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Wayne Mueller On The Barbecue 'Reformation,' Recruiting New Fans and Running His Barbecue Mecca

This is the third installation of a three-part series on Eater Austin about Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX. Yesterday we talked 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, and today the interview continues in its second part. Wednesday, we got a photo tour through a morning of meat.

louiemueller500.jpgLouie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX. [Photo: Spencer Selvidge/EATX]

When Eater Austin left off our conversation with Wayne Mueller yesterday, in the first installment of our two-part interview with the Taylor, Texas barbecue king, he was talking about what a "Zen thing" barbecue is for his pit boss Tony White and pit apprentice Chris Ramers at Louie Mueller Barbecue: "The reason they’re here, they’re not just on some career quest," says Mueller. "This is a life quest for them. It goes back to the whole Zen thing. They want their lives to matter on some level."

Both White and Ramers traveled from out-of-state to learn the art of barbecue in Texas, ending up at sixty-plus year-old Louie Mueller in Taylor, about forty-five minutes northwest of Austin. Now, more than ever, people want to learn barbecue as it becomes increasingly glamorized on television and revered on blogs and in magazines.

"It's being spread far and wide," says Mueller. "It’s almost like the Reformation. A breakaway from the Catholic church and suddenly everybody’s got a voice and everybody’s got an opinion." Because of that, says Mueller, barbecue is "changing forever."

That's where we'll start the second and final part of our interview with Mueller:

When did you see the interest in barbecue here really start to take off?

The interest really took off, I would say, maybe around the turn of the century. Early 2001, 2002 is when we saw a lot more interest here. Our internet traffic started going up more and more. And I think that, you know, you’ve got 10 years of the internet in a commercial sense behind you. Websites have become ubiquitous, anyone can have a presence there. And how big you are? Well, how big do you want yourself to appear? It’s a leveling sort of platform.

How does the internet play into your business itself?

We're under development for our shipping. Our web guy is revamping our website and we’re going to put an e-commerce site up. We needed to get out into the market further so we started catering. That allowed us to extend our reach. We try to extend outside of our region, which would be your local base, then your region, where our catering will extend to, maybe 100 miles. And then you’ve got events; we do different food events where we take our mobile pit. That gives us a cross-regional extension, and now shipping will give us full domestic reach. Everywhere. That will maximize pretty much what we can do out of this location. But I think long-term survivability will dictate that we get those squared away and then probably look for other locations. Other sites.

Because as disposable incomes continue to dwindle, as fuel prices continue to rise, that’s still going to affect shipping. And if we can’t be in another area or region of the country where we can ship from there or at least service a region, we’re going ot be missing out again. We’ll cut ourselves short. So we need to look at where those places might be.

I never see us being say, a Bill Miller. I don’t see us being a corporate franchise. I don’t see that. Because it certainly isn’t something my father wanted and it certainly isn’t something he would ever have done. I think that we would be better served, I could see maybe half a dozen to maybe ten locations? And this is dreaming. Right? The logistics of just getting people trained to be in those places! Then you’re looking at a year of Barbecue-U here before even allowing them to go somewhere else.

But Taylor will always be the home base, right?

This is Mecca, in a way. People pilgrimage here because once in their life, they have to make that journey. But we’re a culture of convenience. If people can find good, or even not quite as good product, but it’s convenient? Convenience will win out, and it’ll win out 90 percent of the time. It’s who we are as a culture. I’m not here to change culture, because I see that’s the way we are and it’s best to try to understand that. To try to work within those confines rather than trying to change culture as a whole. I don’t think we’re big enough, strong enough, to have that kind of influence.

We're trying to imagine a Louie Mueller Dallas.

It’s possible. Or New Orleans, you know, we’ve gone there now quite a few years. We’re building a nice following there. People look forward to us coming in the spring to do a food festival there. I could see it working there. Because they don’t have anything like it there. That’s the beauty of it: you go into the south and while there are people who will do brisket, it’s different. It’s cooked in such a variety of different ways. This would be a new product for them. Beef sausage is not very common anywhere. You have blends, like pork-beef blends, but just beef in itself? Not something that you see. And the beef ribs, there are some places that do those really well, I think as a complement, adding local flare.

