In 1959, a decade after it opened, Louie Mueller Barbecue took over an old grocery store on Second Street in the central Texas town of Taylor. There was an obvious need for a brick pit to smoke the meat, so they built one, brick by brick, toward the back of the store. The business grew into one of the most lauded barbecue joints in Texas. This past weekend, that pit was destroyed by not one but two grease fires. Owner Wayne Mueller began posting photos of the fire to the restaurant’s Twitter account at 3:40 am early Saturday morning.
In a phone interview Monday, Mueller told us what happened. “We had had some smoldering action going on the last couple of days last week,” he said. “On Saturday morning, the pit was fully loaded with meat when an ember jumped into the grease trap and started the first fire.”
That fire was put out, but on Sunday morning, a second fire started. Said Mueller, “I was awakened before dawn by the Taylor police department,” adding, “before it was all over we had four trucks from three different communities out here.” The Taylor fire department was tied up with another job. The building was not damaged, but the old brick pit was burned beyond repair. Mueller said the restaurant will be closed until at least this Wednesday, until the health department certifies there are no fire-related safety issues.
Amongst all of those pit flare-ups, Mueller has had a couple of recent personal flare-ups, too. Seeing a part of your family’s history go up in flames is hard to bear, and it seems that seeing praise heaped on an estranged brother, like John Mueller (whose new barbecue trailer opened to rave customer response on the same day as the first fire), was just too much. Tweets revealed the animosity that Wayne still feels towards John. All three siblings of the Mueller family—Wayne, John, and LeAnn—are in the barbecue business, but not together.
It is the latest chapter in the well-documented saga of brother against brother—and, just a few months ago, sister against brother. The bad feelings became general public knowledge when JMueller BBQ on S. First, which was being jointly run by John and his sister LeAnn, fell apart amid serious financial accusations against John by LeAnn. She is now operating the business as LA Barbecue, with a new pit master. (See Katy Vine’s “Barbecue Cook John Mueller Finds Himself in Another Tough Spot.”)
On Saturday, John opened his latest enterprise, John Mueller Meat Co, on Austin’s East Side. People lined up down the block to sample the wares. Asked how he felt about his brother’s enterprise, Wayne said, “I just hope he doesn’t do to this partner what he has done to others, and you can ask him about that.” John could not be reached for comment on Monday morning. Reconciliation on either front doesn’t seem like a possibility any time soon.
On the bright side, Louie Mueller Barbecue will not be forced to slow down because of the loss of its old pit, thanks to its three other pits, the most notable being the giant mobile smoker that you might have seen at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival.
Plans are under way to rebuild the destroyed main pit, possibly with help from loyal customers. Wayne Mueller said, “We got a quote on what it would cost to rebuild. Initially, the burned bricks would have gone to the landfill. But people were taking bricks from the walls,” as souvenirs. So, he thought, why not sell them.
“We would use the money to pay our insurance deductible,” Wayne said. If there is any money left over, he added, “I would like to establish a foundation in the name of my dad.” Wayne’s father, Bobby Mueller, was the son of the joint’s founder, Louie Mueller. Said Wayne, “It would promote education about, and the preservation of the history of the common man and woman in Texas.” He added, “The foundation wouldn’t just focus on barbecue or food, but the life of average, ordinary people. Texas is different from other states, and it’s important that we know who we are.”
You can help. Per the Louie Mueller Facebook page, you’ll soon be able to purchase a commemorative brick (with authentic burn marks) from the original pit. It’s good to know that you can own a piece of Texas barbecue history if you like, but it’s better to know that we can all still get that signature pepper-crusted barbecue from the original Louie Mueller Barbecue.
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Here are photographs that Wayne tweeted of the two pit fires:
Restaurant interior during the fire on February 23.
Flames leaping from the pit on February 23.
The first fire being extinguished.
The second pit fire, early on the morning of February 24.
Wayne Mueller tweeted, “The fire
@LouieMuellerBBQ flared again 24 hrs after initial blaze. The old brick pit is irrevocably lost …”