I pulled into the gravel lot in front of M&M BBQ Company’s fabrication shop in Tool and saw four offset smokers piled behind a chain-link fence like old muscle cars in a scrapyard. They’d been rendered useless, at least temporarily, with their once towering smokestacks detached and laid beside them on the ground. Co-owner Mike Miller Jr. said he hauled them up from Miller’s Smokehouse (no relation) in Belton after the restaurant replaced its offset smokers with four new M&M rotisseries. The owners asked for M&M to refurbish the offsets and put them up for sale. Seeing these smokers literally left in the dust was a metaphor for just how quickly the popularity of rotisserie smokers has grown.
The differences between an offset smoker and a rotisserie smoker are vast. M&M builds both, which is unusual for a manufacturer. Usually a shop would choose one or the other to produce. Modern offsets, especially the thousand-gallon ones, are usually made from old propane tanks. A steel firebox is welded to one end, and a tall steel pipe is attached to the other end as an exhaust. The exhaust draws smoky hot air from the firebox, which flows over the meat to cook and flavor it with smoke.
Some rotisseries, including M&M’s, use wood for cooking but only function when plugged in. They are massive metal boxes with a rotating Ferris wheel of shelves inside. Smoke and heat are drawn into the cooking chamber and then exhausted through a series of electrically operated automatic dampers. Cooking is a more hands-off process than with an offset, but if done right, the results are remarkably similar.
Mike Miller Sr. started his career in barbecue as a repairman for Mesquite-based J&R Manufacturing, which has built the Oyler model of rotisserie smokers since 1974. In 2003 he founded M&M Pit Repair in Tool, southeast of Dallas. His son, Mike Jr., and his son’s friend Matt Sutton joined the business (Mike Sr. is now mostly retired), and they’ve gradually shifted the focus from fixing smokers to building them from scratch. Given M&M’s long history with J&R Manufacturing, it’s no surprise that their rotisserie smoker looks similar to the Oyler, but Mike and Matt say they’ve made changes to the design based on their experience repairing them to improve the functionality.
M&M sold the first rotisserie of their own design five years ago, and they made just three that year. This year they’ve already sold forty. “Now is the time for people to see how great these really are,” Mike Jr. told me outside his shop as we gazed upon four freshly painted, jet-black rotisseries headed for the Patriotic Pig, in North Richland Hills. M&M replaced the door handles with spent 30mm shell casings from an A-10 Warthog aircraft as a customization.
For nearly a decade, the thousand-gallon smoker has been the dominant cooking machine at new Texas barbecue joints. Once Austin Smoke Works started marketing its model in 2015, others Texas builders followed and have since become household names in the industry: Mill Scale, Cen-Tex, Backline Fabrication, and Moberg. Cooking in them shows a pitmaster’s dedication to all-wood cooking, but they’re also a status symbol. Restaurants that use them require lots of cooking capacity and can afford to drop $20,000 or more on a smoker. That’s still the case, but rotisseries from M&M—with showroom-level custom paint finishes—are stealing some attention from those old workhorses.
When I saw an Instagram video late last year of M&M shipping a rotisserie painted bright white with shiny gold accents to the Wynn casino in Las Vegas, I did a double take. The impracticality of that color on a machine built to smoke meats with a wood fire could be chalked up to the Vegas factor, but it brought more inquiries about color options. “We didn’t know the push was going to be so big,” Mike Jr. said of the custom paint schemes, which come at a $3,000 charge.
The array of colors kept rolling in on the company’s social media feeds, with Wright’s Barbecue, in Arkansas, getting one in University of Arkansas red and Heim Barbecue, in DFW, showing off the deep purple of the TCU Horned Frogs. Surprisingly, Goldee’s Barbecue, in Fort Worth, the number one spot in our latest Top 50 list, went with light green. M&M used actual gold leaf on a smoker sent to Burnt Bean Co., in Seguin.
