Aaron Franklin [Photo: Jasmin Sun]
Over the last year, Aaron Franklin's eponymous barbecue spot in Austin, Texas has experienced a relentless flow of business, with people consistently lining up for hours to have some of the pitmaster's brisket. It first picked up when Andrew Knowlton declared it the best barbecue in the nation, but stops by Bourdain and pretty much everyone else have kept the place slammed. In the following interview, his second with this site (see the first), Franklin gives an update on his business and explains how the addition of a new smokehouse will make things easier for the operation. And allow them to do even more business.
What's been going on?
Well, we continue working pretty hard at barbecue! There's definitely that. But there are a few things: we're going to do a pretty sizable addition to the barbecue place and the cooking space, building and adding smokers. I've got a welding shop I've been working out of. In between all of this, I've been shooting Barbecue Pitmasters, which I'm currently shooting in Atlanta.
Tell me about the changes to the space.
I'm thinking it'll happen in about a month. We're going to build an actual smokehouse in the back part of the kitchen. We're going to add a walk-in cooler so we can order a lot, a lot more food. We're going to be able to cook a lot more food. There's also a window near the kitchen which I hope will shorten the line a little. The goal is to have two lines at some point.
So about a month from now?
Yeah. More likely, two months.
This means more staff?
Yes. We're probably going to have two more people prepping, two people working the middle position, two registers, and then one or two more line people in the kitchen.
Are you at all fearful that this might be an adjustment that will affect the food? You've always emphasized consistency...
We'll have the same kitchen people, so I don't think so. Actually, it should ideally make the food better. Right now, the problem is that we have to get the briskets off the smokers so we can cook a ton of ribs. The smokers are so crowded that it affects the food and the process. They don't cook the same way when there's so much meat on them. Now, we're going to have a lot more cookers and a lot more convection. I think everything will get better.
Did it ever get to a point where the limitations affect the food, considering how much business you've been slammed with this year?
No, it's not. The finished product never changed. It was just the amount of labor. How hard we've worked to keep the food the same has definitely increased is the thing. Right now we work twenty-two hours a day to make it happen. It shouldn't be that way.
Do you think you can handle having even more people coming in on a daily basis?
I think we could do a lot more. If we could be a little more lenient and not have to cut things off, there would be a lot more happy people and a lot more business. There will be more people I'm guessing with this change.
How much more do you think you could handle?
Maybe a 20% to 30% increase. Right now we're doing about 1,400 pounds on a Saturday, which is just killing us.
It's just a constant battle to account for all of these variables: wind, climate, wood, meat fluctuations, fat content, all these different things. How do you make it turn out the same when you never have the same thing starting out?
You're probably going to say no, but do you ever think about tweaking the flavor or changing things up?
I think we're pretty satisfied with the way it is. Like I say, the biggest goal is to make it the same. It's not like we have a restaurant where we can go foraging or get different products. We're pretty much stuck doing the same menu items all the time. We can't really change it up. I think that's the key.
You've described how there is beauty to that process, but does it ever get monotonous or boring?
I think it does maybe get a little monotonous, but the challenge of keeping it the same does make it exciting and does somewhat break up the monotony. I foresee us using the extra room and the smokehouse doing a few new things. There's just no room at the moment.
What would you like to start doing?
I'd love to do beef ribs, whole pork chops, ribeyes. It's just the idea of saying, "Hey, we've never done this before. Why not try?"
But I'm still a pitmaster and not a chef. I deal with huge pieces of meats and try to cook them well. Chefs, for the most part, have it so that the whole world is theirs. In what I do, there are just a few things: there is a fire somewhere, and there is meat somewhere. It's more about how you are going to cook it and deal with the elements, as opposed to messing around with it too much.
Briefly, how has it been going with Barbecue Pitmasters, the show on TLC, and why'd you decide to do it? You make it a point to slice everyone's brisket at the restaurant, and this sounds like an added challenge.
There aren't many shows that really emphasize barbecue. They're more about grilling. I've been watching this show since it's first season, so when they called me to judge it, I said yes immediately. It was a no-brainer.
It hasn't really changed anything. I have to travel a little bit more than usual, but all in all it's been fine. We've all become friends, so it's kind of like a vacation. It just so happens that it airs on television.
Something I didn't ask you about last time: what do you think of people that — either playfully or quite seriously — are dogmatic about barbecue and say that their method or style is superior to another?
I think all of that is kind of silly. There are some people that are nostalgic and grew up eating something a certain way, so that's how they want to continue to do it. But the way I see it, it's more about the idea that barbecue is about having a fire somewhere and working with it to make something clean, something dirty, or whatever you want. There isn't really smart barbecue or dumb barbecue. I think it's a community kind of food, since you want to share it and you're busting your ass to make it right. Then you share a few beers while you eat it.
You're adding on to the space and planning on doing more business. Is it still the case, though, that you would never open up another place?
There is no way in hell. That barbecue place is our baby. We're not adding any seating. It's always going to be that way. It's always going to be a challenge, I can tell you that. I don't think it's going to get too old.