This is the second installation of a three-part series on Eater Austin about Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX. Today and tomorrow, we're talking with Wayne Mueller, who finds himself monitoring diet trends, keeping locals happy and taking the temperature of the barbecue zeitgeist as he keeps his family's sixty-year-old barbecue joint relevant. Yesterday, we got a photo tour through a morning of meat.
Wayne Mueller at his family's barbecue restaurant, Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX. [Photo: Spencer Selvidge/EATX]
From feeding farmers and blue-collar workers out by the Taylor railroad tracks in the 1940's to introducing Texas barbecue to busloads of tourists from across the country in 2012, the family behind Louie Mueller Barbecue has seen the cuisine grow from a down-home, communal meal to the phenomenon it is today. Carrying on his father's and grandfather's barbecue legacy, Wayne Mueller is now the man at the helm of the original Louie Mueller pit, built in 1949.
Eater Austin sat down with Mueller at what he calls "the most famous unknown barbecue joint in Texas" to find out how a sixty-plus year old barbecue joint stays relevant in an ever more saturated market with rising prices making it harder every day to produce what most folks see as cheap cuisine.
Barbecue now dominates food television and blogs, and business is bigger than ever for Mueller. That doesn't mean he's stopped "taking the temperature" of the crowds that flock to Taylor—and to be sure, anyone headed to Taylor is probably going for barbecue.
"Let's face it: you're not coming to Taylor unless you're coming for some kind of farm implement or barbecue," jokes Mueller. "If you're here and you're lost, GPS has gotten you all screwed up. I'd demand a refund."
But people come to Louie Mueller from the world over to eat their famous Texas-style barbecue top-sellers: beef brisket, beef sausage and and beef ribs, plus whatever newfangled additions have been added to the menu, like pulled pork and smoked turkey.
"It's a humbling thing when you stop to realize it," says Mueller, gesturing toward the stickered map on the side wall of the Louie Mueller dining room, spotted with the hometowns of visitors who've showed up over the years. He says he always asks his customers, "Where are you from and how'd you hear about us? That's my number one question, because it just amazes me."
Mueller has to keep up with "major shifts in perceptions on diet, health, on lifestyle, on culture," he says, because "any of those changes can drastically affect what you sell." He doesn't want to miss anything, but he also wants to honor the work of his forefathers every day.
We'll start our conversation where the barbecue began, in 1949 by the Taylor railroad tracks.
So this downtown location is not far from the original Louie Mueller, right?
Our location was literally a block over across the street, one block behind the alley by the railroad tracks. Here there were warehouses for agriculture products, cotton, and farmers would congregate there at regular intervals. My grandfather started cooking meats, instead of just trying to smoke stuff, to serve what he saw as a pent-up demand. People were here and they were going to eat somewhere, might as well try to feed them.
The pit that I'm serving out of, that’s his original pit, built in '49. These tables that we’re sitting on? He built these back in '49. We’ve done our best to keep as much of the furniture and equipment, even if we decommission it. That stuffer over there, looks like a Gatlin? From ‘74 to 2000—it was built 100 years ago or so—my dad pressed about a million sausages through there.
It's out of commission now, though. What changes have you made?
As cavernous as this place is, we are always short on space to accommodate the amount of traffic we see. The locals take umbrage any time we try to make any sort of revisions to processes, to aesthetics, to structure. It’s not something that goes over well.
Four years ago, we placed an awning over the front door; I caught more hell for that! People said, 'Boy what are you thinking, your father ain’t passed two months! And you’re already changing things!' But I’m just trying to keep this from falling on your head, sir.
So people here consider this their home barbecue joint. They're attached.
When we first started, we were really positioning toward the blue collar worker, the agrarian, the laborer, your common, everyday guy. Today it’s more ubiquitous. It ranges from the very young to the very old. We run the gamut. We realize that no matter what, if we’re not talking to the youth in some way shape or form, that’s a whole generation we’re going to miss out on. You’d love to have your base stick with you forever, but people move, people die, people have to shift their diets as they get older, you’re looking for ways to accommodate more and more people. I don’t think we could ever veer far from what our base is.
There’s nothing more gratifying than this: I know multiple families who the grandfather came in in the 50’s, brought his son in in the 60’s, and his son’s been coming and brought his son in in the late 70’s, now that son is having a child of their own. Having first birthdays here. Having an intergenerational connection with entire families is just a mind-blowing experience. This is something that’s core and fundamental to their family history.
The family aspect of it really seems important to you; what's it like taking over the family business?
I took a 25 year sabbatical [in Houston] and worked in sports and had an ad agency. Worked in corporate entertainment and marketing. When I came back one, of the big reasons to come back was I had a shift in my own perspective.
[As a kid] I couldn’t wait to get out of this place. I started working here when my dad took over in '74. I was his first enlisted staff member; I was 8. Then a few years later my brother joined in, but I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I felt this was an indentured servitude. When you have a family business, just like you have chores around the house, there were things you were expected to do to help.