I asked Burnt Bean owners David Kirkland and Ernest Servantes if they handled this smoker more delicately than their rustic Mill Scale offsets. “I don’t even want to cook on this thing,” Kirkland remembered saying to Servantes when it was delivered. “When you clean out the ash from the firebox, it gets all over the place,” Servantes complained, joking that Kirkland polishes the smoker to keep it gleaming. Kirkland scoffed, saying, “It’s already getting banged up.” He noted the decision to buy the rotisserie was due to the joint’s limited space and the rotisserie’s capacity, which is double the offsets’.
The gold leaf, they said, was a surprise from M&M. The Millers knew that when Burnt Bean opened, the logo on the front window was meant to be gold leaf, but the owners couldn’t afford it and used a decal instead. Now Kirkland and Servantes have the real thing on their smoker, which is displayed proudly on their patio. “Nobody puts baby in the corner,” Servantes joked.
That hasn’t always been the case. The reputation of rotisserie smokers in Texas has fluctuated, but they’re often kept behind closed doors, while the offsets are on display. Mike Jr. pointed out that due to the 1968 patent application for the Oyler, rotisseries were actually adopted earlier in Texas barbecue than steel offset smokers, which weren’t widely available until the 1980s. “I want to change the way rotisseries are viewed,” he said. And M&M’s custom paint jobs and its success at getting some of Texas’s top barbecue joints on board has added a cool factor. But these smokers are more than just a fashion accessory.
Esaul Ramos co-owns 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, which has only ever used offset smokers. But when it came time to open a new barbecue joint in Castroville (expect an opening date this fall) called Blu Lacy Smokehouse, he chose an M&M rotisserie. “It’s a different business model,” Ramos said of his plans to be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week at Blu Lacy, compared to the limited hours at 2M. He needs the added capacity, and he noted that the ease of use could help in finding pit staff. “Work ethic isn’t what is used to be, so it’s harder to find someone to man a pit,” Ramos said.
Not having used a rotisserie himself, he felt better after trying the barbecue at Prime Barbecue in North Carolina, which uses Oylers. While the Blu Lacy smoker is now complete (it has a custom blue color with the restaurant’s logo), Ramos hasn’t been able to fire it up for a test run. He’s still a little nervous about the results but says, “We’ll have to figure it out.”
For Dusty Miller at Miller’s Smokehouse, the proof was in the barbecue after his first two M&M rotisseries were delivered last year. “After a couple weeks of operating two of them, I ordered two more,” he said, and sent the offsets he opened with in 2016 to the M&M scrapyard. It wasn’t easy for Miller to part with those smokers. “I was emotionally attached to them, so I didn’t want to try anything else,” he said. The fleet of offsets made regular appearances with the likes of baseball legend Nolan Ryan and The Daytripper‘s Chet Garner, but Miller said the heat was punishing and he needed more cooking space. “It has doubled our capacity in the same footprint, using half the wood,” he said. There’s no going back now, unless, of course, there’s a power outage. Miller’s held on to one trailer-mounted offset, which doesn’t need to plug into the wall to function.
Fancy paint schemes aren’t the only advancements at M&M these days. Many municipalities, especially those outside Texas, require all restaurant cooking equipment, even smokers, to be National Sanitation Foundation–certified. All of the large rotisserie and offset smokers M&M currently produces meet those requirements. And the offsets aren’t left out when it comes to custom finishes. A shiny gold offset was in the paint booth when I visited the shop, a far cry from the raw steel that pitmasters have preferred on their offset smokers in years past.
I was reminded of the plight Brandon Hurtado of DFW’s Hurtado Barbecue had with his restaurant’s first offset smoker, which was very raw and still had markings from when it was an anhydrous ammonia tank. The health department wouldn’t allow it, and now there’s a gleaming turquoise M&M offset in its place. But the raw-steel look isn’t a thing of the past. Mike Jr. told me the newest design M&M is working on for its rotisseries is the equivalent of ripped jeans on designer-store racks. The paint scheme will mimic the weathered, rustic look of the unpainted propane tanks used for offset smokers. I guess that’s where steel meets irony in barbecue trendiness.