Last August sometime before 5:30 in the morning, an oak ember floating on hurricane winds landed on the wall behind Bethesda, a ludicrously oversized, rounded rotisserie smoker inside a smokehouse on East 11th Street in Austin.
The city was too far inland to take the full brunt of Hurricane Harvey that night, but people here will recall the fierce winds that brought bands of rain and seemed to blow trees sideways. Whipped up by gusts which often hit 40 miles an hour, the loose ember caught and smoldered.
That August 25th, Stacy and Aaron Franklin got home around 9:30 p.m. They’d been on a short vacation after closing the restaurant for a week of maintenance. Their parting message for staff was, “Don’t call us unless the place is on fire.” The next morning Aaron woke in the dark to the ring of his cell. It was 5:30 a.m. and their restaurant was burning.
He hopped in his pickup and pulled up at a red light on 12th Street and Interstate 35, a block north of the restaurant. It was raining, but from his vantage point up a slight hill he caught a glimpse. “I could see all the firetruck lights through the rain, in the sky,” Franklin says. Until that sight he had been pretty confident. He imagined he’d just grab a fire extinguisher and take care of things. The fire and the winds had other ideas. “I just pulled up and it was freaking out of control.”
The operation at Austin’s revered Franklin Barbecue, probably the most highly regarded barbecue joint in the world, is essentially two parts, a dining room in the front, and a smokehouse out back. Maybe it’s the deep lot, or its site on a slope, but the restaurant always looks a little bigger on the outside than its low ceilings feel inside. In truth, the smokehouse, first built in 2014, occupied a space almost the size of the front of house, elevated on stilts. Shaped with a tilted wall to evoke a 1970s camping trailer, it was home to five offset smokers plus Bethesda, as well as walk-in coolers on the eastern patio. Post oak wood was stored below it on the ground level, next to an industrial elevator the Franklin team used to haul the wood upstairs. In a video shot by FOX7 News, filmed before the fire department had even shown up, flames billow thickly from the smokehouse windows. Darker smoke belches from the eastern wall.
A quick-thinking cook, the only one working at the time, spotted the fire, shut the door to the prep kitchen behind him, and in the process likely saved the dining room. It still suffered smoke damage, but that was nothing compared to the smokehouse, which was essentially charred. Photos from the aftermath show the smokehouse’s big wood beams crusted in black. Metal pieces dangle and windblown debris coats the floor. Even the thick steel smokers were affected.
The August fire set a process in motion that stretched much longer than the Franklins anticipated. The restaurant — so famous for its daily line that there was actually a customer in line at 5:30 when the fire started — would end up closed for three months. A smaller operation was back up and running by late November 2017.
On a cool spring afternoon in March, it’s a very different scene. Aaron Franklin stands, unshaven in a t-shirt on the smokehouse’s side patio, as the backside of the restaurant buzzes in every direction around him. From below workers on the roof are visible through new clerestory windows, as they put on the finishing touches — including installation of the last of their offset smokers, the heart of the operation. Heavy machinery sits momentarily idle in the yard. “Just another day of the office,” Franklin says of the final puzzle pieces. He acknowledges being glad to almost have this project off his plate. “It’s exciting to see.”
Each smoker at Franklin is custom upcycled by Franklin and his crew of welders from a 1,000 gallon propane tank, married to a smaller smokebox cut from a smaller 250 gallon tank, where the fire lives. The two installed today, a couple of white tanks weighing 4,500 pounds each, were craned up and over the small patio and then wheeled on steel rollers into the smokehouse. Aaron points at one of the older tanks wearing a dark, pitted patina. “That one used to be white seven years ago,” he says. “These looked a lot different before the fire,” he deadpans a voiceover, “that changed them.”
The day after the fire — which firefighters told Franklin burned at 1,500 degrees — emails, texts and calls came in from architects and fabricators who had worked on the original smokehouse, offering their services for the rebuild. “It was kind of like the Blues Brothers,” Franklin says. “We got the band back together!” Within days, his crew cleared their schedules to help rebuild the smokehouse.
But the almost-elegant redesign of the new smokehouse has made it, by a long way, the most comfortable space of the restaurant. And it’s also made the space more fireproof, safer in the case of high winds. At least, that’s the idea. With a live fire visibly burning just past the cracked-open steel doors of the smokeboxes, how safe can you actually make this building?
Touring around the new features — designed by architect LS Johnston and general contractor Nicole Blair of Studio 512 — Franklin points to the side wall by Bethesda, still alive and smoking. In the original smokehouse, “we had no air flow over here, so it was really, really hot.” Franklin had wanted to keep the ceiling low to avoid messing up the height of smokestacks, and therefore airflow. But to mitigate the intense heat, they had to install five roof fans “that were just so loud,” he says. “You couldn’t hear the fire before.”
Inside the smokehouse there is now a steady breeze. The back firewall is painted a bright white, it feels airy and wide open. The smokeboxes emanate an intense heat, but when there’s wind, it comes in through one of the multiple windows punctured in three walls and in the (now much higher) cleverly angled ceiling. That ceiling now tilts up to the east wall, in an attempt to carry heat up, and hopefully, out. The windows, screened in with no glass, now have handsome metal shutters, designed to make each of the openings fully controllable for wind and air flow. Designed with a pulley system, the chains and the metal screens (which Aaron calls the “guillotines”) move with a surprising ease. The new sliding doors grant access to the patio and slide smoothly. Built into the wooden door as a memento mori are sections of charred wood taken from the fire.
