smell is death.” It was really funny. One night we went into this place and had a beer. They sold a Styrofoam quart of Budweiser for $2. My dad loved it.
DV: Did you go to the awards?
LM: No. I went out with them the night before, then we hooked up afterwards.
DV: Was he just glowing from the event?
LM: They both were. They were really happy. They were talking about meeting the people they saw on TV, but he never needed the spotlight.
DV: What was it like to eat there back then?
LM: The lines were long. I think it’s interesting that people are in amazement that there are barbecue lines now, but they’ve always been there. I think they were a lot slower then too. With my dad, there was one person cutting.
DV: Was that little chunk of free brisket always part of the order?
LM: Yes. Always. My favorite was the lean part. It still is, with all the crust on there.
DV: Back to the photography, you got to shoot photos of your dad and of Louie Mueller Barbecue for the 2008 Texas Monthly Barbecue issue. What was it like going back for that assignment?
LM: It was good, but we were in a bit of a rift. I had moved from New York to LA, and hadn’t come back.
DV: Was that cross-country move a sign that you weren’t interested in coming back to the barbecue joint?
LM: I think my mom had always held out hope. She wants her kids close. I think my dad just wanted me to be happy and he’d figure it out. I got to shoot that, and it was the last portrait I got to take of my dad. Leslie Baldwin called me when they were choosing photos for the issue. She asked if I wanted to use the photo of Lance, or the one of my dad. I was too diplomatic and told her to choose, and she chose the photo of Lance. I should have told her. I remember right before he died I had an art show. I sent him an invitation, but didn’t tell him about it. He called me and said he’d be there. I wasn’t talking to my mom then, so he brought Robert. My dad came out and it was a long ride to Long Beach. They opened the gallery because he couldn’t make it to the show. He got to see all those photos. It was really cool. I remember sitting on the beach and he asked me once again if I wanted the barbecue place. I told him I didn’t want it.
DV: Then a few years later you were back in the barbecue business here in Austin. How did you and John become partners on the JMueller BBQ trailer on South First Street?
LM: My dad had passed away and I started talking to John again. He started dating Debbie and he got sober. I remember coming into town during SXSW and I asked him if he could assist on a job with me. I started seeing my brother again, and I wanted to see him get another chance and be a champion. Thirty days into the trailer on South First he needed a new investor. He asked me to help, and I did. I just didn’t work, and we all know where that goes from there.
DV: You hadn’t been back in barbecue for a long while when all this happened…
LM: And I didn’t really want to be involved in barbecue then.
DV: You weren’t itching to be a partner in it initially, then you asked John to leave the business and now you had a barbecue joint on your hands.
LM: I had to. I had people that were expected money to be paid. I was fortunate that John Lewis was there at the right time for it all to happen. It’s been interesting. When John Lewis and I first starting working together, I was used to my dad’s way and John’s [Mueller] way of doing it which is that one person cooks everything. The cooking process starts early in the morning and it’s done when you’re sold out until the next day. The way John Lewis taught me has been fantastic which is about a team effort. I think John Mueller is a dying breed of pitmasters who do it all themselves.
DV: You come from a lineage of older traditional barbecue in a small town, and now you own a place that is seen as the here-and-now of barbecue. La Barbecue is a food truck in a big city serving higher quality cuts of meat. There’s lots of attention that goes into it because consistency is so important these days.
LM: My dad could put out a stellar product by himself. I still haven’t had better barbecue than my dad’s. If one man can do it on his own, then our group of nine should be able to do it.
DV: How often do you use that against them?
LM: My God. They’re tired of it.
DV: That attitude of consistency is probably quite a bit different than what your dad was shooting for in his cooking.
LM: Things have changed so much, I wonder how my dad would be criticized if he were still around today.
DV: I think a lot of places would get complaints if they still cooked with the same mentality they had fifty years ago. Nobody was going into a barbecue joint back then with such a critical eye. Barbecue was seen as a byproduct by a lot of places.
LM: I think Yelp and bloggers have changed that.
DV: ..and those damn barbecue critics.
LM: That’s right. Those damn barbecue critics, but you have to appreciate that. You don’t want to be off on any given day. It’s also a lot of hard work. It takes a team to pull that off this day and age. That’s what I appreciate about John Lewis. He can teach people so well, and the pits he builds are insane.
DV: Esaul Ramos said the same thing when I interviewed him.
LM: Yes, but don’t forget about Franky. Francisco makes the sausage, ribs, beef ribs…that dude is so solid. He gets here at 1:30 in the morning. I’m lucky. I’m not cooking. I keep this open to keep giving these people a paycheck. It’s John Lewis’s baby, and it’s also about showing my mom and dad some love. They sacrificed everything for us kids. This is mine, and I want it to be good. It doesn’t have my name on it…
DV: Does it not? What’s the “LA?”
LM: La Barbecue – that’s Spanish for “the barbecue.”
DV: But seriously, what was the spit-balling session like when you named the place? You had like a day to come up with a new one.
LM: John Lewis said he wouldn’t work at a restaurant with “Mueller” in it. Our investor Russell Becker said “Well, it has to have something associated with you, LeAnn.” So, we came up with “LA 78704,” but that sounded like Los Angeles. John Lewis said “Why not La Barbecue?”
DV: You’ve moved around the trailer to a bunch of different locations, but now you’re working toward a brick and mortar location. How did that come about, and what took so long?
LM: I was approached by some investors. They have a building in South Austin, and we’re working with an architect on plans for it.
DV: Can you tell me exactly where?
LM: Not yet.
DV: Any idea on the timeline?
LM: I’d like it open before the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival. We’re also going to be the vendors out at Whitewater in New Braunfels.
DV: Now you’ve gone and made the crazy move of opening your second location in Charleston, South Carolina, or is that a location of La Barbecue?
LM: That is John Lewis’s baby.
DV: So, it’s his restaurant, but he seems to be opening it with your support.
LM: Absolutely. One hundred percent. John Lewis isn’t leaving here. He’s our quality control guy, but he’s going to do what he wants. He wants his own thing. It’s just getting so saturated here.
DV: The 78702 has to be a tough place to compete with all the great barbecue here. It seems to make sense to move to the south side of town where there’s a greater need for quality barbecue.
LM: We cut our teeth down there too. It’s exciting, and it’s scary. I’ve got some old school photos of my mom and dad that’ll go in there. I want to do a Bobby Special on Sundays which will be two dry links, a slice of cheese, crackers, and two Budweisers. I want to get mom and dad in there because I think there name is getting lost in the whole story of barbecue. My dad died doing it, and my mom was there along with him the whole time. I think I took a lot of what they had to do for granted. It’s one thing to put the product together everyday, but it’s another to make sure there’s enough money in the account to pay the Sysco bill. We just added that third pit. They showed up with twenty-four cases of brisket yesterday, and I almost had a heart attack. I get what people go through.
DV: Are you done going into business with your family?
LM: Hell yes.
DV: You have a Mueller on staff here, right?
LM: Yes. That’s John’s first born. Robert Louis Mueller II. He’s named after my dad.
DV: Is he just wiping tables?
LM: We had him coming in to start sausage. He wants to learn how to cook.