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Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Texas size BBQ lunch with Trace Arnold of 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House.

After receiving an invitation for a Texas size barbecue lunch at 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House, there wasn't one thought of turning it down. It was an event for local food lovers to help ( in Pitmaster Trace Arnold's words ) spread the gospel of great Texas barbecue. Because of course, "once you've had the best, you won't go back to the rest."

Trace Arnold is also the creator of a massive 18-wheel smoker known as "The Ultimate Smoker and Grill," which is sponsored by the History Channel. Winding down from his recent Cross Country Cook-off, he is ready to focus his efforts at the Frisco located restaurant.

I had the pleasure of working with Trace when he volunteered his services in West, TX following the fertilizer plant tragedy. During this event, a physician from Boston had pizza delivered to the local hospitals to feed their staff who were working tirelessly around the clock. In return, Trace flew up to Boston with coolers full of ribs to repay the generosity to the Massachusetts General Hospital which was the main hub for treating the Boston Marathon bombing victims. Human spirit at it's finest.

Along with other local food writers or the overly saturated term "foodies", we gathered at one of the community tables located parallel to the bar which offers 30 craft beers on tap - the majority of them being locally owned. The majority of them which my weekend spending habits help maintain their brewing operations.

As we sat there, he educated us with his barbecue gospel in the form of three rules. And like a preacher, I was scolded for paying more attention to the food than his word. It's the ADD folks.
RULE #1: NEVER put sauce on your ribs. Good ribs don't need sauce. And if the ribs are great, then it's just a crime.

RULE #2: If you come to 3 Stacks and love what they serve, it is your duty to go out and bring a friend or a coworker back with you to share the knowledge.

RULE #3: If you ever eat anything you don't 100% love, find Trace Arnold or anyone who works at 3 Stacks and let them know so they can fix the problem and make it right.
First to bat were the brisket and zesty sausage pizzas, both of which include fresh jalapenos, red onion, and 6 cheese blend over their house BBQ sauce. Topped with fresh hand-torn cilantro. I would have to say they were both admirable but let's cut to the chase, where's the barbecue?
Next we were entertained with the entire appetizer and side menu. I shuttered at the thought of being bloated before one pull of meat from a rib was ever taken but as a lover of stuffed peppers, I couldn't resist the Jalapeno Fire Crackers. As described by the menu, "Fresh jalapeno halves stuffed with our slow smoked brisket. Cheese, cilantro, and red onion. Wrapped in bacon, oven roasted, and then topped with our plum chipotle glaze. Served with a side of zesty waffle fries and our avocado ranch dipping sauce for a spicy, cool combination." Skip the dressing folks - these are good naked.

Among the plethora of sides, the tangy cilantro coleslaw, Nena's cold potato salad and 6 cheese mac and cheese were the my personal winners. Opinions vary as we did have one vegetarian among us. Unfortunately, I'm not up to par with her level of agriculture knowledge to maintain an intelligent discussion about grass and peaches.
I began to get jittery in my chair as my ADD started to kick in again, but two massive platters of smoked protein appeared and calmed this self-diagnosed characteristic of mine. I was nearly knocked over by the mad rush of "foodies" b-lining it with Apple products in hand to photograph this heavenly descent of meat.
After all the commotion and dust settled, we feasted. Served were slices of jalapeno sausage, meaty ribs, smoked turkey and brisket. One thing I was kitten-facing about was the brisket. It was lean, trimmed and resting woefully on the platter. Trace then asked if we needed anything - yes please sir - fatty brisket. If you ask, you shall receive and two bountiful plates of burnt ends and savory moist brisket appeared. Ok, now we're as happy as a camel on hump day. All protein had an uncanny smoke flavoring which is appreciated by a meat enthusiast like myself.
Just when we were starting to believe the food assault comparable to D-Day was coming to an end and we were ready to raise a white flag of surrender, desserts from everywhere propelled themselves onto the table. Why must I continue to be bludgeoned with such good food? To keep it short, the Texas Pecan Pie Ya'll and Banana Pudding were Grandma quality stuff. That's a pretty good measurement tool in my world. Don't leave without trying them.

I would have to give it to Trace and Cynthia Smoot for a successful lunch to educate customers on the difference between good barbecue and great barbecue. In his words, "people are addicted to bad barbecue because they haven't had great barbecue." Well said Trace, and you're among many kickass Texas Pitmasters who are winning us over - one smoked meat at a time.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The State of Mobile BBQ

The words risk and failure are almost synonymous with new businesses while ambition, ingenuity, and hard work are all characteristics that form what we know as an entrepreneur. Ironically enough, an entrepreneur is defined as a "person who takes risks."
The owners of barbecue restaurants are in every sense defining the entrepreneurial spirit. For them, they work 12 plus hours daily. They rely on support from their families, friends and of course - the equally hard working employees who stand by them. And they build their business from the shell of a former propane tank.

