In June, Brian Mays, owner of the East Austin institution Sam’s BBQ, put out a call to his community. The same developers who snatched up swathes of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood had come to his triple lot with an offer to buy—for $3.5 million. Mays—whose family bought the restaurant from the founder, Sam Campbell, in 1976—had watched as East Austin’s landscape changed over the years. White people moved into the historically black neighborhood and African-American families and businesses sold their property to newcomers whose vision for East Austin included condo towers and hipster bars. So Mays told the neighbors who asked him not to sell that if they wanted him to stay, they needed to show him that they valued Sam’s the same way he did—by showing up to eat the brisket, sausage, ribs, mutton, and chicken he smokes seven days a week.
The community responded. Black and white East Austinites started turning up and doing their part to make sure that Sam’s wasn’t just a museum of the old East Austin, but a vibrant and active part of the neighborhood.
— Natalie Martinez (@NatalieOnFOX7) June 17, 2018
But last week, Mays told KVUE that the developers had come back. This time, they’d upped their offer to $5 million.
That’s a lot of money, and it puts Sam’s BBQ in an unusual bind. Mays is 64. He loves his neighborhood, and business is good enough that he doesn’t need to sell. But also, when you’ve spent decades running a restaurant and now you can walk away with millions, who are you responsible to in making that decision?
“I really don’t want to sell,” Mays says. “There ain’t no for-sale sign out there. But people offer me money. I ain’t never had no $5 million. I don’t know if I’m gonna take it or not, but I know I ain’t just gonna turn [it] down.”
Being offered that kind of money for property that’s been in your family for more than forty years seems like it’d fall into the category of “nice problems to have,” but it’s a thorny issue. If Mays takes the money, he knows there are people in his community who will be disappointed. But the neighborhood around Sam’s has been changing for years. East Austin’s black community wants him to stay, but that’s the same community that’s getting forced out to the suburbs, which means that a business like his can’t rely on that customer base to stay open.
Mays is a colorful character. He’s got a deadpan sense of humor, and can go off on an entirely unprintable rant about the way 12th Street—once known as a hub of prostitution and drugs in East Austin—used to look back before the white folks moved in. That’s not the only thing he’s nostalgic for, though. He also gets sentimental about barbecue, and likes the idea of Sam’s as a bridge between the old East Austin and the one that’s being built. “Barbecue has a special way of bringing people together,” he says. “That’s how we do barbecue in Texas. We cook it at family reunions. That’s what we do. It brings folks together.”
The African-American community that originally started coming to together over barbecue at Sam’s didn’t all end up in East Austin. In 1928, the city created a “Negro District” east of what is now I-35. The city plan was explicit about its goal: to get black Austinites to abandon neighborhoods like Clarksville, near 6th and Lamar (which was founded in 1871 by freedman Charles Clark), and into a less desirable stretch of real estate past what was then called East Avenue. (Latino Austin residents were similarly pushed to the lower part of East Austin.) Schools were shut down and services for non-white residents were restricted outside of East Austin. And for decades, these displaced Austinites and the generations that followed them built a community on the other side of East Avenue and I-35.
Through the twentieth century, East Austin remained largely black and Latino. But as the city grew, so too did the value of land in that part of Austin—which is central, near downtown, and attractive to the white folks who, decades after “white flight” led to booms in suburbs, began to once more see the appeal of urban neighborhoods.
Mays is grateful that the white people who’ve moved into East Austin have been supportive of his restaurant. “I’ve got to give those folks a chance, and they’ve been supporting me,” he says. But he misses looking out the door and seeing a line of black people waiting for his cooking. And the people who want him to turn down the offers presumably miss the days when that was possible, too. Austin’s black community built something valuable in other parts of the city a century ago, and when white people wanted it, that community was forced into East Austin. When they built something valuable in East Austin, white people decided they wanted that too.
For some of the people who are urging Mays not to sell, it’s almost certainly as much about saying no to a wealthy condo-building company out of Oregon than it is about Sam’s BBQ in particular. That’s a valid position to take, given the history—but it still leaves Mays with a dilemma. What do you do when there’s a life-changing amount of money being dangled before you, with the monkey’s paw promise that if you take it, you’ll be hastening the turnover of a neighborhood you love into something you don’t recognize anymore? Is it fair to put all of this meaning on one man and his restaurant?
The property taxes on the three lots that make up Sam’s BBQ have doubled in recent years. So far, business is good enough that he’s not at a crisis point in keeping up with them, but when people who want him to stay don’t come into the shop, it sticks in his craw. “Everybody talking about keeping and saving it, I don’t mind keeping and saving it,” he says, “But you ain’t bought a sausage wrap from me. You’re sitting here talking to me about turning down $5 million, and you ain’t spent no money with me?” He wants to stay for the community, but he wants the community to show up for him too. All of this weighs on Mays in very real ways. He’ll take meetings with anybody who has an opinion, which is everybody. He took another one over the weekend, with black community leaders who want him to stay.
It was heartening for him when he put out the call for Save Sam’s Saturdays and found that the community—white and black—showed up for him. In some ways, it seems like Mays’s life would be easier if that call had been ignored—at least in that scenario, he’d know there weren’t so many people counting on him to stay. “People have been coming out and supporting me and showing me love,” he says. “That’s what makes me feel pretty good, and what makes it so hard for me. I got people who love me, and if y’all are gonna support me, I’ll stay here. But if y’all aren’t gonna support me, let me get on. I’ll move on.”
For now, Mays knows that there’s still a urgency from the neighborhood to stick around, and the restaurant still does brisk business. Stop in at a random time, like four o’clock on a Wednesday, and you’ll still find people coming by for sausage at a time of day when there’s an echo running through a lot of barbecue spots in Austin. So he’s stuck. He’ll listen to anybody, and that includes the developers from Portland who promised to meet his demand that they engage in any negotiations face-to-face—he doesn’t want to deal with them over the phone—but he seems genuinely torn about what to do. There’s a showman aspect to Mays, who mentions in a not-sure-if-he’s-joking way that he intends to invite the TV news crews to come to the negotiations when the developers come to town, but when he talks about the decision he has to make, if he’s performing his anguish, he’s doing a heck of a job of conveying his sincerity.
“I’ve got to think,” he says. “It makes me cry, when I’ve got to choose between my neighborhood and money. It’s hard. It’s a tough spot to be in when you’ve got to pick money over your neighborhood. Your neighborhood shows you love, but you can make money over here. Which one is it gonna be, Brian? You’ve got $5 million, or your neighborhood. Is your neighborhood down with you?”