Business is always slow for restaurants after New Year’s, but 2023 was especially painful at Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque, in Wolfforth, near Lubbock. The holiday orders in November and December came through as expected, but customer traffic dropped off a cliff in the months that followed. “We blew through all of our reserves to keep the doors open through March,” co-owner Arnis Robbins said. “I was not confident we were going to make it.”
In April the restaurant opened six days a week instead of four to try and bring in more revenue. The move brought more customers, but it spread the profits over more days, and the added labor costs made the joint even less efficient. “Sales are down, but also our expenses are so much higher that it doesn’t work anymore,” Robbins said. He calls the “broken” system the new normal for Texas barbecue joints.
Robbins shared his concerns with customers in a social media post earlier this month. He wanted barbecue fans and Lubbock locals to understand that even a well-established joint with many accolades like the one he runs with his wife, Mallory, is not immune from financial hardship. “We’re the big dog that doesn’t struggle anymore,” Robbins said, referring to some people’s perceptions of the joint’s situation. I talked with several other Top 50 barbecue joints dealing with the same challenges this year.
“We were anticipating the same [growth] based on the last several years,” Yvette Helberg said of her Helberg Barbecue, located outside Waco. She and her husband, Phillip, opened their brick-and-mortar in Woodway in 2019, and business grew until this year. Compared to last year, Helberg estimates revenue is down 20 percent since Father’s Day.
Joe Zavala points to Memorial Day as the time when things slowed down at Zavala’s Barbecue, in Grand Prairie, and he says business is down 25 percent. It’s down 30 percent at LaVaca BBQ, which has locations in Port Lavaca and Victoria. Co-owner Lupe Nevarez said it hasn’t been profitable since the Fourth of July.
All of these owners point to several causes for the slowdown, and all agree the summer heat has kept people away. A heavy meal of smoked meat feels less than refreshing when it’s 110 degrees, and a barbecue road trip sounds less appealing when you know it’s gonna hurt to touch your steering wheel.
Nevarez said it’s been especially tough for LaVaca BBQ’s Port Lavaca location, which depends on the heavy traffic from vacationers coming to and from nearby Lavaca and Matagorda Bays. Nevarez said some customers told him it was too hot to fish this summer. The Helbergs opened a new trailer in downtown Waco to serve folks who didn’t want to drive out to Woodway, but Helberg said her friends confessed the heat still kept them from wanting to stand in any outdoor line for food.
The lines at barbecue joints across the board are diminishing. “I get bummed whenever we don’t have lines out the door like we used to, but I’m still doing what I love, and I’m proud of what we do,” Robbins said. Evie Mae’s did get a jolt of energy from a recent Texas Tech home football game. Robbins said the big crowd made it feel like a Saturday from the old days.
“Texas barbecue, at least for us, is changing out of necessity,” Nevarez said. He has given up on a steady stream of barbecue enthusiasts coming in and is instead depending on locals, many of whom don’t have a lot to spend on a tray of smoked meat. LaVaca BBQ has hung an “Old School Menu” of $12-and-under items next to the main menu to attract more regulars. It features smoked chicken quarters, a brisket sloppy joe, a smoked hot dog, and a corn chip pie made with brisket chili. Zavala’s added a two-meat plate and a two-taco plate for those who don’t want to order by the pound. Zavala is also going old-school with his marketing, passing around flyers that customers can bring in for a free barbecue taco.
“I wanted to be a barbecue joint trying to make the best barbecue in the world, and that did not include barbecue that somebody wanted to put on a baked potato,” Robbins said. He’s had to swallow his pride a bit and add lunch specials like a $9 ground-brisket cheeseburger (with a drink) on Tuesdays, a $7 chopped-rib sloppy joe on Wednesdays, and a pulled chicken sandwich with creamy buffalo sauce on Thursdays. Baked potatoes haven’t made an appearance. “We haven’t gone that far yet,” Robbins said with a laugh.
