Wayne Mueller, pitmaster and owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue, was half a world away from Texas, with five hundred pounds of raw beef ribs, a tub of coarse black pepper, and an empty smoker. It was March 13, and the Meatstock barbecue event in Melbourne, Australia, was set to welcome thousands of visitors over the following two days. Mueller sliced open a package of ribs to demonstrate the proper seasoning method to a local barbecue assistant, who was to help cook through the night. The serious work was about to begin. “Everyone was prepared to cook,” Mueller says of the thirteen barbecue joints that had gathered for the event. Then they called the whole thing off. As the coronavirus spread, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison had banned all events with more than five hundred people.
“It was crazy trying to get out,” Mueller says. He caught a flight home on March 15, connecting in an eerily empty Los Angeles airport, and made it home safely. Mueller still isn’t sure if his severe fatigue, runny nose, and sore throat were just really bad jet lag, but he felt it wise to self-quarantine at home in Taylor (he hasn’t been tested for COVID-19). His restaurant opened without him the following week. Curbside service and local delivery were offered mid-week. “Our traffic went to damn near zero,” Mueller says, so he thought his best option was to temporarily close starting March 23. That lasted for two months, until a quiet reopening on Saturday, May 23.
Mueller didn’t stay away from the restaurant for too long, and found he had little time on his hands despite the closure. His nationwide deliveries through Goldbelly more than doubled in April and May. The pits were running at only 10 percent of their usual weekly output, but they weren’t dormant, and the restaurant had just enough revenue to cover its fixed costs. Louie Mueller Barbecue’s office and shipping manager, Celeste Sosa, was the only employee who remained along with Mueller. Mueller did most of the cooking on his own, alone in the empty building, except for the ghosts. “A ghost hunter came by and certified us as haunted,” in late February, Mueller jokes.
With numerous maintenance projects at the restaurant, not to mention record high beef prices, Mueller searched for the right time to reopen. He completed a patio on the side of the building that can seat more than one hundred, rearranged tables to cut his customer capacity, and installed hand sanitizer dispensers. He posted a sign on the door alerting locals that Louie Mueller Barbecue would reopen May 23. There were so many unknowns: how much meat to smoke, how many customers would show up, and how much they’d be willing to spend. Mueller went to unlock the front door that first morning back. Ten customers were waiting outside the door. “That was a bit of relief,” he says.
The menu is a bit different now. “Thirty dollars per pound is sticker shock for a lot of people,” he says of his current price for brisket and the famous beef ribs. The biggest beef ribs can get over two and half pounds each, which requires a warning to the customer before slicing commences. Pork ribs and pulled pork are still just $18 per pound, and the handmade smoked sausage is a buck and a half cheaper. That leaves a big gap between the beef and pork prices, which Mueller says has finally tempted customers to skip the brisket, at least for now. “I’m selling more pork now than I’ve ever sold at any point ever,” he says, adding a second “ever” for emphasis.
They’re still building barbecue trays for diners, but more customers are ordering sandwiches than ever before. “We have to think about center of plate not being one hundred percent protein,” Mueller says. They’re pushing high-value items like barbecue-topped baked potatoes and Frito pies. “I’m considering salads,” Mueller admits. Although he’s back open and operating, “It feels weirdly unfamiliar. Everything that I’ve known about this place, operations have always been one way,” so any change is uncomfortable, including no longer giving away that signature bite of brisket a staff member would hand to every customer before they ordered at the counter.
Before this past weekend, Mueller finally announced via social media that he was back open, and still hiring. After operating quietly for a few weeks, Mueller says, “I felt good enough about where we were” to let the public outside of Taylor know. For pit help, he brought on Sheldon Mason, who previously worked at 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio. Mueller is still looking for staff, including a slicer to work the cutting block. For now, the hours at Louie Mueller Barbecue are Wednesday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
Meat suppliers have told Mueller his cost for brisket will come down next week, and he’ll adjust the menu price accordingly. That’s another step toward getting back to normal, though he doesn’t expect any real sense of normalcy for a long time. Mueller’s business avoided the worst financial losses that the first phase of COVID brought, but he doesn’t see it getting any easier. Positive tests and hospitalizations are climbing more rapidly in Texas than they ever have during this crisis.
“This thing has been like a hurricane. You have a front edge, an eye, and a back edge,” Mueller says. He surmises that we’re now in the eye of the hurricane, and aren’t paying enough attention to the rest of the storm headed our way. “This truly is the calm,” he says, “and that’s the crazy thing of it all.”