Barrett Black, Black’s Barbecue, Age 28
Barrett Black of Black’s Barbecue
YOUNG GUN TEXAS PIT MASTERS
In Texas, the title of pit master is a revered and honored position. Many joints will not officially allow use of the name until the experience and efforts of a contestant prove they have the skills, passion, and consistency that it takes to earn the designation.
In this series we look at the next generation of pit masters; those under the age of 30.
For this third article, Barrett Black of Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas is featured
215 North Main St
Lockhart, Texas 78644
Black’s Barbecue has been serving up smoked meats since 1932. Located two blocks west of US 183 in Lockhart, Texas the friendly staff serves up great BBQ that has been smoked by four generations of the Black family. Open “8 days a week”, they only close for one day a year so there is plenty of opportunity to make a trip out to Lockhart for a BBQ road trip.
If the 30 mile trip from Austin is too far, this year Black’s Barbecue is expanding. In Austin you will be able to find them at 3110 Guadalupe as well as via a mobile food truck launching soon. In late August third generation pit master Kent Black is opening Kent Black’s Barbecue at 500 Hull, just west of I-35 in San Marcos. Kent Black’s location will also feature live music.
While Kreuz Market and Smitty’s Market have a separate meat counter, Black’s Barbecue is set up a little different. Enter through the front door and down a short hallway to arrive at the cafeteria style serving line. The sides are selected first and are self serve before you move along to the meat cutting stations. While selecting your meat make sure to look just behind the wood cutting boards and you will see one of the original pits built in 1949 by Edgar Black Jr.
The options for smoked meats are plentiful and flavorful. Black’s Barbecue credits themselves as being one of the first places to popularize serving brisket; Daniel Vaughn authored a good article of the history of brisket, which is available by clicking here. Giant beef short ribs are immensely popular across Texas these days and Black’s Barbecue was also on the leading edge of bringing them to the spotlight. House made sausages come in four flavors, plus both baby back and pork spare ribs are offered, as well as pork chops, turkey, and chicken.
I first saw Barrett Black at the Gettin Sauced festival in 2013, and had a chance to speak with him and wife Becky at Red Dirt BBQ Fest. (See my review of these two festivals here.) At five in the evening he was still making time to walk down the long line that was queued up and speak with BBQ fans. The brisket was also still moist and delicious as well. I was impressed with his professionalism and that original talk was the foundation for this pit master series.
I spoke with Barrett again in July for this interview.
Bryan: When did you start working in the business?
Barrett Black: When I was 8 or 9 years old. I loved hanging out at the restaurant. I grew up in Austin and for a few summers I would spend a couple weeks each summer running the drink counter for free.
That’s where the passion began, I remember watching grandfather trimming and seasoning brisket – Just the smell of pepper still brings back those memories.
Bryan: Where did you go to school?
Barrett Black: Austin High School, then Austin College in Sherman Texas. I started in Business Administration but I had knowledge from the family business so I transferred to Economics.
My grandparents said “If you ever want to come into the business you better get an education and work some other places.”
The original plan was to work about 6-8 months to spend time working with my grandparents and get my hands dirty, learning the traditions and techniques. It’s part of our family and heritage. Six years later I’m still here.
Bryan: Your dad Kent started out selling snow cones, what was your first paying job at Blacks?
Barrett Black: I started at the drink counter, which is important because it’s the last impression some customers get. Learning customer service is central to learning the business. Running the pits may seem more glamorous but the overall customer experience is important.
The sausage kitchen was my next job; there I learned to trim brisket and learned the sausage recipe. We only had one type of sausage until in the early 2000’s garlic and jalapeno-cheddar options were added.
Dad and I came up with a seasonal hatch chili sausage that is available around August-September. It’s only available then because we want to use fresh hatch chilies. We also created the Shiner Bock sausage.
Bryan: When did you first man the pits?
Barrett Black: It took at least 6-8 months before I got into the pits on a daily basis. My grandparents and dad wanted me to learn the basics before jumping straight to the pits.
Once on the pits I had to learn the nuances and the art; each pit is different: there is a cool side and there are hot spots. I also learned how to properly start a fire and how the different sizes of logs affect the fire and the final product.
Our #1 rule for the pit guy is “don’t burn the place down”, and rule #2 is “don’t burn the place down”. There is a thermometer for the pit temperature but when you’ve got 30 or more briskets on the pit you’ve got to keep an eye on them. We try not to touch them but we do have to rotate them once or twice. Every brisket is different; one might take 8 hours and another may take 15.
It’s hard to let it do what it’s got to do, Part of the difficulty is getting it ready just in time and then letting it set just the right amount of time before serving.
