Owner/Pitmaster: Hays Co. Bar-B-Que; Opened 2007
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Wood: Post Oak
In just eight short years, Michael Hernandez has gone from complete barbecue newbie to running one of the best barbecue joints in Texas. He was a fast learner and was dedicated to learning a new craft that he first encountered at Kreuz Market in Lockhart just a year before opening Hays Co. Bar-B-Que in San Marcos.
Hernandez cooks on all wood smokers of his own design. The menu looks a lot like ones you’d find in Lockhart, and the meat is served the same way – on butcher paper. He also makes his own ring sausages in house in original and jalapeño cheese flavors. You’ll want both.
These days you can also bring a piece of Hays Co Bar-B-Que home. Just last month, a pair of their barbecue sauces hit the HEB store shelves. You might want to add some to your own brisket at home, but at Hays Co. Bar-B-Que you won’t need a drop.
Daniel Vaughn: You’ve now got a successful barbecue restaurant that opened in 2007. What did you do before barbecue?
Michael Hernandez: I was in retail sales. I worked for Verizon, then a credit card processing company. I would go into restaurants and reprogram their credit card terminals.
DV: Did you service a few barbecue joints along the way?
MH: One time I was out trying to close an account. I passed by Lockhart. I’d always heard people say “You’ve gotta try that sausage at Smitty’s.” I stopped at Smitty’s and got some sausage, then went to Kreuz Market and ate. I’ll tell you what, that completely impacted me. From that day, I was like “This is what they’re talking about.”
DV: Where are you originally from?
MH: The Lubbock area. Barbecue around there was a meal you’d cook outside like burgers. I didn’t grasp what actual barbecue was.
DV: Did you ever eat at any barbecue restaurants around Lubbock?
MH: No. I never did. In Lubbock there wasn’t much to choose from. It was mainly steaks and burgers in the backyard. I’d eat brisket if someone cooked it, but I never really liked it. I guess I’d never had one that was done right. When I first tried it in this area, it blew my socks off.
DV: Do you remember when you took that trip to Lockhart?
MH: That was probably in 2006.
DV: Really? So you were not only new to cooking barbecue when you opened the restaurant, you had really just discovered real barbecue.
MH: Correct. I lived in New Braunfels at the time, but the funny thing is how I came to the opportunity to open the restaurant. A woman that I knew from Verizon knew the owner of the building and the previous business. She told me he needed some credit card processing set up. I went out there to help him and we started talking about why he got back into the business. The guy who had owned the business was Tony Martinez. He had worked at Kreuz. When they separated [from Smitty’s] and moved, he got frustrated and moved into the building. He ran it from 2000-2006 as Southwest Market, the he decided to close the doors. The building owner asks me “You wouldn’t happen to know anyone looking to get into their own restaurant?” My ears perked up. I said “I might be interested.” I came back the following weekend to come hang out and take it all in. I thought it had a lot of potential. We came to an agreement, I cashed in my 401K, and decided this is what we were going to do.
DV: Did you know how to cook barbecue at that point?
MH: No. I did not [laughing]. To make it crazier, my wife Asenette was a bank manager in San Antonio. I told her “If we’re going to do this, I need you to leave your job.” She said “Are you crazy?” I explained that I didn’t want to look back and say we should have done this or that. I wanted to make sure there was no room for failure. I didn’t want to have a “What if?” It was the craziest thing we’ve ever done.
DV: You quit your job, cashed in your 401K, then told your wife to quit her job, and you didn’t know how to cook barbecue. I think that’s the definition of going all-in. That had to cause some family strife to change your life so dramatically.
MH: She had to think about it. I have the entrepreneur spirit. I had gotten into a power washing business in Houston, and it kinda failed a little bit, so she had some bad memories of us working for ourselves. So, it wasn’t that easy to convince her. I promised her I would do everything to make sure the business didn’t fail, and here we are.
DV: Was it just the two of you at the beginning?
MH: It was me, my wife, and Rosemary who is still with us. It went from us three to now having seventeen employees.
DV: How did you then go from just being introduced to barbecue to knowing how to cook it?
MH: I have a passion for cooking. I’ve worked in restaurants before. When I bought the business from Woody he stuck around for month or two and showed me how to cook. I’d come home every night and make notes about what I wanted to change. He was kinda blessing the brisket, but I wanted to add more seasoning, more rub. I made a signature sausage that was brisket and pork butt. If we were going through the trouble of doing it, I wanted to make sure we were putting the best quality meat in it so the best would come out.
DV: From day one you were already making your own sausage?
