Black’s BBQ, the popular 90-year-old Lockhart-based mini-chain, had to pay just over $230,000 in back wages to employees this year. This was following a U.S. Department of Labor investigation that began with the restaurant’s New Braunfels location in December 2019. Since the story broke, Black’s owners have been hard at work trying to defend its reputation from a flood of accusatory headlines, but the timelines of what happened between the restaurant company and the Department of Labor don’t match up.
On September 19, the Department of Labor announced that Black’s had to pay out $230,353 in back pay to 274 workers. According to the agency’s statement, restaurant managers across the New Braunfels, Lockhart, Austin, and San Marcos locations were participating in employee tip pools. This meant that during the period of September 2019 through September 2021, Black’s BBQ managers were taking home a portion of the tips earned during hours of operations, leaving employees without a percentage of their tipped earnings — a major source of income for service workers.
That violates tip regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which currently prohibits managers and supervisors from keeping tips received by staffers. In 2020 and 2021, the Department of Labor updated its federal regulations under the FLSA to protect tipped workers specifically.
Black’s restaurants are buffet-style service, so tips are almost always given at the counter when ordering and divided among employees afterward. Because each of Black’s businesses operates as an individual entity, each was investigated as a separate case by the Department of Labor in 2021 and 2022.
In response, Black’s BBQ’s father-son pitmasters Kent Black and Barrett Black released their own statement to media outlets shortly after the Department of Labor press release went live claiming that all current and former hourly employees were fully compensated for everything they were owed via company funds after the initial investigation by May 2021. Black’s blamed their outsourced payroll company (whom they chose not to name after Eater asked), which they said did not catch the law change, but ultimately, they acknowledged that it was their responsibility as business owners for being unaware of the tip regulation changes.
“These affected folks, they were always receiving tips, it’s just with this new rule change, they were entitled to about 10 percent more of the pool,” Kent Black tells Eater in a separate interview. “So the difference we quickly made up and issued those funds to them.”
After Black’s released their written statement, Kent and Barrett Black followed with a video on YouTube two days later on September 21, reiterating what they wrote and further describing what happened. “There were no penalties issued by the Department of Labor because we voluntarily fixed it immediately,” says Kent in the video.
Juan J. Rodriguez, a deputy regional director for the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs, provided Eater with different timelines than the one Black’s owners are asserting. He writes over email that there were four separate investigations into Black’s four locations — New Braunfels starting in February 2021 and ending in May 2021; Lockhart and Austin from September 2021 to April 2022; and San Marcos from February 2022 to April 2022. According to Rodriguez, all of those back wages were completely paid out and confirmed by July 2022, and the agency wrote out the release after that.
Despite there being two different viewpoints on when the labor violation issue was resolved, both the Black family and the Department of Labor can agree that it has been resolved, to the tune of $230,353. However, that hasn’t stopped critics, or rivals and family members, from poking fun at the situation, including Terry Black’s BBQ, which has a long-standing beef with Black’s (yes, both are owned by members of the same Blacks family).
This isn’t the first time tip sharing has gotten a Texas barbecue business in trouble. Hard Eight BBQ in Dallas had to pay more than $867,000 in tips and overtime to its employees following its own Department of Labor investigation that concluded earlier this year.