I thought about the backgrounds and beginnings of a few Pitmasters I have had the pleasure to learn from. Each background was unique in its own regard. Bennie Washington of Whup's Boomerang Bar-B-Que was a former truck driver for Pepsi, Jack Perkins of The Slow Bone was once a school teacher, and like Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge, a former corporate consultant. While some Pitmasters had the privilege of growing up within the industry, others had to take a knife, a chunk of wood and carve out their creation. 

The rise of mobile barbecue has been noted through the success of the Fourton’s with catering and from Aaron Franklin who worked for John Mueller out of a trailer in Austin. Justin and Aaron now have a building and well John...he still enjoys the trailer park life. This is a phenomenon currently occurring in Austin with upstarts like Scotty's BBQ off Rainey Street and Micklethwait Craft Meats, smartly located in close proximity to Franklin Barbecue on 11th.

Pitmasters remind me of modern day cattle drive cooks. Their passion and dedication could have been found in the late-1800s along the cattle trails feeding the men at night beside the campfire. They were generally the most respected member of the team having medical supplies as well as medical care knowledge. They maintained nourishment and health.

Quite frequently overlooked is the art of catering or it's equivalent from cattle drive days simply called "chuck wagon cooking." Many barbecue restaurants begin with catering only, such as Pecan Lodge and Cattleack BBQ - both located in Dallas - while Joseph’s Riverport of Jefferson, TX, began as a storefront with catering on the side. With this in mind, I wanted to gain a better feel of the pros and cons, differences and similarities, and the ease or difficulties that come with the mobile side of barbecue. The best way to find out is by asking those live it day in and day out.

Cody Neathery: Since you’ve done catering previously and currently, what's the first thought that goes through your mind when a customer calls for your services?

Justin Fourton: The first couple of years, catering was what helped us survive before word of mouth had started to bring a decent amount of people down to the restaurant. So typically, the first thought that came to mind was “Sweet, this means will be able to pay our electricity bill next week.”

Todd David: The first thing that goes through my mind is "Do I already have a golf game that day?" Next we start looking at what their event is and how our barbecue and catering will assist in making that a special event. The old, "WOW," factor.

CN: Imagining the level of perfection you want to deliver when someone asks you to serve food at a wedding or retirement party - what are some preparations involved with catering, such as using a smoker you don’t cook with on a daily basis?

JF: A successful catering job goes way beyond just whether or not the food was good. The logistics involved for producing an event and staffing it well are very important. Making sure you’ve taken the time to plan things out in detail and having good people onsite is critical. We use Lurlene (our trailer pit) for offsite catering; I’ve never cooked for clients on a pit that wasn’t ours. I think it would be very stressful to cook on a pit you were unfamiliar with.

Stephen Joseph: Keeping the product hot and cold according to the Health Department regulations. The food must meet your personal standards before it ever leaves the facility. Be sure you have everything you need before you leave, including gas for the catering vehicle.

TD: While we have taken our smoker and serving rig to a few events, it is not as popular as you would think. People want the food, plenty of it, with excellent quality, and great service. Since we have a very large commercial truck with temperature controlled compartments, they prefer the food to already be smoked, sliced and ready to serve. It really depends how much the client wants to see the actual smoking verses just having the rig and smoke for aesthetics.

CN: If a catered event falls on a Saturday evening – how do you manage cooking from Friday night to Saturday morning for normal restaurant hours then meeting the demand for the same food quality at an event where the guest attendance can mirror your earlier day’s business?

SJ: Either I or another employee will come in late in the evening or very early the next morning and put the meat on.

TD: Since we only cater - except for our Friday take out - and specialize in catering, the restaurant issue does not come up. If it did, it is easy to cook during the day for a night event verses cooking at night for a lunch event.

JF: You have to stagger the timing of when meat goes on the pit, so that it comes off later in the day, closer to event time.

CN: There must be some tricks of the trade you can tell me that you’ve found to be successful when catering events that are not conveniently close to your restaurant or when something goes wrong.

TD: They won’t be tricks if I tell you. The biggest decision we made in the early days was spend the money for a very sophisticated truck to keep hot things hot, cold things cold and to have enough food for thousands. So traveling from Dallas to west Ft. Worth is not an issue any more. We also always send two trucks in case one breaks down so we are not stranded. Learned that one the hard way.

SJ: If the event is not close to your facility then it is of the utmost importance to know your surroundings. Being in a rural area, you better know where a country store, Dollar Store or a Wal-Mart is located in the event you do forget something.

JF: Duct tape and tin foil are two items that we don’t leave home without!

CN: Knowing that producing high quality barbecue comes from many trials and way more errors, tell me one of the more humorous situations you’ve found yourself in while catering.

JF: We catered a charity event for a group of about 200 people in the middle of a field. It was true farm-to-table cooking…including the grasshoppers that we had to shoo off the table’s right before guests arrived. They had just shredded the field to make room to setup the stage and all the tables. It was a great event, but no one could have anticipated the grasshopper thing. Luckily, all the guests were comfortable with a more “rustic” event!

