Aaron Franklin on Barbecue, a New Expansion and Those Long Lines
People stand in line for up to five hours to eat at Franklin Barbecue. The Austin restaurant, run by Aaron Franklin and his wife Stacey, has earned national praise for serving slow-smoked Central Texas barbecue within the Austin city limits.
Franklin Barbecue has been closed for the past couple of weeks for an expansion that includes a new smokehouse. It is scheduled to reopen Tuesday, July 8. Aaron Franklin swung by the KUT studios to talk about it. You can read the interview below or listen to it here.
KUT: You are expanding?
Aaron Franklin: Yes, it's true! The grand expansion is finally happening.
KUT: What are you doing?
Franklin: After three years of being in the building and cooking in the rain, and cooking in the wind, and cooking out of trailers out in the open, and lugging 4,000 or so pounds of meat up and down stairs, we're building a smokehouse with a real live roof.
KUT: What does that mean for the average consumer who has to wait five hours in line on a Saturday morning to taste your brisket?
Franklin: I don't know what it's going to mean in the immediate future, but eventually it should mean that we have a to-go window. We might reopen our old trailer to have a second line going. It will help capacity a little bit, but what it's really going to do is make things a lot easier for us.
It should make the food a lot better, too, because it's going to take out huge variables that we already have with the wind and the elements and all that kind of stuff.
I think it's just going to make us where we won't crumble in poor health in the next couple of years. It should really brighten the picture for us a lot.
KUT: How hard has it been dealing with this intense demand for your product with the facility that you have?
Franklin: It's been interesting. The building we're in, I don't think, was ever intended for the kind of punishment we're putting it through. It's kind of crumbling beneath us as we speak. But you never know what's really going to happen. You just open up something or do something you feel passionate about and just hope for the best.
We've been super duper lucky — probably the luckiest people in the whole world — because the demand is way out of control.
I guess we just kind of keep trying to fix things when we can. We cook 24 hours a day, so it's not like we have a lot of down-time to do maintenance and things. We just try and squeeze it in when we can, and that's why we have to close for a couple of weeks.
KUT: Why don't you charge more for it if there's this huge demand?
Franklin: Because it just wouldn't be fair. It's not worth that much. It's barbecue, and barbecue is kind of expensive anyways, especially with beef prices the way they are right now.
We don't use commodity meats. We use really, really nice stuff to begin with. It's all-natural and ethically raised and everything.
I feel that we're charging as much as we can, and that doesn't mean that it doesn't cost us an arm and a leg to produce that, but it's just not worth any more. I would feel guilty charging somebody more than we do.
KUT: I checked the USDA's beef price report the past couple of months and it has been at record highs.
Franklin: It's insane.
KUT: How does that affect someone who specializes in selling beef?
Franklin: Affect someone that sells beef and only beef? There's no composed dishes here. It's like, "I want four pounds of this." That's what you get.
It's expensive. It's really, really expensive. Food costs on brisket especially are probably in the 60 percent range and that's ridiculous in any restaurant.
Again, you don't want to charge too much. You don't want to charge too little. But you have to have it and I'm not willing to compromise the quality of our meats just to make more money or save a buck or two. So, it is what it is. We just keep going and do the best we can.
KUT: You could be a multi-millionaire tomorrow if you were to just franchise the Franklin Barbecue name. You could have a Franklin Barbecue in every airport across America. Why not cash in while you can?
Franklin: Why would we? That's our baby. We've worked so hard for it. We have such awesome people that work there and run the place. It's just not cool. That's not how we roll.
We're a small, ma-and-pa kind of business. We're pretty much just shopkeepers over there — nothing special, nothing fancy, not trying to be anything we're not — just make barbecue and that's what that is. Not looking for anything…you know…don't want to be a sell out or anything.
KUT: This started as a passion, as a hobby for you, right?
Franklin: Oh, for sure. My wife would have backyard barbecues for, God, we did maybe one or two a year for probably, it came close to ten years before we just kind of built the trailer in our backyard and opened up.