No matter the changes, smoked brisket is still the biggest barrier to profitability. Zavala had short-term success guiding beef eaters toward smoked fajitas and burgers, but once the newness of those items wore off, so did the interest. “Everybody wants brisket,” Zavala said. And it’s expensive. Robbins paid $5.45 per pound in his latest food delivery. In a lengthy Facebook post, he explained how that raw cost should translate (after trimming and smoking) into a $38-per-pound price.
He acknowledges why Evie Mae’s won’t and couldn’t charge that price in Lubbock. It has to make its profits elsewhere, which is the same for every other barbecue joint using high-quality brisket. Helberg said she has witnessed potential customers walk out once they learn the brisket is sold out, but she does offer every customer a sample of the smoked pork steak, hoping to open minds. Nevarez said he used to brag about how many briskets the team smoked at LaVaca BBQ every day, but now, he said, “it’s like, ‘How much brisket did we have to sell?’ ” Chili might be the state dish, but brisket is easily the official loss leader of Texas cuisine.
The harder truth to swallow is that we simply have too many great options in Texas and across the country. “Barbecue is perfect,” Zavala said. He explained that easy access to multiple great barbecue options in one’s immediate area is now a given, especially in big cities. The fact that we can publish a list of 25 great new barbecue joints that have opened or revamped themselves since 2021 is evidence of that. The supply of barbecue has ballooned, but there are only so many customers to serve, especially in small towns and smaller cities. “There are four other craft barbecue joints in the Lubbock area that didn’t exist when we started,” Robbins said.
He’s happy to witness the growth of West Texas barbecue, but in the end the joints are all competing for limited dollars. I haven’t yet had a chance to try the newly released menu from Mimsy’s Craft Barbecue, in Crockett, but most of it isn’t barbecue. In a recent post, co-owner Wade Elkins explained, “With the current economy and high meat prices we feel it’s now or never for us to open our cook books and show you what we can do that isn’t just smoked meats!” Elkins and his wife, Kathy, are calling the pivot Mimsy’s 2.0, and they hope the stuff that’s not coming out of the smoker can bail out the restaurant.
I’ll offer another example from a recent trip to Winnsboro. It’s a town of about 3,500 people that’s roughly twenty miles off Interstate 30 in northeast Texas. On a Saturday for lunch, I had three barbecue operations to choose from within city limits. All of them had opened since summer 2022. Without some significant out-of-town traffic to support them, there’s simply too much smoked meat to go around. I pondered this as I drove out of Winnsboro, and ten minutes later I passed a roadside barbecue trailer.
During my conversation with Helberg, she said she feared the barbecue bubble had burst. I disagree, but not because I’m in denial. Yes, my sense of self-preservation cheers for the barbecue boom to continue unabated, but the economic dilemma for barbecue-joint owners is still inflating. It will burst, and with it will go the hobbyist whose passion won’t outlast the financial losses; the new brick-and-mortar business with no cash in reserve; and, yes, the established joint all the locals thought was too big to fail. So support them now, and maybe try the smoked turkey.
I wrote two years ago about how smoked brisket had peaked in Texas, which isn’t too far removed from Zavala’s argument. This past year I’ve also been traveling the country to find the many Texas-style joints outside the state. I’ve reported on impressive stops in South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and California . . . twice. For a promoter of Texas’s barbecue dominance, that growth elicits some genuine pride. The reality, though, is with the addition of hundreds more Texas-style joints in this country, there are still only two briskets on every cow. The spike in meat prices we experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has cooled, but we’ll never see raw brisket coming back to the $2 per pound we could bank on a decade ago.
As much as the owners I’ve recently spoken with blame their downturns on the heat, the high meat prices, or the competitive labor market, I think there’s a psychological factor we’re all dealing with as well. For over two years we focused on survival, and for the restaurant owners who are still around, 2023 felt like the year they should be seeing some reward. “We should be out of that survival mode by now, but it feels like survival mode still,” Helberg said. Robbins echoed her, telling me, “We are working harder than we ever have for less than we ever have.” Zavala is still hopeful, despite the challenges, saying, “Barbecue isn’t going anywhere.”
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