“There was nothing about the building the first time that contributed to the fire,” Johnston says, no code that could have prevented it. But she explains the open wooden framing wasn’t exactly a help: The ember likely caught on one of these wooden studs. The firewall largely protects the restaurant, but even this new structure is essentially vulnerable. It’s not clear any design could completely nullify the fact that there are half-dozen steel fire boxes located inside a wooden room atop a concrete floor, cooking all day every day.
Franklin knew fires were always possible in any barbecue kitchen, though he expected a grease fire would be more likely. “I figured it was bound to happen one day, but I never suspected a hurricane.” With that in mind, the original design idea was to send inside air out, not keep outside air away. “It was never a design thought.”
Still, everyone seems happy with the clean new design, and with the new smokers. “I wish I could have scheduled it better,” Franklin quips.
Catching the scent of burning oak on the breeze is an elemental experience in Texas. Part of the ritual is peeking over the counter or asking for a quick tour of each joint’s smoking set up. Some are brightly lit behind glass, some are shadowy spaces out back with a thin shell of rain cover. Some are custom-built cube brick pits, and some, like Kreuz Market in Lockhart, are restaurants the size of a small stadium.
But the meat market section of Smitty’s Market, in a small room on the square in Lockhart, is the most memorable. Diners order their meat sealed away from the dining room, at the register, all while a wood fire burns literally on the floor, in a small dugout just feet behind the cashier, sending smoke up through the cubed brick smoker next to it. The wall is painted black from years of smoke.
“It’s almost something religious with that room,” Franklin says.
All the more because, according to local legend, that style of smoker is no longer permitted inside the Austin city limits, ever since a fire in 2007 at Bert’s BBQ. But as it happens, that turns out not be true. The city does have requirements about firewalls, about how to vent air and so forth, but a spokesperson for the City of Austin Fire Marshal’s Office said that materials like brick and concrete “would be ideal,” especially if there is no sprinkler system. And Franklin and most restaurant owners opt against sprinklers because they suspect the system would be triggered due to smoke several times each day.
Texas and fire do not generally go happily together. During the drought from 2010 to 2015, the state felt locked in a permanent burn ban, officials asking people not to burn brush or take up tasks like welding, cutting, or grinding, what officials call “hot work.”
As long as guidelines are followed, smoking beef and sausage gets a pass, yet by definition in Texas it involves a hardwood fire in an offset smokebox, drawing its smoke through an attached chamber, over, through, and around brisket or ribs. In a state where roadside grass fires aren’t uncommon, barbecue is hot work’s culinary cousin.
Inside the new Franklin smokehouse, Braun Hughes leads a shift change, checking temperature before they hand off tomorrow’s briskets to the evening crew. “Comin’ up!” the big-bearded Hughes calls out. “Comin’ up” a cook echoes, as they lift up the bulky iron smoker lids. A cook stabs into each brisket with an instant read thermometer, calling out numbers: “55… 54... 56.” This is the only temperature check. From now on the briskets will be checked strictly by touch every 45 minutes until they are done. Someone hollers, “Comin’ down,” and the lids drop slowly.
The crew then steps through the prep kitchen and outside, where they’re cooking the last brisket on the soon-to-be-retired smokers, which sat outside in individual screened in trailers. There’s excitement here, ready to be fully back in the new space. The cooks are called over to a more private space on the grass and afterwards, Hughes lingers nearby with a cigarette.
“I run the kitchen up here,” he says. “Aaron married my cousin, so I got roped into this.” He’s a little nostalgic about the last outside cook, about being one of a few cooks, including Franklin, to have started smoking brisket in the elements. But he also has a list of the problems: “All the other fucked-up variables out here. Temperature, rain… snow.” There’s something nice about working outside, though? I say. He nods, “Yeah, ‘till it rains. Wrapping (meat) in paper when it rains is not fun.”
Back inside, Franklin keeps a close eye on all the activity. A huge clang rings out as a group of men notch a smokestack into place with a mallet. Space is tight; workers are walking on top of the new smokers. “Why is that rocking?” Franklin calls out. The new smokers sit on a sturdy metal base, but one has found an un-level spot. Next, Stacy Franklin comes in to go over the next meat order. Things are about to change with the full smokehouse up and running. “Yeah, 72 would be max,” Aaron says. This is for ribs, and the number is good news. After the Franklins reopened the restaurant, it was smoking a (relatively light) 70 briskets a day, shutting down its pre-order barbecue service to accommodate the shortfall. Before the fire, Franklin Barbecue smoked 120 briskets a day.
Franklin poses for a photograph while some other cooks huddle nearby, tossing him suggestions. He strikes a pose with an invisible Lone Star tallboy, his beer of choice. Then Franklin happens on a pose all his own. He grins, crosses his fingers, tilts up at the sky, shuts his eyes and says, “Please don’t burn down! Please don’t burn down!”