The reasons these family establishments made it is because they did have family labor, and that’s how things like barbecue had the perception of being a base cuisine, a bottom tier cuisine and it was priced as such. People’s perception has always been that barbecue is cheap to make. And for a long time, if it’s one guy or two people who are related or in a small town, your labor and your wages were much more depressed, you could produce barbecue at a decent price. Now we’re facing a whole different ball game.
It’s entirely different than it used to be. One, having family labor doesn’t work any more. Kids want to get paid. They don’t want to stick around here. But you’ve got more and more people entering the market as competitors, and now there's a shortage on your base supply of beef. The droughts have taken a toll. As the demand for a certain cut continues to rise, and supply constricts, we’ve got increasing price pressures.
In 25 years, give or take, minimum wage has more than doubled. Your standard cost of operations has gone up, with insurance, taxes, cost of supply, fuel costs, so now, barbecue people are up against a wall, in a way. Because for, god knows, the better part of three quarters of a century, barbecue has been looked at as a communal food. You can do it in your backyard. Most people have tried. We’ve all had it. Usually in a big communal setting, it’s looked at as, 'We can do this in this manner because it’s affordable.' Now, our pressure increases as our prices increase. You see it across the board, in New York, it’s 20 to 25 bucks per pound for brisket, that’s incredibly expensive.
And making barbecue is no small task. It's time intensive, especially.
When you think about it, you’re taking a cut of meat that really is a really tough part of the cow where 60 percent of the weight is being held at any given time. It’s going to be a dense, hard cut of meat. There’s some sort of magic that occurs that happens to convert that into something like that [points to brisket on the Eater Austin plate]. That really takes time, it takes effort, it takes a procedure that’s tested. It takes somebody that knows how to deal with temperature control, how to deal with rotation. If this is a manual operation like ours is, what you wind up doing is spending 10 to 16 hours to produce something like that. Unlike say, an aged filet. While it’s aging, it’s just hanging or sitting and when it comes time to cut, that takes 15 seconds, then to prepare or cook it in an 1800 degree boiler, you’re talking about less than 5 minutes, total.
Now you compare what we’re doing with brisket, and not just us, but we’re able to do that. My perception is, why shouldn’t this be worth more than a filet? Because it should be about what you end up with, not what you start with.
How does that kind of, devaluing of the labor and the product, affect your business?
We’re all getting compressed, in a way. We’re working on such minimal margins based on the time and labor it takes. And the more demand there is, the higher your traffic is and the more labor you have to have preparing and serving and cleaning. It just requires more and more and more, and your labor cost is already up high.
We’re now in a state, that as a barbecue as a cuisine and subculture, I don’t think we’ve been in this position before. I don’t know where it goes. What happens, then, when this tide, this barbecue tide that has sort of carried the American foodie enthusiast along for the last four or five years, what happens when that tide descends? It may hold flat, but at some point in time it will stop ascending. That’s a given. All markets, all fads, have the same life cycle. This is no different. It’ll still be an elevated cuisine, because of the attention it’s received. It’ll be seen in a different light. It’ll be appreciated more than it ever has been.
That’s a testament; you can see that testament in four-star chefs leaving their fine dining going to learn this. There’s something here, and people are realizing not just anybody can do this. You can’t just say oh, give me a couple go-rounds in the pit in the back yard and I can make it just like anybody else. It just doesn’t happen that way. There’s a lot of time and trial and error that goes into this long, before we stepped on the scene. In all honesty, this would not be in front of you if the people before me hadn’t done all that they’d done.
It's a legacy thing.
I look at myself in some ways as just a curator. Here’s this museum, with these pieces and it’s my job to keep them intact, to keep them whole. This is now an institution.
Certainly it takes a wide variety of skills to create these, as you say, museum pieces.
The first thing you have to learn, is be a botanist. You have to know about trees. You have to know how green wood, versus dry wood, cured wood burns. You have to be a meteorologist. Because you have to know how the different types of weather, whether it’s windy or dry or cold or humid or hot, they all affect the way your fire acts. And a fireman. Fire is no different from you or I in many respects. It lives, it eats, it breathes, it grows, it seems to have its own temperament. It does what it wants. It finds ways to satisfy its desire to consume as much as possible. You can’t let the fire control you. You have to be the controller of the fire.
You have to become like, this minor expert in all of these different areas to make them all come together in a symbiotic way. Just so you can control your temperature. So you can become a human thermostat.
Every pit is different. The pit apparatus itself is temperamental and has a personality. I tell my guys, you have to know it better than you know your wives and girlfriends. And you will. And you’ll know how to treat them well, because if you don’t, they’ll bite you. They won’t perform for you. You’ll be left high and dry. And what you get out of it, you won’t be happy with. And neither will I. Once you do that, you’ve mastered equipment. You’ve mastered your fire.