I was the only one working there. My wife would help me on the weekend. She kept her job to pay our bills. You know, just got busier and busier, and now it is what it is.
KUT: What makes your barbecue so special? It used to be for years people had the Salt Lick [in Driftwood], you had the guys out in Lockhart, but you've kind of turned it to where Austin is now a barbecue destination, [within] city limits. What did you do?
Franklin: I don't know. I have some ideas, perhaps. I think really what it comes down to is just: What are you going to put into it?
You're only going to get out of it whatever you put into it, if that's a 24-hour workday, if it's doing whatever it takes to make it turn out as good as you possibly can, if it's not taking shortcuts.
"Oh, we're going to get this gas-fired rotisserie and go home at night," [then] it might suffer a little bit. You really are going to get out of it what you put into it.
We put everything we've got into it and, hopefully, that's what makes it good. I wouldn't say it's the best or anything. There's a wide range of barbecue out there, so we're lucky to be up in the mix somewhere.
KUT: But you do brisket. You smoke it for 24 hours, right?
Franklin: Well, the briskets go for probably 15 to 18 hours, and it depends on the weather. It depends on... Meat fluctuates. If it's fattier, if it's thicker, if the briskets are bigger, if they're smaller — we don't have growth hormones, so they're kind of all over the place — size-wise they vary quite a bit.
If it's raining outside, if the wood's kind of green, what the airflow's like — all that kind of stuff. If a smoker is overcrowded, then it cooks a little bit slower. If it's got a lot of room for airflow, then it cooks a lot faster. So, on average, it's probably about 15 hours for a brisket.
We allot 18 hours a day for brisket and six hours for ribs, but it tends to be more like seven hours for ribs.
KUT: Since you opened your brick-and-mortar place and gained national accolades, other Austin barbecue joints, trailers in the city limits have been coming up on their own. Some of them have had cooks that worked in your kitchen. How do you feel about the increased competition in the city limits now — people who are making barbecue that, critics say, could standup to Aaron Franklin's barbecue.
Franklin: Oh, I think it's great. I think there's plenty of people around to eat barbecue. There's plenty of room for good barbecue.
I think it's sad that we haven't had good barbecue for a long, long time. But, now that there's great barbecue everywhere, that's awesome.
KUT: So you welcome the competition?
Franklin: Sure! I don't think of it as competition. If somebody's willing to put that much time and effort into it, I totally respect that. More power to you.
KUT: Now, how long are the lines getting these days? I heard one report on a Saturday, some friends of mine went and they waited about five hours. I know everybody asks you about the lines, but I've got to ask you about the lines.
Franklin: Gosh, those lines! [laughs]
KUT: Have you waited in a line for anything in five hours? Would you?
Franklin: Yeah, I probably have, and I would. You know, I've waited in line for barbecue — not at our place, of course, because if I'm out in line, something's wrong.
I think five hours is an awfully long time to wait. Part of the addition also is to try and make that wait time shorter. If we can have two lines, then we can split up and not have people waiting.
But on the other hand you can't tell people to go home if they're showing up at five in the morning, or six in the morning or seven in the morning. It's like, "Hey, you should go home, go take a nap," [and they say] "Oh, we're not from here," and you say "Go sleep in your car and I'll wake you up," and they're like, "Nope, I'm going to be first."
Everybody's trying to one-up each other, and I don't even know if it's about barbecue anymore. I think people just like to hang out. I mean, we are in Austin.
KUT: There's a kind of a tailgating atmosphere. People bring chairs and drinks and breakfast tacos.
Franklin: It's totally turned into that. People are throwing the football around. Dogs catching Frisbees. It's kind of a cool scene out there. I think people have a really good time.
Although, I feel bad that they wait that long. But if you don't open till 11 and they're showing up at six, what do you do?
KUT: I don't think it's a bad thing [to have that kind of line] if you're running a business, right?
Franklin: I just feel a little guilty for people. It's hot out there sometimes. Sometimes it's cold, although not very often.