Bryan: What’s a typical day for you?
Barrett Black: No day is the same, really. Over the last 6 years I‘ve been through every position and created some new ones too, like shipping. I now have a good team helping with that but sometimes I still have to jump in and help out when there is a problem.
I check on the pits, like today I was talking with the guys in the pits and going over the right color for chickens, just making sure we’re in tune.
I’m helping out with my dad’s restaurant in San Marcos and also working to get the Austin location open.
Eric, my brother, has been working here full time for 2 or 3 years. He is a great addition to our team and helping run our day to day operations.
Bryan: Blacks is expanding into Austin on Guadalupe, and a barbecue truck – How is that going?
Barrett Black: It’s mostly my project with Kent’s oversight and leadership. I live in Austin and have been there every day keeping watch over the project. It’s at 31st and Guadalupe; a great spot for students, just close enough but not too close to the campus. It should be open mid-to-late August. We’ve been planning the Austin location for years; it took us a couple of years to find the perfect location.
The food truck is ready to go but we don’t have a spot to plant it. Just like barbecue is low and slow, we’re taking our time to find the right spot.
We love being outside under a tent, being as close to our customers as possible – one of the best parts about barbecue is letting them see the cutting and smell the fresh brisket. It’s also a fun opportunity to educate them about brisket. We still have some who don’t know what to say when we ask “lean or fatty”.
Grandpa always said – “brisket is the perfect cut of meat, you can make everyone happy with it; lean or fatty”. There is a perfect cut I like…I call it quality control as I get to sample throughout the day.
Bryan: Lately the beef prices have been putting a squeeze on barbecue prices, how have you handled that?
Barrett Black: Prices have had to be raised and it seems like no end is in sight, our meat suppliers keep coming back with higher prices. With the recent rains we are hoping it will help with the long term supply of beef. We’re hoping we can ride it out and prices come back down. It’s hard to say with the popularity of barbecue lately.
Our sales guys have tried to pitch us lower quality brisket and we’ve turned them down. We use certified Angus brisket, it provides the best flavor. We’re not going to serve someone less just to take money from them. Sometimes I’ll walk by and see a brisket or chicken that is not up to our standards and I’ll take it off.
Bryan: What about sticker shock, have you had complaints from people who haven’t eaten barbecue in awhile and aren’t aware of the cost increases?
Barrett Black: Yes, but it’s not that common. It is tough to educate the public about the price increases. Some customers feel like they are being taken advantage of, but it’s rare. Not everyone knows that brisket loses up to 50% of weight. We’re still selling at $14.98 a pound but our supply prices have gone up again.
Bryan: Austin has obviously grown as a barbecue destination. Black’s and the other two big Lockhart joints have been expanding there an elsewhere. What do you think the future of Lockhart will be in five or ten years?
Barrett Black: It’s hard to tell, but in my opinion it depends on what the other people are doing. We all have to keep up our game; we’re all in this together. It’s not just Black’s that makes Lockhart special. We get so many travelers that even if Austin has 50-60 places I think Lockhart still will be Lockhart.
Bryan: Do you eat barbecue outside of Blacks?
Barrett Black: I love tasting other people’s barbecue. It’s amazing how many good pit masters there are. I’ve done trips with 3 stops in one day, but I’m always happy to get back to Black’s. I try to be unbiased but I’m going to compare to what I love. When I was in Brooklyn I was taken aback by how good the barbecue was there, how they are doing it all the way up here.
We have to keep our game up every single day. It’s a fun business.
Bryan: What is the most difficult thing about the barbecue business?
Barrett Black: Consistency is what I care the most about; keeping everyone on the same level making sure that every slice that goes out is perfect, it’s what I work the hardest at. We have had customers say they were the 5th generation coming here; people have been coming for decades. We want to keep the same high quality so that the experiences are the same.
Bryan: What is the most rewarding?
Barrett Black: When people compliment us and tell us the barbecue is great I feel like it’s “mission accomplished.” Making people happy is what barbecue is all about. It’s not something you have to have, it should be a treat. I also love going on catering events like weddings where we can be part of a happy moment.
Bryan: Thank you for the time, anything else you’d like to say?
Barrett Black: None of this would be possible without our grandparents. We are standing on their shoulders, and there have been decades of work that they have done to build the business. I’m grateful for them sticking it out and caring so much; the little tweaks and nuances they’ve done to improve.
Everything we have, our techniques, is thanks to our grandparents. Doing it for so long they’ve learned to manage it and we will keep it up.
But it’s not just me and my dad, it’s a team effort and we spend a lot of time with the folks we hire and train to pass on the techniques.