TD: Not wearing my glasses when prepping a rub for testing of ribs. When everyone ate the ribs, they spoke about how good they were but they were so salty you had to take a drink after every bite. Turns out I had misread the amount and used 3 times the amount of salt. My son still reminds me of that since he was part of the testing. Typical college boy.

CN: Many barbecue restaurants cut their teeth from catering. If you began this way, would you consider that method to be an easier transition – mobile to concrete? There must be some important lessons learned from this that can be shared.

JF: We started this way and I think it’s a great way to do it. You limit your financial exposure in terms of requirements for the space you cook out of, you don’t have to worry about any waste (you know ahead of time exactly how much to prepare) and you can keep your staffing costs pretty low.

TD: I have only done this on a light scale as we now open our kitchen on Fridays only for takeout. So when you cater, many times you are just dropping off the food. It has to be great because there are no employees to sell the company. In the store front, it’s all about personality, great food, and service. Systems that work in one must be modified or redone to work in the other. Personalities of employees that work well in one, may not work well in the other. Holding food at a catering job is tougher I feel than cutting meat right off the smoker as someone orders in the storefront. It’s all about adapting and planning.

CN: If you started out mobile, what were the difficulties faced when moving to a permanent location?

JF: We didn’t have any restaurant experience going into our opening, outside of my illustrious career as a host at Steak ‘n Ale in high school. Let’s just say that we were a bit na├»ve about the amount of work it takes to run a restaurant. We’re over the hump now, but it’s a tough business to be in. You have to be just as good at running the day to day operations and financial side of the business as you are a cook.

CN: Despite the success, accolades, statewide and national attention received, looking back would you take the same path knowing what you know now?

TD: This is my passion - smoking and serving barbecue. I would have done it earlier in life instead of as a retirement business, however my success in business before the barbecue, allowed me the opportunity to pursue my passion.

JF: If you’d asked me this question at the end of the first year, I would have traded it all back in for my bi-weekly direct deposit from Accenture. Once we got over the difficulties of the first year, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We’ve been extremely blessed and not a day goes by that I don’t say a prayer of thanks.

SJ:  I believe that if I had a chance to start over again that I would follow in Jack Perkins’ footsteps - I'm being serious here - and open a hamburger joint that does things the right way. I'd only do classic burgers and fries with consistency, time after time with great customer service.

CN: What are some of the more popular food dishes your customers enjoy?

JF: From a BBQ perspective, I think the burnt ends are definitely a cult favorite. One of my favorite things we do (usually just for events) is our green chile hominy casserole.

TD: The “Que-T-Pie." This is a homemade hand held BBQ Pie. We make our own pastry and stuff it with chopped smoked brisket burnt ends, onions, cheese, and our Special Reserve BBQ sauce.

SJ: Our number one seller has always been the chopped beef sandwich. For catering, the most popular choices are brisket, turkey, and sausage.

CN: Give me your one piece of wisdom for young cooks who want to start their own barbecue trailer, catering service, or storefront.

JF: Don’t quit your day job. Seriously though, start slow and work on your technique. Build the business organically and be very frugal so you don’t end up in a lot of debt. If you have the dream of “being your own boss”, remember that you end up working for an investor or the bank if you take on too much too fast. Adjust your personal cost of living down to the bare minimum before you make the jump to your own business.

TD: Number one, don’t put off dream or your dream will become someone else’s reality. Start at the bottom of a very good independent owned barbecue joint as an employee and learn everything you can to either go out on your own or make yourself so valuable you will take that barbecue joint over as your own.

SJ: Start small and grow into your business at your pace. Don't rush things or you will make mistakes. Stay committed to quality and freshness - never cut corners. Stick to the basic, very simple and most importantly, repeatable recipes. Be the same person every day because employees look for consistency from management. Do your best to treat each employee fairly and equally. Communicate clearly to your crew. Always remember that no matter how many awards or write-ups that your restaurant has received, the most important thing is the customer at your counter right now. Do your best to make them happy.

CN: Lastly, name a favorite movie, band, and more importantly, food other than barbecue.

TD: Movie - The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of Clint’s best.

JF: Band - I don’t have favorite band, but love listening KNON’s blues show and old country music, mix in a little Grateful Dead and the occasional Kid Rock song and that’s pretty much how I roll.

SJ: Food other than barbecue - A good ol' greasy burger and fries.

America was built by average men and women who had big dreams. From the hands of the individuals involved, we as country have thrived on the allure of success. We usually aspire to start businesses not because it's easy or because everyone else is, but because there is a spark of interest within that we wish to at least, take a passive or rather flirtatious look at.

For those who move forth with an aggressive approach, success - more often than not - will eventually come. It may not be today or tomorrow but it will come with patience. Success doesn't necessarily mean driving a Mercedes Benz or skiing every winter; Success is defined by what we want it to be. 

As Bob Dylan once said, “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” I believe these aforementioned cooks would agree.