Now you have to deal with your cuts of meat. No two cows are the same. Smaller briskets versus larger. Grass fed. Choice. It’s not a one to one ratio of time to weight. It’s a geometric progression. The larger something is, you add on more additional time. You get to 12, 14 hours, it might be 16, 20 hours.
You’ve got to know all the other types of meat as well. For us, I don’t feel comfortable until someone has trained for about a year. That’ll give them four seasons. Four quarters of dealing with different temperatures, even winds from different directions.
So these are all the things you teach your pit guys?
Tony [White, the Louie Mueller pit boss, who joined the team two years ago] is a good testament to this: there is no end to this journey. It’s a very Buddhist sort of thing. It really is. It’s a very Zen sort of thing. About two months before my father passed, he said, 'L me tell you about what happened today. I don’t recall ever running into this situation before, this is how I handled it. But I probably would have been better served had I done this.' He’d been in the business 34 years, he was viewed as quite iconic, and yet he was still encountering situations he hadn’t encountered before.
As much as people want to call themselves pit masters, really what they are is a pit student. A pit pupil, maybe. Once you start believing you know everything there is to know, you’ve already locked out any new information, any new potential education. Any new perspective. I think you short sell yourself. There’s always something to learn out there.
Artisan is the way I try to describe it when I have guys coming in for apprentice positions. What I’m looking for you guys to become is an artisan. It’s sort of like, in a way, a blacksmith. You’re hand crafting everything that goes on to a horse or with metalworking, you’re doing this by hand.
In terms of learning new things, is that where your additions of, say, pork products comes in? Asking new customers what they're looking for?
That’s the pulse. When you reach a critical mass in your own mind, you know, I’ve heard this thing from 37 people in two months, there’s something to this. If that’s the case, out of curiosity, we’ll come up with a product and put a sign up. While supplies last, whatever, let’s do a product test. If the product is strong, we’ll introduce it. If it’s not, then somehow we missed what we were being told, so we need to listen a little better. Or maybe we’re just so cued up on this, we perceive we’re hearing it more. Sometimes things are just seen in other places, not necessarily demanded.
But you don't want to stray from the things you know you do well.
We have a time-tested way of doing things. In essence, we’re not doing anything different. The only thing that changed for us is the pits. The apparatus? Let’s face it, people have been cooking over fire since there was fire. We’re just changing the configuration. But in essence, we’re following that tradition, that far precludes the mid-century European settlers that were already here. It precludes Columbus’ first landing.
It’s caveman cooking.
It is. But one thing that concerns me is that because of environmental consciousness and to some degree overzealous environmental consciousness, what we do may become extinct. Not because there’s not a demand, but because we’re going to be regulated out of existence. In using, say, a wood. Everybody may be forced to move to gas. Or move to using electric. At that point in time, you’ve really stripped away. With an automatic gauged setting, you’ve taken away two-thirds of the artisanship of what this is.
Being able to do what my guys do, what I can do, what my dad did and the people before him? I think it takes a long time. And people should all be very proud of what they do, because it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not for the weak of heart. You have to have patience and dedication. You have to want to do this. There’s a human element that’s inescapable.
It's about taking pride in what you do? Those hours of labor?
The guys we have, you can tell they really care about what they do. If we’re up at the block and we’re serving lunch and someone pulls out a new brisket and unwraps it, and it just has that feel. You could say there are certain sexual connotations, not for mixed company probably. [laughs] But it has this sort of gelatinous, jiggle to this brisket, that as it just is laid back down on the table, you can tell. Everybody just goes, “Oooooh.” And the first instinct is for everybody to reach over and touch it. And shake it. And feel it. And we all know what it’s going to taste like. It’s not emotional, but it’s damn close. It’s an automatic response. Everybody wants to touch it because they all know, that is beautiful.
Another way we get that feedback, everybody that comes through the line, we give a bite of brisket. Usually an end cut. And when first timers and travelers haven’t experienced that before, it’s not so much a marketing ploy, it’s more of a cultural ploy. Southern hospitality. It’s secondarily a marketing tool. I love it for my carvers because they have a chance to then get immediate feedback. There’s nothing more gratifying.
So the guys aren't just squirreled away in a kitchen or back pit, they're right there at the line.
The reason they’re here, they’re not just on some career quest. This is a life quest for them. It goes back to the whole Zen thing. They want their lives to matter on some level. And to make a fundamental difference to people that’s measurable. That’s quantifiable. Not some abstract, we’ve fulfilled this contract for you. We made this baby for you! It is our hope that you will love it as much as we do. And 99 percent of the time, that’s what you get. It’s something that you’re not going to find in any aspect of a career on a daily basis.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the second half of our interview with Wayne Mueller, wherein we'll talk more about his apprenticeships and the future of barbecue in Texas.
· A Day In The Life Of Meat At Louie Mueller Barbecue [-EATX-]
· All Barbecue Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· Louie Mueller Barbecue [Official]