Interview: Tyler Frazer of Tyler’s Barbeque
Pitmaster: Tyler’s Barbeque, opened 2010
Smoker: Wood-fired Cabinet Smoker
Tyler Frazer took a converted Long John Silvers and turned it into a unique Panhandle barbecue joint. The menu itself isn’t so unique. You’ll find all the barbecue standards, but it’s his methods that buck the standard way of doing things up north. Yesterday’s meat is never sold. He cooks what he thinks he can sell in a day, and no more. If he runs out it ruffles a few feathers, but he figures that’s better than serving day-old barbecue. The sides are all made fresh. Potato salad starts as a bag of potatoes and the mac & cheese (Thursdays only) is made from scratch. Even the beans don’t come from a can. In a state where most pitmasters focus only on the meat, it’s nice to see Mr. Frazer putting some effort into the rest of the menu too.
Daniel Vaughn: You’re open from 11-8 five days a week. How do you keep enough barbecue on hand to last that long?
Tyler Frazer: For ribs I put on three or four batches a day. I plan everything so we don’t have a lot left at the end of the day. I manage it really carefully because I don’t want to have anything left over. Nobody else around here does the “sold out” thing, but my food’s always fresh. It has started to catch on.
DV: You tweet an announcement every time you sell out, and it always seems to be around that 8:00 hour. You must be guessing pretty well.
TF: Right. I was buyer for a few years, so I can do the math.
DV: A buyer for who?
TF: For Hastings. I bought candy canes and toys. It was here in Amarillo. I did about $14 million in candy.
DV: So you’ve always worked in the food industry.
TF: Kinda. I worked at Coca-Cola before I worked at Hastings. With all of that experience dealing with inventory it really has helped. Tracking inventory, setting margins, understanding what stuff costs. I think some people get into work like this and don’t have any idea what they’re doing [from a business standpoint].
DV: I do notice in my barbecue travels that there are plenty of places that can do barbecue, but it’s harder to find places that take marketing seriously. That seems to be one of your strongpoints. Where does that come from?
TF: If you don’t believe in yourself, you’re missing the game.
DV: I noticed you took out an ad in the June issue of Texas Monthly even though you were in the Top 50 anyway.
TF: Part of it was that I wasn’t sure I was going to be in the Top 50. I wanted to be in the magazine either way. I saw Brian Sweany in here one day. He looked familiar because I’d just started following him on Twitter.
DV: That was most likely the official visit from Texas Monthly for the Top 50.
TF: I didn’t realize it was him until he left, but I chatted with him. I think being personable is a big part of it. When I started out I had enough money to get open. I had to borrow money from my dad to buy groceries for the first month. It’s hard to get a business started when you’re the little guy.
DV: What prompted you to open a barbecue joint in the first place?
TF: I went to work for Trace [Arnold who is the pitmaster at 3 Stacks BBQ in Frisco] who owns the 18-wheeler grill over in Justin, they were going to open a barbecue place. I was down in the Dallas area at regular tailgates at SMU with a friend. I loved it, and I knew there was a need up here [in Amarillo] for good barbecue. There are some places here that are alright, but I wanted to do something different. With Trace I knew I could work for him and I can learn what I need to learn to cook different volumes and come back to Amarillo. It was a five-year plan.
DV: How did you meet Trace?
TF: He was going to come down to SMU with the Ultimate BBQ Grill & Smoker. I was with my buddy Matt who has the best tailgate spot at SMU. We were right there on the Boulevard with all the beautiful people. Trace called us the day before and said he couldn’t come because his driver got sick. Matt told him that I had a CDL. I went down that afternoon to test drive the truck around Texas Motor Speedway, then drove it down to SMU the next day.
DV: What year was that?
TF: That was in 2004.
DV: How long did you drive that rig?
TF: I worked for him during the summers for a few years then went on the road with them for four years.
DV: Did you just drive it, or did you cook too?
TF: I drove it, cooked it, cleaned it, washed it, waxed it and worked on it. I learned how to do a ton of stuff working for Trace, like plumbing and welding.
