Mark Gabrick’s heart has been broken by the barbecue business so many times, it’s a wonder he keeps letting barbecue back into his life. His two restaurant partnerships in two different states dissolved soon after the joints opened, and a more recent resurrection of his solo career fizzled thanks to COVID-19. Now he’s leaving the restaurant business behind to pursue the ultracompetitive barbecue sauce market. It seems to be working: his line of Gabrick Barbecue sauces was recognized by H-E-B as one of Texas’s best products in 2020, though he always envisioned his barbecue success would come out of a smoker rather than a bottle.
The Kansas City native had been earning a good living in advertising and was building a family with his wife, Marta, in Poland in 2008. He had a smoker shipped over from the U.S. so he could cook barbecue for his coworkers in Warsaw. Everyone who tried it seemed to love it. “[Barbecue] had been my passion since I was a kid cooking with my dad,” Gabrick explained. Though he had no experience, he considered opening a restaurant in Warsaw. It would mean a career change and a long-term commitment, and his sons were getting close to school age. He and Marta had to decide if their future would be in Poland or the U.S. They chose Texas.
“It was a crash and burn–type thing,” Gabrick said of his first barbecue restaurant, Cowboys BBQ & Rib Company in Colleyville, a suburb in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. The 7,500-square-foot restaurant opened in February of 2009, and Gabrick’s landlord mercifully bought it from him two months later. (I penned a couple less-than-kind reviews during that two-month span.) “People misrepresented their skills and abilities,” Gabrick explained when discussing his former partner, whom he asked me not to name in order to let old wounds heal.
I had followed Gabrick’s detailed posts leading up to the opening on an online barbecue forum. (I can’t remember which, and neither can Gabrick.) He asked the site administrators to erase the posts because he couldn’t bear the pain of seeing them again. It was an experience that would have made most people swear off the barbecue business forever.
Gabrick felt guilty about moving his family from a comfortable life in Europe into what ended up being a mess in Texas, and they moved to Tampa for a change of scenery. He jumped back into advertising, but kept his mind on barbecue. “I refused to let a situation steal my dream,” Gabrick said. He bought a smoker with his tax-return money, entered a few barbecue competitions, and in 2012 started selling barbecue sandwiches at a Tampa farmers’ market under the name Hogfather BBQ. “I started earning more money in the farmers’ market than in my advertising business,” he said. So he quit his day job.
Two years later, Hogfather BBQ became Brick’s Barbeque after a move to the larger Sarasota Farmers Market. The business was getting great press, and the lines in which customers were willing to wait for his barbecue was staggering to Gabrick. He had regained his confidence as a cook and restaurateur when new partners approached him with an offer. Together they opened Brick’s Smoked Meats in Sarasota in May 2017. “After the first restaurant I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to be in the situation where I don’t know what’s going on in the kitchen,’ ” Gabrick said. He ran it well, according to an early review, but Gabrick was gone eight months later (the restaurant is still open). He signed an NDA with his former partners, so he cannot discuss the particulars, but shortly before his departure the service model changed from one in which customers got their meat directly from a cutter at the block to one in which servers delivered meat from the kitchen.
Gabrick and his family returned to Texas, but this time to the Austin area. Another barbecue operation was the goal when I ran into Gabrick sometime in 2018 at Stiles Switch, and we shared a meal. Surely he’d be done with barbecue by now, I thought, but he was waiting on the delivery of a new Moberg smoker. Gabrick Barbecue opened in Austin at the 290 West Club in March 2019. He had high hopes, but was realistic about the challenge of making a dent in the Austin barbecue market. “In Florida I was special,” he said, but “everybody [in Austin] can do what I can.”
The sauce wasn’t quite as important as the meat to Gabrick when he launched in Austin, but he developed a barbecue sauce recipe he was proud to serve. “Customers kept saying, ‘I love this sauce,’ but that’s not what a pitmaster in Austin wants to hear,” he admitted. Gabrick felt like he had developed a following just when the club was sold and the new owner asked him to move out. “I can’t believe this is happening again, and again, and again,” he says he thought, but he found a new spot at the prophetic-sounding Last Stand Brewing. When the pandemic hit several months later, Gabrick closed up shop, this time for good.
I didn’t get a chance to try his brisket in Austin, but I’ve been consuming plenty of his new barbecue sauces since he sent me a few bottles in late 2020. He took that praise from his sauce-loving customers and tinkered with a few more recipes. The one from his Austin operation became the base for Texas Tang, which is a moderately thin sauce with plenty of vinegar, a honey sweetness, and a little heat from coarse black pepper. Sweet Heat, with a deep flavor from brown sugar and molasses, came next, and the more conventional, ketchup-based Rebel Red came later.
He sold his Moberg smoker to finance the new endeavor and entered the sauces into H-E-B’s Quest for Texas Best, along with 2,562 other submissions. The store representatives loved the sauces, but as Gabrick’s luck would have it, they canceled the contest in 2020 before the winners were announced (Gabrick Barbecue was officially named as a finalist in the 2021 contest). The sauces got the praise, marketing, and shelf placement usually reserved for the program’s winners, but the Gabricks weren’t really able to celebrate the achievement publicly. At least they were finally able to look forward to something. Gabrick hadn’t brought in income since closing the barbecue joint, and Marta had been furloughed from her health-care job. “We had that anchor of January 19, 2021, when we were going to hit the shelves,” Gabrick said, which gave them hope.
Sales have been great since. Gabrick expects the sauce line will hit $1 million in total sales once it’s in its second year on shelves. And the company has recently released a new Candy Jalapeño flavor. Gabrick said what separates his sauces from others on the market is water—or lack thereof. He noticed water as an ingredient in so many bottled sauces, and figured he could get a more flavorful sauce if the water were replaced with another liquid. Gabrick uses chicken stock in the Texas Tang and vegetable juice in both the Sweet Heat and Candy Jalapeño. And the jalapeños are actual chiles ground for the sauce, rather than powders or extracts.
As I said, I’ve tried all four sauces several times. I continue to reach for the Texas Tang when I want a sauce on my barbecue sandwiches at home, and for the Candy Jalapeño when I want something to dip my fries into. I even bought a bottle of Texas Tang (Gabrick sent the first four for me to try for free) when I ran out.
I had talked to Gabrick several times about his determination to stay in the barbecue business after so many obstacles. “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up,” he said. It sounds like a corny quote you’d share on Facebook, and Gabrick did. He attributed it to Babe Ruth, but it’s probably more true for Gabrick than the baseball star. His perseverance also required an understanding and supportive wife. “I always knew this was going to happen for Mark,” Marta said. “No looking back. Always forward.”
The Gabricks seem to have found their sweet spot in the barbecue business, so I wondered if Mark could share some advice to those looking to open their own barbecue joints, since he’d done it so many times. “Start really, really small and take little steps,” he said, but added a cautionary note. “There are certainly easier ways to make money, and more fun ways to lose money.”