KUT: You're educating people about how to make the best barbecue they can with KLRU. You've got this new show going on.
Franklin: Yeah! Last year with KLRU, we ended up doing these little YouTube videos. Which kind of started off, like, people email us all the time to buy whole briskets, and I'd give them tutorials on how to cut it, or I'd draw it out on a piece of paper and give it to them.
Stacey was like, "Man, we should do a YouTube video, so we could just email them a link." I'm like, "That's a great idea." Then we kind of forgot about it.
We were at KLRU doing a little pledge drive thing one night and Stacey mentioned it them, and they got really excited about it. "Okay, let's do these little YouTube videos."
And I'll be darned, people watched them, and people really liked them, so we're turning it into a real show. We're shooting it right now. It's ten episodes, and it's going to start airing, I believe on national distribution with PBS on January 2015.
KUT: I watched those YouTube videos. They were very informative. It helped me appreciate how many variables there are in doing what you do. Is it going to be the same thing, or are you going to be visiting other places? Can you give me a preview?
Franklin: A little bit of both. It's definitely an extension of the YouTube series. For each TV show we do, we also have a web episode that goes with it. The web will get the more detailed kind of stuff, some other little outside tips and stuff like that.
There's a little bit of travel. In one episode we cook a whole hog. There's a lot of stuff on going out to the forest and looking at trees and figuring out what wood to use. There's a lot of stuff on cookers. There's some stuff on welding. There's some stuff on building your own cookers.
A lot of brisket stuff. A lot of butchering. Lots of going out to ranches and picking animals, stuff like that. It's very PBS-y.
KUT: When you're traveling, do you have to try barbeque in areas that are famous for their barbeque?
Franklin: It depends on where and who it is. I'm not going to just go out and try barbeque just to try barbeque, because I'm a little tired of barbeque to be honest.
But if I'm in a place that's known for like, "Oh this guy makes whole hog. He's this super famous guy." Or like, "I've heard of this guy. I know who he is." If it's something that seems special, then I am totally on it.
KUT: You do get sick of eating barbeque, though?
Franklin: Well, I'm a borderline vegan right now.
Franklin: No, no, I'm totally kidding. I don't eat a lot. I taste stuff at work constantly. Everyday, I take a bite of this or make a little sausage wrap. But to actually hunker down with a tray of meat, it doesn't happen so much.
KUT: Are you going to start making your own sausage?
Franklin: Yeah, we are. That's part of the new addition also is to make a little bit of room in the existing kitchen to start making our sausage in house.
We've never gotten to make it, because we just don't have the room or the time. We work 24 hours a day back there and just can't squeeze anymore out of it, but this addition is going to help.
KUT: Will it be a similar recipe to what people are used to?
Franklin: Yeah, it will be very similar to what we're doing. Maybe a little bit different. The stuff that we get now is pretty much our recipe and it's just made for us. I've been working on some sausage recipes lately.
I think it will be a lot of fun, because then we can do some fun stuff, throw out some special sausages randomly. That stuff can fluctuate if we get more rib trimmings, or see what we have in house and make sausage with it. The way it's supposed to be.
KUT: You've had a lot of fame, really, from your success with barbeque. You must get all sorts of offers from people now to do stuff.
Franklin: I don't know. That "F Word" is a little scary. But we get emails for things, and people asking a lot of things. Some of them are pretty ridiculous. We're just interested in running our little restaurant. That's pretty much it.
Franklin: No comment. We don't really say yes to much. Just a couple things, like Anthony Bourdain's show of course. That guy's awesome. So we're like, "Yeah, please that would be great."
For the most part, we're not out there looking for anything. When people ask for things, we just kindly decline the offer and be like, "No, we've got enough."
Because we really can't. I mean what's it going to do? Make the line six hours? We're already at capacity. Being on some TV show is not going to help us a whole lot, although it may be cool if it's someone we look up to or some show that we're excited about. But just to be on something to be on something? Meh.
Franklin Barbecue re-opens Tuesday, July 8 at 11 a.m.