ON THE SURFACE, IT’S LITTLE MORE THAN A TENANT-LANDLORD dispute aggravated by the fact that the renter and the owner happen to be brother and sister, respectively. But when the business is Kreuz Market in Lockhart, a storied establishment that dates back to around 1900 and is frequently cited as the best barbecue joint in the free world, the disagreement might as well be a declaration of war.
It all began in 1990, the year Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, Kreuz’s owner, passed away. Schmidt, who had bought it from Alvin Kreuz and two other co-owners in 1948, sold the business to his sons, Rick and Don, but bequeathed the building and the property it occupied to his daughter, Nina Sells. (“Why he did it that way, he’s the only one who can speculate,” Rick says.) Rick was raised in the market, and Nina worked there part-time until 1983 (she is now in her fourth term as the county clerk for Caldwell County). Rick, his two sons, and Don have continued operating Kreuz the same as always, serving smoked meats straight from the pits on pieces of butcher paper, with no forks, no sauces, and no side dishes. But that will officially end on August 31, when their lease with Nina expires. Rick says that he wants to renew it and extend the current five-year option but that his sister wants to raise the rent to $400,000 over five years, a figure he calls “exorbitant.” She says she has tried to be reasonable but has been unable to come to terms with her brother. Negotiations became so contentious that Rick and Nina each hired lawyers, and media attention by the Austin American-Statesman and CBS’s Eye on America only fanned the flames.
How could it come to this? Blame it on a volatile combination of business and family. “We don’t have an inheritance problem,” Rick contends. “We have a landlady problem. I was trying to make a deal with my sister. I wanted to buy the property. She kept telling me it wasn’t for sale. I’d at least like an option to lease for another twenty years, but she said no to that. I looked her in the eye and asked, ‘Why?’ She looked at me and said, ‘You think I couldn’t run a barbecue place?’
“My customers are really upset about it,” Rick says, noting that business has picked up considerably because of a steady stream of pilgrimages from faithful out-of-town customers who fear the end is near. “Some of them are mad at me. I’ve heard she’s been getting hate mail. It’s not something you’re proud of when you don’t get along with your family, but it’s not a family squabble. It’s business.”
Nina hardly deserves the evil landlord stereotype. A demure, soft-spoken blonde, she says the events of the past year and a half have driven her to tears on several occasions. Other than a vague allusion to past family problems, she says she doesn’t want to dwell on the particulars. “It’s emotional when it’s family,” she says. Nina says that she met with her brother in late 1997 to discuss repairs. “Rick wanted improvements,” she says, “and I wasn’t necessarily against it.” He wanted to build a new dining room; she was most concerned about repairs to the existing building. “I felt like we had seven years left in the option to make the repairs, but if we couldn’t agree to do it by then, I didn’t want to extend the lease for twenty years,” Nina says. What she describes as the “double the rent article” in the American-Statesman last April, which she believes made her sound inflexible, hardened her position. “In a way, it became ‘Sell or Move.’ It was more of an ultimatum, and it’s hard to negotiate that way.”
“That was the icing on the cake,” says Nina’s husband, Jim Sells, a teacher at Lockhart High School for the past 22 years. It turns out that Nina wasn’t just blowing smoke when she later announced her intention to open a new barbecue restaurant and meat market in the building she owns: Her husband is part of a cooking team whose beef brisket has earned first place awards at Lockhart’s Chisholm Trail Cookoff the past two years, and her husband and her two sons, John and James Fullilove, all walked away with blue ribbons at cook-offs in Luling and Lubbock last year. The new place, she says, will be called Smitty’s.
As for Rick, he promises more room and more comfort at a new Kreuz’s just four-tenths of a mile north of the present location—plans that were part of his desire to improve the old market before negotiations fell apart. “We’re going to use a lot of brick, a lot of metal, and a lot of wood,” he says. “It’s not going to be fancy. It’s not going to be pretty. But I’m not going to build a phony place. Customers will be close to the fire but not blistered by it the way they are now.” Rick is also doubling the number of cooking pits and upgrading them with quarter-inch steel lining instead of the sheet metal currently used. “The new ones are going to outlive me,” he says. “I’ve already built a prototype and tested it on thirty-five of my beer-drinking friends, who are real critical. I burst a lot of bubbles because they said it tasted like it came from here, so I’m real confident the quality can be maintained. I’m gonna try to maintain one hundred percent of what I’ve got here. Roy, my pit man, even wants to drag a ceremonial bucket of coals from here to the new place.”
Less certain is whether Rick can maintain the unique atmosphere of Kreuz’s. “We’re losing a tradition and the memories that go with it,” he admits. Then again, change is a constant, even in a family operation as traditional as this one. After all, Kreuz’s became the Schmidts’ place after the Kreuz heirs decided they didn’t want to run it. Furthermore, half of Kreuz’s current dining area didn’t exist until 1979, when the business expanded. “A lot of people have misconceptions that it’s always been here like this and never changed,” Rick says.
The upside of the pit split is that Lockhart could soon be home to four world-class BBQ places (in “Smokin’!,” Texas Monthly’s May 1997 ranking of the state’s best barbecue joints, Lockhart was the only town that had three: Kreuz’s, Black’s Barbecue, and Chisholm Trail B-B-Q). That’s a prospect Nina Sells believes in. “We think it can happen,” she says. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it.” The downside is the possibility that neither Smitty’s nor the new Kreuz’s will rate with the original. Certainly Kreuz’s competitors are hoping the barbecue battle continues to be a distraction. The owners of Black’s, whose motto is “Oldest in Texas, Same Family,” have placed portable signs on U.S. 183 that read, “No Crisis Here” and “No Feud, Just Good Food.”
All of which leaves Rick to ponder what Smitty would make of this if he were alive. “He wouldn’t be happy of hearing about the market moving,” he insists. “I know that.”