This is the adaptability part. When you go into any community, you say what is the culture, the heritage, the palate of that community? You’re going ot have to develop some sort of products that will be specifically for them. That you might say, in Memphis would be different that would be different than you would have in Chicago or Miami or Philadelphia. They’ll have their own certain twists, and that’s essential. It goes against full-out conformity from a franchising basis, but what it does is allow you to endear the community to you, so the community makes you them. That’s ultimately what you want to have happen in any community.

And you're very much a part of the Taylor community.

When I came back here, I thought I was really saving my history. I grew up in this place, I’ve got too many memories here of all my family members. I was a bit selfish in thinking I’m saving that. But the more people I talk to, the more I realize I’ve got this infinite band of history that stretches as far as I can see. And here’s my history in it. That’s it. It’s nominal. It’s miniscule compared to everybody else’s. when you start thinking about it in those terms, you realize this isn’t just a family business being passed down, this is an institution. This thing is bigger than me. This is why I’m a curator. I’m just trying to take care of this so it sticks around and passes on to another generation.

It’s a museum, it’s a piece of living history. It’s an amusement park. It’s a themed restaurant. It’s lunch. It holds these fascination in all sorts of ways. But people leave pieces of themselves all over the place.

Like on your sticker boards.

You'll notice we have the 50 U.S. state map and then we’ve got the world map. I put this up two and a half years ago, really as a way to kind of act as an adjunct to our business card boards. People leave themselves here by leaving that. This one gives us an opportunity to allow people to leave your mark from your hometown. You’re leaving a part of yourself here. And people are fascinated! They’ll sit there and stare at that forever. Am I the first one from there? Is anyone from where I’m from?

I try to show the staff, we’re in a small town. Some of you guys were born here, you were raised here, you live here, you’ll die here. You’ll probably never leave for any extended period of time. Yet, you have an opportunity every day to affect somebody in a positive way from around the world. The world collapses to this singularity right here, and you don’t have to go anywhere. But you get to wake up every day and deal with people who are from Sweden or Tokyo or Camaroon or Brazil.

Which is not something a lot of small-town folks can say.

Most people in small towns never have any sort of experience like that. In some small towns, they barely see anybody from outside the county. So this is a very unique opportunity. And it’s a unique time. I want them to embrace that. Somebody has traveled a long way and you have that opportunity to make this visit for them memorable and positive. They’ll want to share and return. Some have embraced it. Some don’t get it. That’s just where you are in your life. But we’re really fortunate.

Do you find that locals take this place for granted? If this is just the barbecue you know, that you've grown up with, maybe you think everybody has a world-class barbecue restaurant in their home town.

In many respects, our locals sometimes can feel that way. This is a place they’ve supported for years, and now with so much turista, I can’t even count all the times I hear locals, you’ll see ‘em come to the front door, they’ll look in, there’s a line and they turn around and walk off. They’ll drive by and they’ll see the parking lot and just keep driving. They’ll say, ‘You know, there was a time when I could go in for lunch, get in line, and ten minutes later I’m sitting down and eating.’ Now there maybe 60, 70 people in line at lunch and it takes 45 minutes, maybe as much as an hour to get through the line. It just stays that length. We process people probably at about one transaction per minute clip.

How do we cater to our locals? Because they do get their feelings hurt to some degree. So we tell them to call in. Won’t do it. That’s cheatin’! That’s not fair to the people who are already here! Well, we tell them to call in, too! If they’re traveling? If you’re coming from Dallas, call your order in. Because by the time you get here, we may be sold out. Or there’s a good chance we’re sold out of what you want to eat. So that helps us to better prepare and service people.

I was guilty of it. Growing up, how do you know what you’ve got? If this is the only barbecue you’ve ever eaten, other than the stuff you eat at church or at a wedding or some birthday party, you’re just like, eh. This is all you know. Until you go out there and sample what the world has to offer, then you really don’t know what you have. Coming from a place where my father would just never brag on himself ever, you really didn’t know. All you knew was, those bathrooms better be clean. That trash better be out! Those floors better be swept! That’s what you knew. Can I have something to eat? No, that’s for the customers, not you!

So you tell people to call in ahead of time. how else do you keep locals and tourists happy?

I understand that people don’t like change and that change comes slowly in small towns. Sometimes we have to adapt rapidly. Sometimes we can’t react quick enough. We’re going to offer a to-go line here, very soon when we get our new POS system. That should help decongest our line to some degree. But it can also bring about another situation where now people say the line is less congested, it’s not as long, so more people try to come. Now your line is just as long as it was, but you have a whole ‘nother service line that you’ve added. You’ve got to increase your staff to adapt to that, which puts more margin pressures. How do you balance these balls? Each step you take, there are consequences.

