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How Franklin Barbecue's Aaron Franklin Survives SXSW

Photo: Jasmin Sun/EATX

Franklin Barbecue is historically slammed during SXSW, and Eater spoke with with beloved meat whisperer Aaron Franklin about the barbecue destination's survival plan. Franklin also shared more details about his forthcoming book and PBS TV show, as well as the DIY ethos that has informed his success. Read on for the full interview below.

SXSW is coming up, and Franklin's lines are infamously long during the festival. What's your survival plan?

We hold on for dear life. Every March I build new cookers, and we staff up. We've been trying to hire for awhile. It is so hard to find help. I know our job is really, really hard. We could be laying drywall and pouring concrete and it would be the same amount of labor. I put up over three thousand pounds of brisket myself a month ago while cooking ribs. It took me two hours. That's a lot for one person.

I still don't know how we do it. We cook 24 hours a day . One shift just goes into the next. On Saturdays, I get there 1:45 a.m. and I don't' leave until 5p.m. The night guy gets there at 3 p.m. and doesn't leave until 4 a.m. It's hard work just to keep up with the demand.

During SXSW, every day is like a Saturday. The music stuff slacks off a bit . It's the interactive stuff that's stupid busy. Those guys make more money, and they coming to party. Music people, and I know this from my own personal experience, are typically pretty poor.

What is your take on the services being offered like Favor, which you can use to pay someone to wait in line for Franklin?

Anybody can do anything they want. Who am I to say it's weird or wrong to do anything. That said, I wouldn't do it. If I'm going to go to a place, I'm going to get the full experience. But you can't tell people what to do. I can't tell people not to show up at 6 a.m.

Any especially crazy things that happen at SXSW?

Aside from just overworking ourselves, not really. Everyone rakes in overtime. Working 80 hours in a week is not unheard of. You may ask if that's even possible, oh but it is.

But the first year we were at trailer for SXSW, that was as where we raised most of the money to get into the building. And that first year we were in the building, that's the money we've been saving for the addition.

Franklin is doing quite well, but the building is falling apart. We never had any debt because we started with zero. There's no big restaurant group or series of investors. There's really four of us. Stacy's cousin is the night cook and manager, and my best friend is front of the house. We've pulled in our homies, our small tight family, and we're keeping it that way gosh darnit.

You've been the subject to of media coverage for a long time, and now you're creating your own, with a TV show and a book scheduled. Can you talk about that process?

People always ordering whole briskets and we try to tell them how to cut it. I would draw diagrams on butcher paper. Stacy was looking on YouTube for videos on how to cut a brisket, and there's nothing out there at all. Benji, my best friend from high school, quit his NPR job, and moved back to Austin to manage the restaurant. He needed a project and I said, "Oh shit, let's buy a camera and we'll do some little YouTube videos."

I answer emails all the time on how to troubleshoot. People send pictures of food, links to Craigslist smokers they're thinking of buying. Or people come up to the store and ask questions. It' be great to that this stuff were on the web where everyone can see it.

The web series hit a million hits out of nowhere, and we just shot that after lunch with KLRU.

The show is going to be traveling around Texas?

It's going to be stationed out of the restaurant. I can't go far and I don't want to. I am tired of traveling, and Stacy and I wanted to work on having a baby. Benji coming back from New York was part of the process. If we do this PBS thing I can just stay at home and keep working at the place. I still work five shifts a week over there, which is maybe a little much to handle.

Why do you keep doing it?

There's only one other guy who cooks ribs, so if he's going to get a day off, I have to do 1-2 ribs shifts week. There's only one guy who cuts, so if he gets a day off, that's 1-2 shifts, and I do maintenance stuff Mondays. We built the place ourselves and its crumbling beneath us. And I build the cookers, so I'm welding a lot too. And then the baby.

We'll got some ranches, learn to do some butchering stuff. Do a time lapse of building a cooker from scratch. I'm going to try to get off the schedule five days and put in a bunch of cameras and build this thing Do it on the cheap with a free hot water heater on Craigslist. Score!

It'll be cool because it's not necessarily based on what we do at the barbecue place. I get to learn new things. I can't change anything here because my job is to keep it the same every day.

Is the book is going to be a little like the web series? Show people how to approach different aspects of the process?

The idea of the book at this point, and this could totally change, is that it's like a manual for how to build fire, and work with the fire. Maybe a little bit of history of how we started. Stacy and I been working on this thing for ten years. A manual on how to make something out of nothing.

What does working on it look like?

Recording myself talking. The guy Jordan Mackay who's writing it is a really talented writer. He lives in San Francisco but he grew up here so he's coming back and crashing at his mom's and hanging out with me while cooking ribs. That's the only quiet time I get, between 1 a.m. and 5:30-6 a.m., when employee start showing up, and sometimes customers. They don't leave. I go out there and say, "Go home , go sleep in your car, I'll wake up you up in a couple hours."

It's neat because like the TV show, we can kinda do whatever we want. Definitely there will be a concentration on getting as much detail in there as possible. That's just how I work. Very detail-oriented.

Do you think being detail-oriented is essential to being a pitmaster?

It's essential for doing anything well. If you slack off, it's going to show. If you spend a bunch of money on piece of meat or wood or if you stay up all night cooking something, don't you want it to be as good as you can possibly make it? You go to a crappy restaurant, it may have great food but service may be bad or beer may be warm. The bathroom floor maybe dirty, that's no good. It's all about he details.

Do you think that detail-orientedness goes against Austin's slacker ethos?

I'm kind of a slacker. I was unemployed for years before barbecue happened. You gotta pick your battles. What do you want to be good at?

Do you ever think about expansion?

We work hard enough. We're trying to make this easier and better. Oh, it will get better. We're about to add on to the building and have a legitimate smokehouse. That should shift us off 24 hour schedule to 20, which will be huge.

Why does a smokehouse let you do that?

We can have a tighter schedule and not worry about wind and rain. Most of our labor is spent trying to compensate for all the variables to make same product every day. Today it was warm so ribs cooked differently than when it was freezing last week. And the week before it was 60 and then dropped to 27 by the end of the day.

New-school pitmasters cite you as having raised bar, and the profile of, Texas barbecue. Do you agree with that?

There's always been good barbecue. It's Texas. There have been a tone of new places opening, I mean tons. Tons of great places, too. Stiles. Tom Micklethwait has done a killer job over there, and he's a good fellow too. That's kind of rare, really good food done by really good people.

Do you still get to play music?

That's a good one. The last time I played the drums was probably two weeks before the trailer opened. I have tons of other cool stuff going on. But it would be cool to play some music sometime.
· All Aaron Franklin Coverage [EATX]
· All SXSW 2014 Coverage [EATX]

Franklin Barbecue

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