Transitioning from military life to running a barbecue business was a challenge for Steven and Kristen Rossler. In January 2021, they opened the Rossler’s Blue Cord Barbecue food truck in Harker Heights, near Fort Hood, where Steven was stationed as an Army staff sergeant. They cleared a big hurdle for the future of the truck when Steven retired from the military the following month, but that was nothing compared to the trauma he’d had to overcome before that point.
Steven was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with valor for his actions on the battlefield while deployed in Afghanistan in 2011. To the outside world, he had been rewarded for his bravery, but for Steven, it was reminder of an awful day on which he survived an IED explosion when three of his fellow soldiers did not. “I went into a burning vehicle multiple times trying to give my guys air,” Steven told me. Enemy rounds struck the vehicle as he tried to free Sergeant First Class Clark Corley, Specialist Ryan Lumley, and Specialist Thomas Mayberry, but they couldn’t escape. Steven recounted that story to me recently, but a few years ago, even his wife didn’t know the details of what he’d witnessed.
“I had to step up and be the leader,” Steven said of the attack and its aftermath. He held that attitude for years after. He considered it a show of strength to keep his trauma buried, even if it meant an increasing dependence on alcohol. When he began offering catering services on the side in 2016, it was easier to justify the drinking as a part of barbecue culture. But it wore on him. Finishing a cook early in the morning, taking an hour-long nap, then getting to his unit’s physical training session was rough.
Steven and Kristen married in 2015 while Kristen was pregnant with their first child. She moved from her home in Midland to Killeen when the baby was ten days old. In Midland, she’d worked at a restaurant and cut hair. Kristen was raised a Navy brat, so life on the base wasn’t unusual. Still, she wasn’t used to staying at home.
Soon after she’d had their second child, Kristen started to help with the barbecue. Steven taught her the ins and outs of the pit. She remembers adding wood to the firebox while nursing their infant, which in retrospect might seem strange, but it was better than being bored. Steven still did most of the cooking, but he’d sometimes overdo it with the liquor and pass out with briskets in the pit. Kristen would have to rescue them in the morning. After one too many close calls, she gave him an ultimatum: “If you don’t figure out something to cope with everything, I’m okay being a single mother.”
Therapy was a big step for Steven, though it took until late 2019 to find a therapist he could trust. She was a veteran and had been deployed to Iraq. It was easier to open up to her, Steven said, and he let himself be vulnerable about his past for the first time. Kristen said telling people his story is part of the healing process, and Steven said he’d like to help as many people as he can by talking through his own struggles.
Cooking barbecue also became therapeutic for both Steven and Kristen. They put a new focus on excellence, and Steven quit mixing drinking with his work. They paid closer attention to their fire and to the barbecue as it cooked, so as not to waste anything. Today their main business is catering on the weekends. “We’re booked out until next April,” Kristen said, while Steven added, “It’s where the money’s at.” That limits their public food-truck days to just Wednesdays and Thursdays, when they serve in the Smile Doctors Orthodontics parking lot from 11:30 a.m. until they sell out. That schedule can change, so it’s best to double-check their Facebook page before heading out.
One recent Friday evening, they held a special event: a beer-collaboration release party at Fire Base Brewing in Temple. While I waited for my order with a couple of friends, we sipped pints of Smoke Session smoked porter, which is brewed with grains smoked by the Rosslers. Before digging into the RBCB Platter, which consists of every meat and side for $56, we had quite a mouthful in the form of a deviled egg topped with a chunk of smoked brisket, a slice of pickled jalapeño, and a dab of barbecue sauce. There was plenty more Prime-grade brisket on the platter. Both the lean and fatty ends were smoky and well seasoned, but a stiff breeze took some of the juiciness with it. Such is the danger of dining alfresco with loaded-down platters.
There was a light glaze on the St. Louis ribs, which were nicely smoked, but they could have been more tender, like the lightly sauced pulled pork was. I loved the slices of smoked turkey breast, which had more spice going on than just black pepper. Rossler said the turkey has become a specialty since John Brotherton of Brotherton’s Black Iron Barbecue, in Pflugerville, walked him through his foolproof method. The smoked sausage is from Opa’s, in Fredericksburg, and was juicy with a good snap.
Rather than using their brisket trim for burgers or sausage, the Rosslers grind it and mix it with chunks of smoked brisket for a fantastic chili con carne. They offer it as a side or a topper on a stuffed baked potato. The standout sides were the savory collard greens, an eggy potato salad, and the pimento-cheese grits. Even better were the deep-fried balls of grits. The cheese gets browned by the fryer, and though the balls are prepared in the Rosslers’ commissary kitchen and held in a warmer, they were amazingly still crisp.
For dessert, Kristen wanted to take banana pudding up a notch. During a trip to H-E-B, she sampled gingersnaps and considered the possibilities. She adds some cinnamon to the pudding, places crumbled gingersnaps underneath, and puts a whole cookie on top of each serving. The crispy cookies soften in the little tubs of banana pudding and taste more like ginger cake, which I didn’t know I’d love so much.
Kristen and Steven both look back at their rough patches as ancient history, though they’re only a few years removed from the lowest times in their relationship. Those early catering gigs during which Steven and his late father, Steven Sr., did their best as a duo are also long gone, but the lessons learned were invaluable to the business the couple runs today. Between their home and work life, the Rosslers are almost never apart, and Kristen said without hesitation, “We love it.” Steven agreed, adding, “I’m so thankful that she stuck with me.”
Rossler’s Blue Cord Barbecue
300 Morgan, Harker Heights
Hours: Wednesday–Thursday 11:30–6 (or sold out)
Pitmasters: Steven and Kristen Rossler
Method: Post oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2021