MH: Correct. It was tough because I was tinkering with it. It was a big challenge, but it improved every year. Now I’m happy with what we have. It’s not too greasy or too lean.
DV: What else was on the menu when you opened?
MH: Shoulder clod, brisket, sausage, chicken, and ribs. After a while I brought in the pork chop and the turkey. Now the turkey is one of my better sellers.
DV: How long did it take you to feel comfortable with your cooking?
MH: The first year went by and I started to get at the root of what it meant to deliver. If we were going to be in the barbecue world, I wanted to be known for making our own sausage. A year later, my wife and I were at the HEB and we looked over on the rack and saw the 2008 issue of the Top 50 BBQ joints from Texas Monthly. I grabbed it and told my wife “We’re going to be in this book the next issue.” She said “Are you out of your mind?” I told her “I want to be identified with the greats, and I’m going to do everything I can to get on the list.” I didn’t know at the time that it would be five years before the next list came out instead of the following year. I probably wasn’t ready yet anyway. It took a lot of work to increase the quality and the knowledge. I’m glad it happened that way.
DV: What prompted the move from the original location out to the interstate?
MH: We were working with the owner of the previous property to buy it and the building. Once we made the Top 50 list our business started to really increase. At that point the asking price for the property went up dramatically, and we were told our rent would go up too if we didn’t purchase it. I was fuming. We decided we’d move to a location that wasn’t off the beaten path. I went up and down I-35. I saw an old car lot that was for lease. I didn’t ever want to lease again, but I called the number anyway. He didn’t want to sell it initially. I told him want I wanted to do with it, and he started thinking about it. We ended up closing on the property within a month.
DV: Was that more or less than the asking price of your old building?
MH: It was less, and in a better location. It was a day and night difference. It was a blessing in disguise, but then we had just three months to get in there. We knew we couldn’t build from scratch, so we had to make it work with the existing building. We made it. We closed on Friday at the old location, and opened Saturday at the new location. It was stressful.
DV: It had to be nerve-racking just hoping that people would find you in your new spot. Did that location on I-35 do everything you were hoping for to drive traffic?
MH: For a moment, the business was just doing okay. Within a couple months it picked up tremendously. During the summer, we got a lot of out-of-towners.
DV: That giant sign up on the interstate has to help.
MH: Yes sir.
DV: Did the menu change once you moved?
MH: I brought in the beef rib six months ago, and now we have breakfast.
DV: You also brought in some more help working the pits, right?
MH: Yes. Omar Serna has been with me for about three years. My son has taken a break. I was kinda hard on him. I expected so much out of him, and I possibly drove him away. Over the years I wore him out and he wore me out. I thought we needed to salvage our father and son relationship. He stepped away and is now at a trucking school. He’s driving a semi somewhere around Dallas right now.
DV: How long had you worked together?
MH: Almost seven years.
DV: You seem to be a guy who has a vision. What’s next for Hays Co. Bar-B-Que?
MH: I really want to ramp up the live music under the pavilion out back. It’s a nice place for people to come out and unwind after a tough week.
DV: You also mentioned that the renovated building you’re in wasn’t your first choice. Are there any plans for a new building?
MH: Yes. We’re talking to an architect now. We’re looking at doing a larger building.
DV: You’re a busy man with plenty to deal with at your own restaurant, but do you still go eat at other barbecue joints?
MH: I do, but not as much. I like to go see what other successful people are doing.
DV: Are there any pitmasters out there that you would consider a mentor?
MH: Because of the way I was introduced into the barbecue world, I would say Roy Perez at Kreuz Market has really impacted me.
DV: San Marcos is well located right in between Austin and San Antonio, so much so that some other barbecue joints have started to pop up. Are you concerned about any of the new competition?
MH: Not necessarily. I see it as an opportunity to sharpen our skills, but it also helps make it a destination for a barbecue crawl. It really just keeps us on our toes. I always train my staff, what is going to make people want to come here instead of there?
DV: With all the expansion going on around you with places like Black’s and Kreuz opening other locations, have you considered expanding?
MH: I have. When my son was still working with me, we had talked about launching another one. That was the only time I thought about it. It can be good and bad. It’s so difficult being a pitmaster. That kind of cooking is difficult, especially if you’re using the pits we have. For someone to mirror that isn’t impossible, but it’s not easy. Maybe it’s just because I’m such a control freak.
DV: Are you still enjoying being a pitmaster eight years into it?
MH: I am. I get this high when I see people giving me thumbs up and smiling. It makes it all worth it. Is it easy? No. Do I get tired doing it? Yes. There are times when I’ve worked more than I wanted to, but at the end it’s rewarding.