Feature

Scrubbing Out Austin’s BBQ Growth?

A Resolution Substitution

by Daniel Vaughn · March 31, 2015

If you live on the outskirts of Austin, your suburb might be the new target for barbecue joints looking to open in Travis County. That is if prospective restaurateurs see a new resolution from the Austin City Council as too onerous. It requires that barbecue smokers (and other wood-fired cooking devices) be placed at least 100 feet from adjacent residential property lines, or that they “mitigate the impact of smoke emissions” on their neighbors.

Aaron Franklin, the owner of the enormously popular Franklin Barbecue, is usually reserved in his comments when it comes to politics, but a previous version of the resolution struck a chord for the restaurateur. Early on Monday, before the resolution was revised, he minced no words when he told Eater Austin, “If this resolution passes, we would be forced to close or move. It would destroy Austin barbecue.” Then he went to work—but not at his restaurant. Franklin spent most of Monday lobbying city council members and the mayor at City Hall.

Austin has been making headlines for the past several years for its burgeoning barbecue scene. Most recently, national media couldn’t get enough of the newly minted barbecue capital during SXSW, with Bon Appétit producing a list of the best barbecue in town, and Jimmy Kimmel, who filmed his late night talk show in Austin during the festival, turning to “Franklin’s [sic] Barbecue” for his first joke of the week. Austin has become so synonymous with barbecue that when global manufacturing giant GE wanted to make an impact during SXSW, they built and experimental Super Smoker. And in a move that, ahem, could bite the hand that feeds this craze, the council will be seeking limitations on how barbecue joints prepare what is quickly becoming the city’s most famous cuisine.

If the resolution strikes you as a bit meddlesome, you wouldn’t be the only one who thinks so. Travel forty miles southwest of Austin to Lockhart, where four barbecue restaurants are clustered in the small town of just over 13,000, and you’ll find that Black’s Barbecue on Main Street is surrounded by single family homes on the same block. They’ve been smoking meats there since 1932, and manager Kent Black says he doesn’t remember any complaints about barbecue smoke. It only took Austin about six years of sustained barbecue growth for the city to turn on one of its current cash cows.

It all began with a bit of unfortunate topography. The homes along Daniel Drive in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood sit a good ten feet above the adjacent Barton Springs Road. That’s where Terry Black’s Barbecue opened last June with their wood burning smokers. The top of the smokestacks are right at the level of the back porches behind them, and given the proximity, it didn’t take long for residents to notice the new billows. By August the issue was already mentioned in meeting minutes of the neighborhood association. The neighborhood association was trying to negotiate directly with Terry Black’s Barbecue to address the smoke issue, but, according to Daniel Drive resident Guy Watts, it all became public when a reporter came knocking on his door. To be clear, Watts says neither he nor his neighborhood association initiated the pending council resolution, but more on that later.

This led to another local news spot—a January 18 story in the Austin American-Statesman (paywalled)—and by this time, it seemed the neighborhood and Terry Black’s were headed toward a mutually agreed upon resolution. But the proposed solutions still had problems. First the restaurant said it would employ a bank of fans to blow the smoke in the other direction; the neighborhood didn’t like the trade-off of air pollution to noise pollution. The neighborhood then in turn asked for “smoke scrubbers” to be installed; the hefty price tag for those scrubbers (they can top out at $70,000) seemed to be an excessively costly requirement for barbecue joints. I reached out to Michael and Mark Black for their take on the negotiations, but they didn’t feel comfortable providing any comment.

Watts may be at wit’s end, but he agrees that the Bouldin Creek situation is unique, and it doesn’t translate directly to the experience of neighborhoods near other local barbecue joints. “I think you can differentiate what Terry Black’s is doing with Franklin or La Barbecue, both in terms of residential proximity, but also in terms of the amount of wood being smoked.” Terry Black’s is open every day of the week and serves both lunch and dinner. The amount of wood they go through is simply going to be greater.

But given that the city has now intervened, this hyper-local issue could potentially affect businesses citywide.  The resolution came from Eduardo “Pio” Renteria from District 3. His district doesn’t encompass Terry Black’s, so the complaints he heard were directed at a different target: La Barbecue. “My constituents on 2nd Street [behind La Barbecue] are so fed up they’re talking about selling their houses,” he told me in a phone conversation. It was those complaints that led to his first resolution draft that required “smoke scrubbers” for restaurants that use wood for cooking. After Renteria’s conversation with Aaron Franklin at City Hall, that language has been eliminated. “When we started doing more research into it we found out the scrubbers are very expensive, and sometimes they have a negative effect on the quality of how the meat gets cooked.”

Smoke Scrubber

Language of the old resolution before it was revised on Tuesday morning

Smoke Scrubber Revised

Resolution as revised on Tuesday

 

To get some idea of the cost of the previously proposed smoke scrubbers, I reached out to a business with close ties to Texas in one of the few cities that require this type of pollution control: New York City. Mark Glosserman who runs Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York and DC gave me the raw numbers for their latest location in Brooklyn. “For new restaurants we budget around $60,000-$75,000 for smoke control units.  We have two units…to handle our smoke capacity and for redundancy. This includes the unit itself plus installation labor.” That’s almost $38,000 per unit. Then he pays an additional $13,200 per year for maintenance. That’s right, just a single “smoke scrubber” at Hill Country costs more than most commercial smokers on the market.