DV: Everything you need to know to run your own business.
DV: I assume you learned how to barbecue from Trace too. Is that correct?
TF: I did. We did four hundred events in the time I worked for Trace. We went from here to Seattle and California. We did a bunch of Big 12 games and barbecue cook-offs like the Houston Stock Show. It was pretty cool.
DV: Was there a moment when you realized you should be doing this yourself?
TF: I had it in mind the whole time I worked for Trace. We stopped at every little barbecue joint we came across when we were out on the road. I was taking notes on how they did things and how the lines flowed. I was taking menus to study.
DV: How did you know it was finally time to get your own place?
TF: Late in 2009 Mrs. Baird’s [a big sponsor of the Ultimate BBQ Grill & Smoker at the time] hadn’t signed a new contract with Trace. I was ready to move back home to Amarillo. I got the building leased and opened in about thirty-five days. I opened May 25, 2010. It had low funding. I found a smoker two weeks before I was ready to open. I thought I was going to have to build a Dutch-style pit because I couldn’t find anything in my price range. I had planned the whole time to do everything fresh. I’d been open for six days before the first time I sold out.
DV: A Dutch-style pit?
TF: That’s like what they have at Hard 8 – bricks on the sides with a big steel lid. I’ve always heard that called a Dutch-style pit.
DV: How much were you cooking back then?
TF: I was cooking about a case [five briskets] of briskets a day.
DV: How’s that compare to how may you’re cooking today?
TF: I put on four cases of briskets last night. That should last me until 7:00 depending on traffic. I actually have two smokers now. One day in the middle of the summer we had our highest volume day. We cooked 1000 pounds of brisket, 350 pounds of sausage, 111 racks of ribs and we sold out at 3:20. It was a pretty crazy day.
DV: You must have had some mad people that day.
TF: People have gotten used to it. They’re not so much mad now as disappointed. Hopefully they can come back tomorrow.
DV: When you don’t sell out, what do you do with the leftovers?
TF: I can use the brisket into the beans. The pulled pork goes into the green chile stew. If I have leftover ribs I send them to the Presbyterian Children’s Home.
DV: How have things changed for your business since the Top 50?
TF: After the Top 50 list came out in May, the Amarillo paper put me on the front page. We were chosen as “Best of Amarillo” a few years ago and we got real busy. Then we were on the cover of the Amarillo Magazine a year later and we got even busier. Then there’s a whole new level of busy which is front-page-of-the-paper busy after being in Texas Monthly. There was a line out the door for three hours straight. We had a line at least to the door and sold out every day for the rest of the month. We barely made it to six o’clock that whole month, and I’m a pretty good guesser.
DV: That had to feel good.
TF: It’s great. This is a lot of work. Today we did fifteen dozen sandwiches at lunch and thirteen briskets.
DV: Is it more likely for people in Amarillo to order a sandwich or a plate of sliced meat?
TF: If you break it down to what people order, the chopped beef sandwich is my #1 item overall. It’s probably 80% of our total sales. We sell a lot of ribs too, but it’s not anywhere close to the amount of chopped beef sandwiches. It’s a culture thing. There are several barbecue joints here that don’t even offer sliced.
DV: Have you thought about serving any of those apricot preserves I’ve seen around the Panhandle?
TF: I get asked that at least once or twice a week. I haven’t seen that anywhere other than Amarillo. I just can’t get excited about. They also ask about onion rings. I get guys who tell me “I judge barbecue on the onion rings and the ribs.” I don’t have anything fried. We’re limited on space here. I make the best cheese fries on Earth and I’d rather not be 400 pounds.
DV: Do you eat your own barbecue?
TF: I eat it every day.
DV: What about other people’s barbecue?
TF: I do when I’m traveling. We went on a little trip to San Antonio. On the way back we stopped at Smitty’s and Black’s in Lockhart. I like that beef rib at Black’s and that garlic sausage. At Smitty’s I had a great ribeye and some pork chops. It was all good. For me it’s just hard to rate it because there’s just good and then there’s okay.
