Barbecue in East Texas isn't just a lifestyle — it's also a living, for many. Smoky brisket, tender ribs and sweet sauces feed into the area's economy with restaurants, suppliers and support companies.
"In East Texas, barbecue is king," said Bob Westbrook, a past president of the East Texas Restaurant Association. "Here's how much — every year we've had the Taste of Tyler, and barbecue has almost always won the best entrée. It didn't win this year, but that's only because it wasn't entered. That tells you how big a role it plays. People here love their beef and their pork barbecue."
It's big business.
"There are about 435 to 450 restaurants in Smith County," Westbrook explained. "Only about 2 percent of them are barbecue restaurants. But barbecue places are high-grossing restaurants; they'll actually be in the top 10 percent or even 5 percent as far as sales go."
And barbecue is experiencing a boom right now.
"It's really been popular all along," Westbrook said. "We're carnivores, and nothing's like eating fresh barbecue just off the pit."
But it's getting more and more attention now. In 2013, for example, Texas Monthly magazine hired a barbecue editor. There are barbecue apps (including one from Texas Monthly) that can guide barbecue fans to the nearest and the best joints.
"It's not just Texas," Westbrook said. "It's the whole country. But it's especially Texas."
MASTERS OF THE PIT
For many in the business, it started as a love for barbecue, a love that fired their ambition to make it a career.
"We live it every day," said Nick Pencis, owner of Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q — the region's most celebrated barbecue joint. "It's a lifestyle, but it's also a business. We're in here every day, working and learning and improving."
What makes barbecue unique in the food industry is the number of variables involved. On top of the usual factors — traffic flow, suppliers, the local economy – barbecue restaurants face other challenges.
Pitmasters, for example, aren't interchangeable with other chefs.
"It's a craft," said Pencis. "In order to do it really well, you've got to really live it. Barbecue requires an extremely skilled labor force in order to do what we do."
Not every restaurant makes that effort, he added.
"Sometimes people find ways to cut corners, especially by not investing in the person manning the pit," he said. "But really, you can tell. Those places are easily discernible. To do it right, you have to dedicate yourself to building up that person and those skills."
Other variables add to the challenge, he said.
"There are so many things beyond our control," said Pencis. "The quality of the barbecue has to do with the wood, the humidity, the animals themselves."
Because smoking meats takes so long, pitmasters usually start work the day before. And sometimes, when they didn't accurately gauge the next day's demand, they sell out of meat.
"Honestly, when you order a hamburger, a cook will pull out a patty and go to work," Pencis said. "We can't do that. We have to predict the future."
Pencis and his wife, Jen, bought Stanley's in 2006 and have since expanded it substantially. They've added a patio and live music, and changed the hours.
From 2006 to 2013, Stanley's saw an increase in sales of 833 percent, Pencis said.
Westbrook, a past president of the East Texas Restaurant Association, says Pencis' success is well deserved.
"He puts out a great product, No. 1," Westbrook said. "But he's added so many elements — the live music, the entertainment, the open-air patio. He's passionate about the industry and that passion shows through."
In 2014, Pencis was named the 2014 Dallas/Fort Worth District Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The secret to a successful barbecue business? "Make sure the food is good and take care of the customers, and you'll be OK," Pencis said.
By the time manager Deb McIntosh pulls into work at the Purple Pig Cafe in Flint in the morning, her pitmaster, Carlos Lopez, has been on the job for hours. The smoker is loaded with racks of ribs and enormous briskets.
"We cook our briskets for 16 hours," she said. "Our ribs go in for at least six hours, but we check them to see if they need a little more time."
It's not a science — she doesn't use a meat thermometer to test doneness. She uses her hands.
"Oh, you can feel it," she said. "You can tell if they need a little more time."
The Purple Pig Café is one of the many in East Texas that's expanding and drawing more and more customers. It has a new owner, Don Wright (who also has Wright's BBQ in Tyler). Ms. McIntosh, who worked for AT&T and as a bartender before former owner Malcolm Johnson hired her, was there on the day it opened in 2005.