Which is all a result of this increased interest, this glorification of barbecue.

You’ve taken something and now it’s being glamorized. And money’s being thrown at it and introduced to it. It’s being spread far and wide. It’s almost like, the Reformation. A breakaway from the Catholic church and suddenly everybody’s got a voice and everybody’s got an opinion. Everybody who’s got their own ideas about what it should be, their own interpretations, are getting into the game. It’s changing it forever.

So many people are so concerned—people who write blogs who have now dedicated their lives to go to 100,000 barbecue places, you know? They amass their own followings. There’s a whole sub-cottage industry that’s been developed around this cuisine and its growth and popularity.

And to me it’s almost ludicrous in a way, because we used to have a barbecue place right there [points across the parking lot] and another one a block and a half over. We had one that was about a quarter mile up the road. Not one of us was the same. Not one of us. We’re all from the same backgrounds, but not one of us. You go anywhere: you go to the Salt Lick in Round Rock and you got the Salt Lick in Drfitwood, they’re not the same. It’s just the way it is. Everybody has their own ideas. Who’s to say what is what is what?

It's incredibly subjective. People really get attached to one cut of meat, or one pit master or barbecue restaurant.

Somebody asked me once, why don’t you go to competitions? For one, we compete every day. Every day we open the doors we compete. It used to be we’d compete with McDonald’s or Whataburger or Jack in the Box, but now it’s really becoming more of we are competing with other barbecue operations in the region, because we have so many travelers, they could easily go somewhere else. So we have to consider all these places as competition, whereas before that wasn’t such a big deal. The second thing is, we don’t have anything to win by going. The judges we deal with, vote with their dollar bills every day. If they don’t like what we’re doing, they vote not to spend their dollars here. That’s the only competition we’re in. Those are the judges that matter to us.

Food critics, bloggers, ranking publications of all sorts, they’ve been very nice to us and very good to us. But at the end of the day, it comes down to what do the people themselves think? Editorial gets people in the door, and we all have this herd mentality. I’m gonna go try this popular place out. We all trample over and check it out. But really unless we’re just mindless automatons, your taste buds should win out. You have to decide. The only thing you know is your experience.

And people are not at all afraid to stand up for their own favorites.

I’ve heard it said from my earliest childhood, there are three things you don’t talk about in Texas: religion, politics and barbecue. They’re all three guaranteed to get you into a fight. If there are more than three people in the conversation, there’s going to be a fight. And it’s true. I wonder how it is that something that is supposed to be so communal, that is in many ways utilitarian, that it can get people so impassioned and so emotional about it. But people are. It should tell you something about people’s real desires. Fundamentally, what they think about an institution. Because it’s not defending a food, they’re defending a specific institution or person or persons. That’s really what they’re defending. You can’t discount how relationships play into all this. And they do play into all this. So here, we believe the more you can personally touch somebody, that’s a personal relationship you’re building. Even if it’s a short one.

Why do you think people get so passionate about barbecue?

When I was a kid, I met Earl Campbell and followed his career closely because I had a chance to meet him when I was very young. So the experience of the food and the place and and the family acts as something very similar. This is something that people feel passionate about to defend. Those are the people that you want to stick brown shirts on and have them march the streets for you. And they will, they will go to battle. I can’t imagine doing that over any food. A hot dog? A steak? An ice cream cone? I have my favorites, don’t get me wrong. Food doesn’t do that for me. I’m passionate about this place.

It’s a humbling sort of thing when you stop to contemplate what it is people are doing and why they’re doing it. It’s almost like, you know, you’ve got this group, this mass that has your back. Then what you’re doing at your service line is you’re recruiting. It’s your recruiting office.

Louie Mueller wants you!

I might have to use that, if you don’t mind. At least a t-shirt, right?

Absolutely, we'd wear it. Thanks, Wayne!

Check out the rest of Eater Austin's three-part series on Louie Mueller Barbecue: Spencer Selvidge's photo essay on pit guys Tony and Chris, along with the first part of our interview with Wayne.

· A Day In The Life Of Meat At Louie Mueller Barbecue [-EATX-]
· All Barbecue Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· Louie Mueller Barbecue [Official]

Louie Mueller Barbecue

206 W. Second Street Taylor, TX 76574