This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Up in Smoke.”
On Saturday, August 26, as Hurricane Harvey was heading toward its fateful encounter with Southeast Texas, a smaller but hardly insignificant calamity befell Austin. Franklin Barbecue—arguably the most famous barbecue joint in the world—was hit by a major fire that destroyed its pit room and damaged other parts of the building. The vaunted establishment, where typically hundreds of hungry patrons queue on a daily basis, has been closed since. In the days and weeks that have followed, the restaurant’s co-owner, 39-year-old Aaron Franklin, has been working to get the place up and running again as quickly as possible.
Daniel Vaughn: How did you first hear about the fire?
Aaron Franklin: I got a phone call at 5:37 Saturday morning. The fellow who was working there, he called 911 at 5:27, then he called general manager Benji Jacob, and Benji called me. My phone was on vibrate, and half a ring in, I answered it and was like, “Hey, what’s up?” And he was like, “The building’s on fire.” I don’t know that I even hung up. I was just, “All right, I’m on my way.”
DV: Were you expecting the worst?
AF: It’s 5:30 a.m., I figured it was pretty bad. If I’d gotten a call right after 6, I’d have figured it was that somebody didn’t show up—6 is when a lot of people start showing up for prep. But 5:30, that’s a weird time. That’s about thirty minutes after the turkeys go on. Who knows what could be happening.
DV: How did the fire start?
AF: Basically, the winds from Hurricane Harvey blew into the side of the smokehouse where the elevator shaft was, and the back door of the smokehouse just compressed the air, and it was so strong that it hit the back of the firebox on Bethesda [Franklin’s custom-built wood-fired rotisserie]. I guess the guy who was cooking maybe threw a log in the firebox and an ember popped up, he didn’t see it, and it probably tucked under a wall right behind the rotisserie and smoldered for a little bit and—poof!—it was like a book of matches.
DV: Was anybody in line for barbecue at the time?
AF: Yeah, there was one lady in line. She ran. She left her chair, though.
DV: So you get on the scene, you see your restaurant is on fire—
AF: I didn’t really think it was going to be that bad. I figured they’d grabbed a fire extinguisher, and I would show up and it would be like, “We don’t have ribs for Saturday, but everything else is fine, no worries, let’s clean up.”
DV: And instead . . .
AF: It was raining pretty hard, and when I got to the overpass at 12th and I-35, I could see the lights of the fire trucks refracting off the rain over the bingo building from across the highway. I could see tons of smoke pouring over and blowing around everywhere. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be.” It sucked because I had to wait for the light to change. I’m sitting there at the red light, thinking, “Should I run this thing?”
DV: How long will it take to rebuild the pit room?
AF: We’re shooting for Thanksgiving. That’s the busiest weekend of the year for us.
DV: But you’ve got an interim plan to use some cookers in the backyard and serve barbecue sooner?
AF: I’m shooting for the week of October 17. It might start off in some limited capacity. Anything to get open. That might only buy us a month, but if it’s a month of feeding people barbecue, that’s good enough.
DV: How much unsmoked meat did you have on hand?
AF: We were sitting on 604 cases of brisket, and there are five briskets per case. It’s been tricky figuring out what to do with all of it. A lot of it spoiled—our refrigeration was shut off for a short period—and some of it has gone to other barbecue joints that we’ve been able to sell it to.
DV: How has the city government been?
AF: I’ve never seen permits go through so fast. Even the electrician was like, “I’ve never gotten a permit in twenty minutes before. As soon as they saw your name on the computer, they were like, ‘Here ya go!’ ”
DV: Well, Franklin Barbecue has become part of Austin’s identity.
AF: I guess so. I never really thought about it too much. But you know, the mayor came out to the Harvey benefit we had at the Mohawk [nightclub].
DV: Wait, you were cooking brisket to raise money for Harvey victims, not for your restaurant that burned down?
AF: We’ve got insurance. We’re okay.
DV: Serious question: Are you enjoying your break from barbecue?
AF: I kind of am. Most of my job these days is head maintenance—I’m doing very little cooking right now. [My wife] Stacy and I have gone to see a couple of movies, I took a nap, I’ve been playing music. It’s been a lot of fun. I don’t want to go back. [Laughs.]
DV: You don’t have a choice.
AF: I don’t have a choice. We gotta pay bills.
DV: I heard that when you were watching the firefighters putting the fire out, someone approached you on the sidewalk and asked to take a selfie with you.
AF: Yeah, it was a little weird. It was actually a handful of people. What do you say? “Sorry we had a fire, thanks for coming!” Sure.
DV: Have you seen any of the selfies on social media? Like, “Hey, it’s me with Aaron Franklin and his burned-out building!”
AF: No. Well, I haven’t looked.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.