DV: With your place up in Amarillo, you’re the most remote place on the Top 50 list, as far as distance from Austin. Is that a challenge as far as drawing visitors?
TF: Up here near the highway we get a lot of travelers. It’s great because they come in at a different time as the lunch crowd. We have four major highways running through here.
DV: Are you going to do some traveling down to Austin soon?
TF: I’m going to be coming down there November 3rd for the cook-off. I’m really excited about it. I’ve got a trailer with a smoker loaded on it. We’re trying to get our stuff together so we can come out there and play.
DV: You didn’t convince Trace to let you drive the truck one more time?
TF: He’d probably let me, but I just wanted to do my own thing. He told me I could use it if I ever needed to borrow it. He’s a real good guy. He found one of my smokers for me down at Bewley. He called me last year and said that Bewley had one so we went down and picked it up.
DV: Is that the smoker you’re using now?
TF: Yeah. I’ve got two of them. They’re J&R 250 Smokemasters. They’re small, but if you build a good fire they’re pretty bulletproof. It’s also easier to clean than a rotisserie.
DV: What kind of wood are you using?
TF: I’m using mesquite that comes from Hall County. Locally here in Amarillo all the mesquite trees are really small. Down near Memphis[, Texas] they’ve got the Red River running through there, so they get a little bigger. I’ve got a guy who cuts it, splits it and stacks it for me. When I worked with Trace we cut all of our own wood, so I see the value in paying someone else to do it.
DV: Most of the joints around there seem to use hickory.
TF: Every single one of them use hickory. You have to know how to build a fire with mesquite or it’s just going to be way too smoky and it will give you terrible indigestion. I actually like a mix of mesquite and pecan, but it doesn’t make any sense to do that because I can’t get a consistent pecan supply.
DV: Is there one meat that you consider your specialty?
TF: If I had to cook just one meat to make a living, I’d cook brisket. Ribs are second. I’m trying to make some sausage, but that’s a whole different ball game to get something consistent.
DV: How far away are you from making your own sausage regularly?
TF: I’m buying a real high quality sausage now, and until mine gets better than theirs, I can’t see switching.
DV: Where does your sausage come from?
TF: I don’t want to tell anyone because all the barbecue guys around here will go after it, but I can tell you it comes from Ponder, Texas. I serve jalapeno cheddar and black peppercorn.
DV: With all of the big cattle operations up there and the processing plant near Amarillo, do you know if you serve local beef?
TF: The boxes generally come from the same region, but that’s all about shipping costs. I have noticed I get some boxes from Canada sometimes.
DV: What are you paying for brisket?
TF: $2.18 per pound for Select or Choice. As long as the case weights stay the same I don’t mind, and IBP provides a consistently sized brisket.
DV: How long do you cook them?
TF: Well, it’s tricky cooking up here in the Panhandle. We have the jet stream that changes the air pressure. If we have really low pressure it can take an extra hour or so to cook the brisket. Tonight there’s a rain storm gathering. It’s humid so the brisket and ribs will come off about 20% earlier. I see the change most at the end of the cook. If we have a foggy morning that clears up at sunrise, the briskets that are on will slow down and might not be done until right at lunchtime.
DV: Here in Dallas we’re at about 400 feet above sea level. What is the altitude there?
TF: About 3600 feet.
DV: So it’s a bit like those high altitude cooking directions on your box of mac & cheese. It just takes a little longer.
TF: Exactly. The bakers around here notice too.
DV: You grew up in Amarillo. Was there any good barbecue there when you were growing up?
TF: I had some friends who had a barbecue joint here when I was in college. They had some really good barbecue, but they closed down. Since then there just hasn’t been any great barbecue around here.
DV: Well, now great barbecue is back in Amarillo, thanks to you.
TF: It’s back, but it’s a physical job. I’ve got a guy who comes in super early for me to stoke the fire, prep ribs and peel potatoes. I work about fourteen hours a day here now. When I opened up it was eighteen-hour days. It’s a marathon job.