Guest contributor: Matt Keyser, Texas BBQ
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved cooking. As a young kid growing up in Dallas, I’d relish in the opportunity when family and friends would get together so I could show off my cooking skills.
Try my fresh pico de gallo! Taste these fluffy scrambled eggs! Eat these juicy hamburgers!
Even as a 10-year-old, I had dreams of one day running a restaurant, though the idea always felt far-fetched. The restaurant industry, I learned as a cook throughout high school and college, required late nights, weekends, and holidays. While my friends were out on Fridays and Saturdays, I was firing steaks into a 1,000-degree broiler or running the expo line during a busy dinner rush at a steakhouse. I enjoyed the hell out of it, don’t get me wrong. I love the camaraderie of the kitchen staff — the vulgar jokes and name calling, the chaos as rushes take hold, the after-work beers and joints. But it never felt long term.
How wrong I was.
As I sit here reflecting on those days, I also come to the startling realization: My barbecue business passed an important milestone.
Bourbon Brothers BBQ’s one-year anniversary
On July 4, 2021, Bourbon Brothers BBQ was introduced to the Texas barbecue scene. [My buddy and I coined the name based on our love for backyard barbecue and great bourbon.]
What a wild year it’s been.
We held our first-ever pop-up at Texas Leaguer Brewery in Missouri City, southwest of Houston. I replied to a callout by the brewery on a Houston-area Facebook page in the weeks leading up to July 4. It just so happened to coincide with a time that my business partner, Caleb Johnson, and I were discussing getting serious about selling barbecue.
What better date to introduce our ‘cue to the world than Independence Day?
It didn’t matter we lacked any proper catering equipment.
Or that we didn’t have a large enough smoker. Or one we could transport.
Or — and I can’t stress this enough — that neither of us had any professional barbecue experience.
We were too naïve to recognize our shortcomings.
Or, perhaps, too stressed to notice.
We rented a smoker for the weekend — at a whopping $500 fee. We bought cheap chafing dish sets from Party City. We took a crash course in food safety regulations and local health department guidelines that would allow us to sell to the public.
Late nights bled into early mornings. We barely slept. Nothing ran according to plan.
The morning of the event — running far behind and unbearably stressed — we scrambled to finish mac and cheese and barbecue sauce. We were still loading our trucks an hour after we were supposed to leave.
It was 11:45 a.m. when we arrived and we were supposed to start serving at noon. The health inspector was waiting for us when we pulled up. Thankfully she was incredibly understanding. We needed more ice in a few coolers, she told us, but we received our temporary health permit and the green light to sell.
Problem was, nothing was ready.
Any designs I sketched out regarding the layout of our tent were tossed aside. We rushed to pitch the tent and set up tables. Caleb, our pitmaster, fired up the smoker in the 100-degree July heat. I tried to makeshift an expo line that ended up on the opposite side of the tent, far away from the smoker — rather than, y’know, next to it where I would have easy access to meat and warm sides.
Noon bled to 12:30. People arrived, ready to order. “It smells great out here,” they’d tell us. “Give me 15 more minutes,” I’d say. 12:30 bled into 12:45. 12:45 bled into 1.
Finally, we had pulled pork and brisket warmed. I whipped together some coleslaw that I didn’t get to make the night before. [I didn’t sleep as is and we ran out of time!]
We sold our first order. Then our second. Our third and fourth and fifth.
Friends came to greet us. Total strangers raved about our food.
Caleb worked like a madman on the pit. I pushed orders as fast as I could at expo, falling back on the skills I learned from my steakhouse days.
I watched as people ate our food and drank beer while smiling and chatting with friends. We had our own smiles as they came back and told us how much they enjoyed the barbecue.
Was this one of the happiest moments of my life…?
Then came the dark clouds. Thunder rolled in the distance. Lightning flashed. The changing weather caused the smoker to stall. The sky opened.
The food and supplies under our tent were fine, but Caleb stood in the torrential downpour next to the smoker, a true captain of his ship, fighting to get it running.
Chicken orders ran obscenely long because the smoker wouldn’t hold temp, regardless of the hot fire raging in the firebox.
Orders ceased altogether as people avoided the rain in the safety of the brewery.
It rained. And kept raining. We planned for 150 orders that day. We sold 20. We spent more than $2,000 on food, supplies, permits, and fees. We made $416.
It was a rollercoaster of a day of stress, jubilation, defeat, and exhaustion. What sane person would want to do this for a living? I texted Caleb recently asking what he remembers from the event:
“Trying to season chicken in the rain. No heat gloves or a shovel for the firebox. Hearing y’all ask me how much longer on chicken literal minutes after asking.”
At one point, we must have had five Big Ass Chicken orders that were running 30-plus minutes. With the changing weather, the smoker wouldn’t climb past 225 degrees, and those big chickens just wouldn’t cook. I think we ended up refunding three of those orders and swapping out pulled pork sandwiches for the others. Ugh.
“Trying to squirt out BBQ sauce onto some pulled pork and the sauce wasn’t blended enough, so a piece of onion got stuck in the top, and I squeezed the bottle to the point that the entire top blew off and sauce went everywhere.”
Remember when I said we rushed the morning of to make barbecue sauce? Yeah, apparently didn’t blend it well enough. Great.
“Going from getting sunburnt to getting soaked to the bone in the same hour.”
“Hearing some people come up and tell us the chicken was the best they’ve ever had.”
We want to provide every person who orders from us the best damn barbecue they’ve ever had.
It’s Caleb’s last point that keeps us going, always striving to improve. There’s no feeling like when a person takes time out of their day to shake your hand and tell you how good your food is. It makes all those late nights and hot days tending to the firebox worth it.
A year later, I’m proud we stuck with it after that first event. Caleb and I still think back, laugh, and reflect on how far we’ve come.
We now have proper catering equipment. We own a larger smoker — on a trailer, no less. We’ve added another partner, an executive chef, to strengthen our menu. What we lacked in any formal barbecue training we’ve more than made up for by taking a crash course with each event and learning from our mistakes.
We’ve grown from breweries to selling at Montgomery County’s largest music festivals, while serving hundreds at a time. We’ve cooked for Gary Allan, Rick Treviño, William Clark Green, and dozens of Texas country musicians. We sold out our past two events after cooking more than 150 pounds of meat and 100 pounds of sides for each.
Not bad for a pop-up tent.
Our brisket has been called “the ABSOLUTE best I’ve ever had.” We make our own sausages. We continue to expand our menu.
I’m quickly realizing that we’re outgrowing that pop-up tent that’s carried us so far. Eventually — sooner than later — we have to buy a food trailer to continue our growth.
It’s wild looking back at where we started and seeing where we are now. The work is still exhausting. There are still many late nights and early mornings. The Texas summers are exacerbated when standing next to the firebox. But there’s nothing like seeing a person’s face light up as they bite into a slice of our Texas-style brisket.
Recently, a man shook my hand the other day after I catered his family’s birthday party. He looked me in the eye and with a firm handshake he said, “We planned for everything for this party, but if the food wasn’t great, the party would have been ruined.
“Your barbecue is some of the best I’ve ever had. Y’all are masters of your craft.”