The marketing campaign for Subway’s Pit-Smoked Brisket Sandwich is hard to escape. It launched in early September with a stunt at a fake barbecue joint named Monty’s filled with unsuspecting Austinites. Since then, the image of the carefully constructed sandwich, complete with cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce, has been plastered on countless billboards and the windows of nearly 24,000 Subway locations across the United States.
Inside those restaurants is another poster, this one with a photo of a man named Pitmaster Ramone under the headline “The Man. The Pit. The Legend” and with a caption touting his 38 years of barbecue experience. “Every whole cut of meat is naturally slow-smoked for at least 13 hours by Pitmaster Ramone and his crew,” it reads. I wanted to tell more of his story, but Subway doesn’t seem to want the public to know anything more about the mysterious Ramone, not even his last name.
When I sought more information from Subway via email, they asked about the angle of my story. I was genuinely curious to get Ramone’s perspective on barbecue. Working the pits of the massive operation required to service Subway’s brisket needs would be a far different experience than the comparatively small-batch pitmasters I normally write about. They weren’t interested. A Subway spokesperson responded:
While we do not publicly share the names of our suppliers, what we can tell you is that Ramone is a real pit boss with a Texas smokehouse who has been mastering his skills for over 30 years. And like any good pit boss, the passion and talent he has for his craft shines through. Not only do we think Ramone and his team are doing a great job, but our guests who have tried the Pit-Smoked Brisket whole-heartedly agree.
The name of their supplier is Sadler’s Smokehouse, in Henderson, Texas. What Subway corporate doesn’t reveal, Reddit does. I suspected it was Sadler’s simply because Arby’s also used them when it launched a brisket sandwich in 2013. Like Subway, Arby’s leaned heavily on the “smoked for 13 hours” line. I decided to head to Henderson myself. While driving out to the East Texas town (population is about 13,300), I called Sadler’s to ask for a tour of their facility. My call was forwarded to director of marketing Justin Robinson. He said, “We don’t do articles of any kind.” I tried to ask another question, but he cut me off with a “Thank you” and hung up.
Sadler’s Smokehouse was profiled in a 2005 article in the National Provisioner titled “‘Cue and Art.” The smoked brisket was featured, and the author wrote, “The key to success lies with the cooking process under the guidance of Ramon Gonzales, a 25-year company veteran.” Randy Sadler, grandson of founder Red Sadler, referred to Gonzales as the “smokemaster” and added, “His job is critical because maintaining the correct temperature is essential. Even so, running the custom-designed barbeque pits is more art than science.” The timeline for a man named Ramon who started working at Sadler’s around 1980 certainly lines up with the guy on the poster with 38 years of experience. I wish Subway could have at least spelled his name right.
Thick smoke bellowed from the Sadler’s facility as I drove past it on North Frisco Street in Henderson. A tall fence surrounds the plant. A guard was checking employee credentials at the gate, and I was already told I wasn’t welcome, so I headed into town to try the brisket sandwich at two different Subway locations in Henderson (more on those sandwiches can be found here). I asked employees at both if they knew Pitmaster Ramone and pointed to the poster. They laughed. One employee knew the briskets came from Sadler’s—at least these two locations can say the brisket is locally sourced—but didn’t know anyone who worked there and had never met Pitmaster Ramone.
When the lunch hour was almost over, I returned to Sadler’s. A street separates an employee parking lot from the Sadler’s facility. I drove slowly to scout the employees returning from lunch in the crosswalk. After circling back a few times, I still hadn’t spotted Ramon. A man wearing coveralls walked past my open car window. I asked him, “Is this where the famous Pitmaster Ramone works? The guy from Subway?” He laughed, and with a grin said, “Yes, he works here,” pointing to the smokehouse. Since then, I’ve gotten confirmation from Tim Mikeska, of the Mikeska barbecue family, that it was indeed Ramon Gonzales I was looking for. He’d met him at the plant more than a decade ago but remembered him. “Nice guy,” Mikeska wrote—a brief description, but more than his employer would offer.
I asked Robinson, the director of marketing for Sadler’s, if he could confirm that Ramon Gonzales still worked for the company and was indeed the famous Pitmaster Ramone. “Sadler’s Smokehouse does not participate in interviews for publications, and we do not allow tours of our facility to the public,” was his emailed response.
Sadler’s Smokehouse was started by Red Sadler in 1948 as a tiny barbecue joint in Henderson. It grew to a second location run by his son Harold Sadler, and by 1968, they’d added a USDA-compliant smoking facility that allowed them to ship briskets across the country. In 1981, they moved to their current location and now operate a massive 300,000-square-foot plant on 40 acres. The company history recounted on the Sadler’s website focuses on those two tiny restaurants in Henderson. They’re selling the image of a small-town barbecue joint rather than a corporate giant cooking briskets on a scale massive enough to supply big-box stores and fast-food restaurants across the country.
We had the story ready to publish, but gave Sadler’s and Subway a second opportunity to comment (they didn’t). In the meantime, Greg Rempe of the BBQ Central Show broke the news about the mysterious Pitmaster Ramone from Subway. Crediting an unnamed source, Rempe confirmed that he is Ramon Gonzales, of Sadler’s Smokehouse in Henderson. Subway’s twitter account responded to Rempe’s tweet with, “real: confirmed,” but it was unclear whether they were confirming his identity as Ramon Gonzales, or just that Pitmaster Ramone is a real person.
Subway may have been yearning for a piece of authenticity when it put Pitmaster Ramone, an older Latino cook standing in front of a smoker full of briskets, on thousands of posters across the country. Subway likely saw value in that likeness, the face of an experienced pitmaster and a tidy story about thirteen-hour smoked briskets. The fast-food chain isn’t telling Ramon Gonzales’s story, and though Sadler’s is letting Subway use Gonzales’s image to sell more of its brisket, that’s where the story about where the food comes from ends.
It sounds like “a modern day Aunt Jemima,” said Toni Tipton-Martin. She’s a food historian and author of the James Beard Award-winning book The Jemima Code and the soon-to-be-released cookbook Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African-American Cooking. She has been an ardent critic of using characters like Aunt Jemima to sell pancake mix and syrup or Uncle Ben to sell rice. “I don’t want to discourage people, manufacturers, and businesses from trying to uplift people’s lives,” she said, but that shouldn’t include using them as poorly credited props or mascots. She stressed the importance of companies demonstrating sincere appreciation and recognition, rather than exploitative appropriation.”The question for me centers on who benefits from the promoting of the individual?” Tipton-Martin said.
In this case, Subway isn’t promoting Ramon Gonzales the man. It is selling consumers on a character named Pitmaster Ramone. “If they do reveal his identity, who knows what kind of opportunities might come to him?” Tipton-Martin noted. Maybe Subway or Sadler’s paid Gonzales extra to play the part of Pitmaster Ramone, but Tipton-Martin believes, “If you’re going to identify a person, then you need to tell the fuller story” to give them more power and value. If Sadler’s or Subway can agree that Ramon Gonzales is as important as Pitmaster Ramone, and Gonzales wants to share his experience in barbecue, I’m ready and willing to tell the story.