Last Saturday, business was booming at Pecan Lodge in Shed #2 at the Dallas Farmers Market. I was eating tamales from La Popular, another vendor at the market, and it was great to see such vibrancy in at Shed #2. Just a few years ago, when Pecan Lodge opened, this was a different scene—the expected Saturday peak was there, but on a Thursday or Friday, it was relatively quiet. Now, even on weekdays, there’s a high level of energy and a line of barbecue hounds stretching nearly from end to end of this enormous building.
Pecan Lodge has built itself into a cornerstone of the Farmers Market, and Justin Fourton, the restaurant’s owner, says the market also also been good to his business. This is where it all started. Since he set up shop three years ago, Pecan Lodge has blossomed into one of Texas’s finest barbecue joints, being named one of the Top Four joints in the state by Texas Monthly. The significance of his partnership with the Farmers Market has not been lost on Fourton, but it has come with some struggles.
The Farmers Market’s previous owner was the City of Dallas, which recently sold the market to an investor group called DF Market Holdings. While the city was in extended negotiations with the investors, it opted not to sink any capital into the venue, which left Pecan Lodge without an option to build additional enclosures for much needed smoker capacity. As the barbecue joint’s demand grew, the capacity for providing additional supply was stalled.
Open-air smoking almost put Pecan Lodge out of business two years ago when the city required them to build an enclosure, something they had to pay for out of pocket. Fourton agreed to this, but additional requests for a larger build-out were denied. Fourton was hoping those options would become available with the new ownership group. And they did. The new owners of the Farmers Market gave Pecan Lodge more space to move its wood pile and make room for a new larger smoker named Big Rick.
DF Market Holdings told the press that keeping Pecan Lodge at the Farmers Market is a big priority. Jack Gosnell, who handles the leasing for the new ownership group, spoke to the Dallas Business Journal about Pecan Lodge, saying, “They are our No. 1 tenant to keep at the Farmers Market.” Gosnell was also quoted in a recent Dallas Morning News article saying, “Pecan Lodge is an anchor for us.” In the same article Blair Black, a principal with DF Market Holdings, said, “We’d love to keep them as a tenant.” (The mayor of Carrollton has talked about trying to woo the business north and other Dallas real estate folks are trying to get Pecan Lodge to move to a different bricks-and-mortar address.)
But there are some logistical reasons that Pecan Lodge may continue to look for another space, which Fourton admitted to me and to the Dallas Morning News: the hours at Shed #2 have changed. This has disrupted business. The building now opens at 10:00 a.m., an hour later than it used to. This means a line of Pecan Lodge customers now forms outside the locked doors. Fourton said he was informed of the new policy about a month ago by a customer who texted them from the line outside asking why the rules had changed. Blair Black told me the change was made because there weren’t vendors open for business at 9:00. But for years La Popular has sold breakfast tacos and tamales inside Shed #2 starting at 9:00 a.m. on weekends. Frenchie’s, another food vendor in Shed #2, also used to open at nine on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Pecan Lodge is disappointed that its customers will now have to wait outside instead of inside the air-conditioned Shed #2. This might not seem like much, but one of Pecan Lodge’s selling points has been that at least the line is comfortable. Now it’s only comfortable after 10:00. This past Friday, I stopped by when it was raining. Instead of the normal crowd of forty or so customers, there were a dozen or so people huddled under a few trees trying to stay dry until they were let inside. The next day was a sunny Saturday and nearly fifty people were queued up when the doors opened at 10:00.
Pecan Lodge recently discovered another disadvantage to leasing space from a landlord. A couple of weeks ago, Pecan Lodge hosted a dinner after normal operating hours, and the new landlord charged them $100 per hour to keep the doors open for the evening.
And now there’s a whiff of competition. A couple of weeks ago smoke started rising from another pit at the market. Another barbecue vendor opened, this one on the end of one of the open-air produce sheds. Fourton isn’t actually concerned about losing business to the new weekend smoker, and he holds no ill will to the couple who are just trying to make a buck, but the Fourtons see the move to bring in competition as symbolic. When asked about the new vendor, Blair Black said, “There was a lot of open space, and we’re going to continue to rent them until they’re filled up.” I asked if any consideration was given to their anchor tenant, Pecan Lodge, before signing on another barbecue operation. Black replied, “We are renting spaces. It’s just like I have three people who sell lemonade. We put him [the barbecue vendor] there with absolutely no consideration of Pecan Lodge or anyone else.”
It’s understandable that DF Market Holdings should pursue new vendors, especially considering that when the market was being run by the city, it lost a considerable amount of money every year, due in part to their being too many empty vendor stalls. There are more vendors now, but some of those are direct competition to established leaseholders. This past weekend, a new vendor that sells cupcakes set up in the stall adjacent to long-time Farmers Market vendor Ain’t No Mo! Butter Cakes. Frenchie’s has seen its lemonade sales drop after a new vendor set up just across Shed #2. La Popular, where I ate tamales last week, now has to contend with another tamale maker just a few stalls away.
As my family and I finished our meal in Shed #2 last Saturday, I heard the opening bell ring at Pecan Lodge. At about the same time the car of Pecan Lodge’s cashier Mark was getting towed out of an area clearly marked “Vendor Parking”, but he didn’t know this as he greeted the first customers of the day. He thought working for a vendor would allow him to park there even after the new sign was posted, but $190 later he learned the hard way that it was reserved only for produce vendors. The new sign didn’t stipulate, so he asked the market management for reimbursement, which he says he did not receive.
It was 11:00 in the market when the serving bell at Pecan Lodge rang, and I was curious how many people were in line. Not counting infants and strollers there were 154 hungry barbecue fans waiting to eat. Many had drinks from other vendors, and some even had a beer in hand from the Cheese Peddlers, which is owned by Bob Zayas. He’s been a beneficiary of the new ownership. He recently secured a liquor license–he wasn’t able to sell alcohol before on the city-owned property–and though the cheese business has been good for him, “The beer business is making it all a hell of a lot better,” he said. He likes the captive audience of the barbecue line and hopes they stick around. The Fourtons knows it can be a long boring wait to eat their barbecue, so they were happy when a blues guitarist set up to entertain the crowd. But he got through just two songs before the management came over and asked him to leave.