Another potential solution could be a smaller Smog Hog unit. I spoke with John Milius of United Air Specialists who is a product rep for Smog Hog. He said the big roof-mounted units like what they use at Hill Country are made for large operators in a downtown area. Milius surmised that a smaller model like their new MSH-11 would be more applicable to a single-smoker food trailer and estimated that it would run closer to $4500-$5000 per unit. That’s not exactly pocket change, and could still cripple a small, independent barbecue joint. This is why Renteria is now emphasizing the new recommendation of moving the problem away from surrounding homes. As long as the smoker exhaust is 100 feet from the nearest residential property line, the restaurant would be considered in compliance with city code. That will come as a relief to any barbecue joint with the freedom to move their smoker, and will likely prompt the folks at Terry Black’s to get out their measuring tape.

For all those who see Renteria as a villain against the barbecue community, I’d say he was simply responding to the complaints of residents that he represents. The hastily drawn up resolution that resulted was troublesome, but the rework is an improvement. That doesn’t mean the new rules won’t have an affect on the continued growth of barbecue in Austin, a city that has embraced food trucks (remember that’s where Franklin Barbecue started) like none other. That acceptance has helped build a diverse food community by lowering the barriers for entry into the restaurant business. With passage of the resolution, that barrier would be raised a little higher for new restaurateurs who want to deal in smoked meat.

Just to be sure, I did have to ask Renteria if he liked barbecue. “I have nothing against barbecue. I eat it at least once a week.” He also said the comments on both sides of the issues are welcome before or during Thursday’s city council meeting. “We want as much input from the stakeholders as we can get.” At the end of our conversation I asked Renteria if he’d considered that his legacy could have been the man that killed barbecue in Austin. “Yeah” he said, followed by a reflective pause. “Yeah.”

 

It should also be noted that while Councilman Renteria initiated the resolution, two other council members, Greg Casar and Kathie Tovo, along with Mayor Steve Adler have co-signed it. The amended resolution will be up for discussion at this Thursday’s City Council meeting.

Comments

18 Comments

    Cuatro says:

    This is what happens when you have a council member that has a beef with a local business in his district… and entire city-wide industry becomes affected.

    john says:

    Seems like this should apply to every fireplace in the city also.

    Jake Horton says:

    Typical Bouldin Creek reporting they aren’t behind this. Check the news, they have called every local news station and even radio stations. Don’t blame LA BBQ residents only. This whole thing is ridiculous. Expecting a legally run business to fork out thousands and thousands of dollars is not a compromise. It’s a crime. Expecting no smoke from a bbq restaurant is also unreasonable, bouldin creek. That spot was zoned commercial in the 40s, long before those homes were built. The state also came out to both la bbq and Terry Black’s twice and both received “no violation” as the verdict. Please be more responsible home owners in owning up to your whining and to not buying a home right next to a commercial building. You are attempting to kill Austin bbq.

      Jake, you are the one who is whining. No one is trying to kill your barbecue, for crying out loud. We are trying to stop irresponsible barbecue businesses from killing us — longtime citizens and residents of a neighbor we truly love.

      For the sake of perspective, I have lived on Daniel Drive in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood for 35 years. My house has been here since 1942, as are the bungalows of a number of my longtime neighbors. Terry Black’s BBQ, on the other hand, has been here more or less six months and opened their operation with no forethought or regard (take your pick) of the toxic woodsmoke they dump 24/7 directly into the homes on a bluff approximately 100 feet away. (For the record, the original Black’s Barbecue in downtown Lockhart is NOT near residential properties and also cooks with gas, as do a number of other well-known barbecue joints.)

      Furthermore, unlike you, I have done some homework on the health effects of large particle wood smoke, even as my neighbors are seeking medical help with the lingering respiratory ailments. One longtime friend and neighbor, a well-known artist-writer in his late 60s, has developed a hacking cough and lung congestion, though he has never smoked cigarettes a day in his life. Another, also a non-smoker, has experienced recurring respiratory infections requiring frequent doctor visits. We have several young children on our street, and Terry Black’s wood smoke blows directly into our backdoors and windows. To bring yourself up to speed on wood smoke health issues — especially for the young and the old — visit the Environmental and Human Health, Inc., website and then read this EPA report .

      Ribs and brisket are NOT more important than health. Shame on you if you really think they do.