"I love this business," she said. "And here, we're like a family. We're like a wagon wheel, with all the spokes working together, helping everything roll along smoothly."
Her expression changes when she's asked about beef prices, which have skyrocketed since the 2011 drought caused many cattle raisers to thin their herds.
"The prices hurt," she said. "We have to charge more for our beef per pound than we do our other meats. And it's going to be a long time before those prices come down some. It takes years to replenish cattle herds."
Ms. McIntosh makes up for that by increasing the offerings on the menu.
"We surveyed our customers," she said. "Because that's what we're here to do – give customers what they want."
It's not just about working with customers; working with staff members is important to keeping a barbecue joint's doors open.
"I have 11 workers, and all but one are full-time," Ms. McIntosh said. "One more will go part time later in the summer; he's going to school, and I'll work with anyone on their education."
She said the Purple Pig works to be a part of the community, too. On Thanksgiving, the restaurant hosts a special event to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
East Texas is also home to unique barbecue spices, sauces, rubs and jellies.
Mike and Jill Carter began what's now Mills Gourmet when Jill, a stay-at-home mom, wanted to make some extra Christmas money.
"So we took our mulling spice to Canton Trade Days, and that's how it started," says Mike Carter, her husband, who was working as an electrician then.
He acknowledges that the Tyler-based company's most popular product is its jalapeno pepper jelly.
"It's typically used as a hors d'oeuvre," he said. "That's how people know it. We say it's the fastest hors d'oeuvre around — just pour it over a block of cream cheese and open some crackers. But if that's all you know it for, you're missing out. It's really good as a meat glaze."
And that's what Pam Gabriel, owner of the Sweet Gourmet shop in Tyler's French Quarter shopping center, recommends to her customers.
"Try it on your ribs," she said.
She has a large section of locally made products.
"Local products support local businesses," she said. "It's the circle of life. We all have to help each other. And local small-batch products are usually considered ‘specialty' and a bit more selective. You get what you pay for in other words."
For the Carters, staying small is just fine.
"We sell primarily to mom-and-pop shops, gourmet stores," Mike Carter said. "We make everything ourselves, just Jill and myself, in a facility behind our home. We're very local and very small time. We prefer it that way."
Sweet Gourmet has its own barbecue sauce; other locally produced products include Texas Beerbecue Rub (it's dry, no alcohol involved), and the Tricky Dix Mojo line of spices, which are popular as rubs for ribs, brisket, pork shoulders and other cuts of meat.
There's another line in the typical barbecue joint's ledger — merchandise. It's not a huge part of the business of barbecue, but it's important.
"We sell our sauce by the pint and quart," said The Purple Pig's Deb McIntosh. "It's not a huge effort, because we have to make our sauce anyway, 20 gallons at a time. I have a customer, she's from Indiana, and when she comes to Texas, she goes home with 10 quarts at a time."
The Purple Pig also sells T-shirts. But it's not necessarily a profitable item.
"We sell a lot of them, but we keep the price reasonable," she said. "We like to see people wearing them around."
There's value in the name recognition, adds Stanley's Nick Pencis. Stanley's sells a line of food products at the restaurant and at local Brookshire's grocery stores. That line includes pickles, sauces and meat rubs.
The restaurant also sells shirts, hats and koozies.
"It's not a big part of the business," he said. "Year-to-date, it's less than 1 percent of our sales — that's food and merchandise combined."
But it's important to customers, he added.
"People like to share and remember their experience in that way," he said. "And they like to take a little bit of Stanley's back with them. I've gotten pictures of people wearing our shirts all over the world. So in that way, it's a great ambassador for us."
Barbecue is big business, but that also means it's competitive, local restaurateurs say. East Texans love their barbecue, and most have their favorites. Reaching new customers — and retaining current ones — is always a challenge.
"I feel like the key to that, to keeping customers and getting new ones, is what we've built the business on — really focusing on good customer service and good barbecue," Pencis said. "You provide a cool and unique atmosphere, unlike anything else around; people will talk to their friends about it."