        Jake Horton says:

        James,

        Excuse me. My whining comes from being a business owner. I know the struggle of opening my own business and the struggles of a new business. While I sympathize that you are claiming you are having health issues due to bbq smoke I have to call bs. Please have a medical doctor prove that bbq smoke has made these people ill. allergies? I’m sure those exist in Austin. Also- I’ve been to Terry Black’s twice and these “billows of smoke” you speak of are truly far and few between. Yes there is visible smoke however it is nowhere what you are describing. I’ve also been to la bbq and I find small amounts of smoke there as well. Which brings me to Black’s in Lockhart. Unfortunately your research is wrong because there is defiantly residential right next to Black’s. Please refer to article above if you do not agree. Or Google maps. Both work well. I’d also like to say, yes you have been there for years. That also has been zoned commercial for years. All permits were approved. They are breaking no laws. So while I sympathize that you smell bbq smoke I sympathize more for the poor Black family who did everything they were supposed to ( excuse them for the forethought of opening a legal business) and have to deal with Bouldin Creek. Maybe you guys have gotten so used to failed restaurants in that location you forgot what any kind of restaurant smells like on the outside. I have read you guys are in “legal talks”.. Throwing your money and name around much? How about you guys pitch in some of this money and pay for half of their 100,000 (yes 30,000 a smoke scrubber per pit) and hope that it doesn’t run their quality of meat into the ground. They clearly have been trying to work with you neighbors by suggesting fans but oh wait.. That is not good enough for Bouldin Creek. Sorry. I don’t feel bad for you. If they were purposely trying to harm you I could see all this fuss. A perfectly legal business (la BBQ and tblacks) being attacked? No thanks. And for the record before I bought my home I made sure that no zoned commercial was next door.

        Shelby Hodges says:

        Hi James,

        I am a student journalist over at UT and I am currently writing a story about this issue. I have been having a hard time getting a resident’s point of view but it sounds like you are dealing with it first hand. Is there anyway you would be willing to do an interview??

        -Shelby (shelbylh13@gmail.com)

        Jeffrey says:

        “toxic woodsmoke”

        Why do you live in Texas?

    Frank says:

    Could this be what happens when someone has too much time on their hands on April 1st?

    Brad says:

    Bouldin is not behind this ordinance and anyone who says otherwise is mistaken, nor did the neighborhood association seek out the media. Had they, it still would have been their right just as TM , Eater, and others give voice to restaurant owners. Residential and commercial have to coexist on hundreds of issues and that requires frequent compromise by all parties. Further the Bouldin neighborhood and residential use predates commercial use and commercial zoning by decades, including in the vicinity of Black’s. Neither property rights or urban principals give one party or the other the right to destroy the other’s property, value, and quality of life which is what is happening despite being unintentional.

    Larry Williams says:

    I warned y’all about letting to many Californians move to Texas.

    billy says:

    imagine having a cord of wood burning beside your home, 24/7, forever. this is the reality these residents are working with.

    claiming bouldin residents are nimby when you’re not subject to the problem is beyond cynical.

    try for once to understand people have rights and they’re being infringed upon.

      J Horton says:

      Yes, people have rights. The people who own perfectly legal businesses have rights as well. There needs to be a compromise on BOTH ends. Bouldin Creek neighbors rejected fans proposed by TBlack’s and then decide they want the most expensive fix possible at the snap of their fingers. Which is why they are in “legal talks”. Its ridiculous. If you want to propose expensive solutions get ready to pay up. If not, you have to compromise. Again, no laws are being broken. They are in no violation with the state. hmmm..

    Joe Ortiz says:

    Wow a whole city banned from BBQ’n!! This is Texas, we BBQ!! Sale your house, move, plenty of space for relocation.

    dwight says:

    Who says Austin has the best bbq anyways? I support home owners on their rights to fresh air. I love bbq, but would I want to smell it 24/7? Heck no, its like sitting next to a hookah lounge.

    Tom Davis says:

    franklins can afford to pay and install a smoke scrubber. His new bbq book come out in three days. So he will have plenty of money to install a smoke scrubber from his book sales and over priced bbq. LA bbq has plenty of money as well to install one. They’re not hurting for money. They both can afford it.

    Tatoosh says:

    I feel for both sides on this one, but ultimately, if the restaurant was there and is doing it right and not trying to lay down a smoke screen like destroyer in battle, then the residents really need to get over it.

    Whether it is finding out that farms can be smelly or a restaurant makes smoke, that is part of living in the world. I have COPD and hey, if I move in a neighborhood, I need to do some homework about what that neighborhood is like and if there is some sort of problem that I would have a problem dealing with.

    That said, BBQ is rarely gonna be a problem in my book. Even with COPD/Asthma – I smoke meat regularly, make my own bacon, cure and smoke various cuts of pork regularly. But I wear a filter mask and have my little oxygen supply. I’m pretty sure if I can deal with it, someone with a good set of lungs can too.

    Sgram says:

    There are some folks who seem to have a firm grasp on what businesses can afford to add to their manufacturing process. How is it that you know this? Did you acquire that give when you suddenly felt the planet slipping through your fingers as BBQ pitmasters toiled their trade over a BBQ pit to provide a living for their family. Franklin’s and the like are more than welcome to move their business to Houston where the populace will embrace the product and will be much less whiny pseudo-Californians….I love reading these arguments posted as if there was a plethora of logic laced in the sentences.

    John Hanson says:

    If we do not regulate smoke from bbq pits we’ll end up polluted like Los Angeles . Do you people really want to be a California ? Franklin needs to forgot about this and concentrate on running a business that is open for more than just a lunch line .

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