Owner/Pitmaster: Gatlin’s BBQ; Opened 2010
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Greg Gatlin went from breaking up pass plays as a member of the Rice Owls to the world of corporate real estate, but he always knew he wanted to work in the restaurant industry. When the culinary school option evaporated, he dove into the barbecue business with his parents. Four years later, he is one of the state’s most respected pitmasters, and the popularity of his barbecue has far exceeded the size of the building that currently houses Gatlin’s BBQ.
The Gatlins would like to move the business to a bigger location, but they just haven’t found the right spot yet. It’ll come soon enough, but for now you’ll just have to wait in the line that routinely stretches out the door. It’s worth the wait.
Daniel Vaughn: You’ve got a popular restaurant in a very small building. Is the level of popularity that you’re seeing these days something that you weren’t expecting when you first opened four years ago, or was that determined by the finances of a new restaurant?
Greg Gatlin: [Laughing] I definitely wasn’t expecting this when we first got into it. The way that restaurants go in Houston, you see places come and go all the time. When we started here it was a comfortable place for us. We thought we’d be fine with that size for three or four years. That kinda went out the door after a year and a half.
DV: What was it that brought the crowds in? Was there one particular article or review?
GG: Probably the first thing was the Houston Press Best BBQ deal. Then Alison Cook came in and did a review for the Chronicle. Once that hit, people were like “If Alison Cook has given it a blessing, let’s get over there and check it out.” As time went on people looked for the consistency. I think we’ve kept our product consistent, and that has been what sustained us for the first four years.
DV: It sure keeps that line coming out the door, but then you don’t need that many people to get the line out the door, does it?
GG: I tell people that all the time. Don’t be discouraged by the line out the door, because it’s probably only eight deep inside. You gotta see how fast the line is moving.
DV: How many seats are at the restaurant?
GG: Thirty outside and eight inside.
DV: Any idea how many people you’re able to serve every day?
GG: It’s hard to gauge because you don’t know how many people are on every ticket, but we usually do 165-225 tickets per day.
DV: How many briskets does that require?
GG: We do about twenty-five briskets or three hundred pounds of it per day. On the weekends that number goes up to about forty briskets.
DV: How many smokers do you have running, or how many that the health department knows about?
GG: [Laughing] Two of them, and that’s the two they know about.
DV: Didn’t you have some problems with them early on?
GG: We did. When we started I had an extra pit at my house so if we had a lot of stuff to do, I’d use that one. I don’t use it anymore. They did ask me to close off the back area so people couldn’t walk in, but they haven’t given us any trouble.
DV: All of your barbecue is popular, but your brisket in particular gets a lot of praise. Where did you learn to smoke brisket?
GG: My dad taught us how to cook brisket, but from the time we started I’ve changed the rub and the process. There’s a lot of different things that have come into play.
DV: What made you want to open a barbecue joint?
GG: It’s just something I liked to do. It was a hobby for me. Then I was thinking about culinary school, but that went down the drain when my first daughter was born. I knew I couldn’t go to culinary school, but I wanted to do something food related. I liked barbecue, so why not?
DV: So we have your first daughter to thank for the existence of Gatlin’s BBQ?
GG: We do. I think we should all thank Reagan. “Thank you baby for being here.”
DV: Before the culinary school idea, you were at Rice University, correct?
GG: That’s right. I majored in Sports Management and Economics. When I graduated I was in benefits consulting, then I transitioned into real estate appraising. Go figure.
DV: As competitive as the barbecue culture is these days, Sports Management might not be a bad start.
GG: Tell me about it. Trying to juggle with price increases, understanding supply and demand…it’s more than being behind the pit.
DV: There’s also the issue of juggling all of the different items you’ve got cooking on that pit. Is that still a challenge?
GG: At times. We’ve thought about changing the menu, but where we are it’s necessary to have variety, We have people from all walks of life here, and they all view things a little differently.
DV: Is it fair to say that you’re trying to create a place for regulars, and not just see yourself as a destination?
GG: It’s hard to frame yourself as just a destination place being in the middle of Houston. It’s like if you look at Justin at Pecan Lodge, he’s got some of the same variety that we have on his menu because he’s in the city.
DV: Have you eaten at Pecan Lodge?
GG: Yeah. I was there for a catering job. I went to Justin’s place the night before and ate at his restaurant. He let us use the kitchen to cut up some brisket for the job we were doing. His guys were really helpful.
DV: Do you travel around eating any other barbecue?
GG: I have not gotten around. I told my dad that we need to plan a trip. I want to go meet everybody. It’s good for people to know each other.
DV: Right now you’ve still got plenty of family involvement in the restaurant. What did the team look like when you opened up?
GG: It was myself, my mom, my dad, and a young lady named Austin. Just the four of us. I laugh when I think about how in the heck we were doing it. We just all wore a bunch of hats.
DV: Are there any hats that you’re glad to be rid of?
GG: Washing the dishes, mopping the floor, washing the pit…
DV: What size is your staff these days?
GG: We’ve got sixteen if you count full time, part time, and catering. But with the growth of the business, it still feels like we’re running around with our head cut off. Sometimes.
DV: I guess you probably have to do more management than just cooking.
GG: Yes. Dad and I, we’ve got to cook and we’ve got to manage inventory and everything.
DV: You’ve been cooking with your dad since you opened. Is that a difficult conversation to tell dad that you might want to change some recipes?
GG: What’s funny is that we don’t cook now like we did when we were young. He’s like “I don’t care what you do, just make it taste good.” I’ll bring him stuff to taste and he’ll tell me if it’s okay. I don’t want to get too far out of the box. I think we’ve got a good balance of old school and new school going on.
DV: What style of barbecue do you consider Gatlin’s?
GG: It’s kinda East Texas mixed in with some Central Texas stuff. We try to gauge what our customer base likes, and what we can introduce them to that’s new. You just have to be bold enough to try some new things.
DV: Shouldn’t your folks be retired and enjoying themselves on a front porch somewhere?
GG: That’s what I tell them. I say “just come in three or four hours a day and say hello to everyone.” I don’t want them to feel like they’re obligated to be here all the time. I think my dad got it, but my mom has a different attachment to it.
DV: Have you thought about expanding?
GG: I have. What I want to avoid is expanding to the wrong place or the wrong space. You don’t want to lose the feel or the atmosphere. We haven’t jumped on the first thing we saw. The neighborhood around the Heights has really embraced us.
DV: When you started in 2010, there weren’t a whole lot of great options for barbecue in Houston, but that’s changing quickly.
GG: Exactly. There are more options, which is why we want to be careful about moving. If you start to lose your quality there are plenty of other places to go.
DV: What’s your daily routine look like?
GG: Dad and I get to the shop for 5:30 and we take off the briskets. We drop on the ribs, rib tips and turkey. We’ll go inside to the kitchen set up for the morning crew, then take inventory for our daily runs to the store and conversations with vendors.
DV: When do you get to leave?
GG: We get out of there around 9:00 during the week. We don’t normally have a total sell out. On Friday we might sell out by 4:00 and Saturday is a beast. It might be gone by 2:30.
DV: The ribs on the menu can be hard to come by. I’ve heard from some folks who don’t believe they’re ever on the menu.
GG: Those things…It’s a fine line about how much you’re going to cook. I don’t want to serve somebody a rib that I cooked yesterday. It’s not the same rib. Anyway, it helps you open your barbecue horizons so you can experience something else.
DV: So when you run out of an item, it’s not so much a problem as it is an opportunity for your customers?
GG: Right. You try to tactfully tell people that it’s not the end of the world just because we ran out of ribs.
DV: Whose recipe is the dirty rice?
GG: That’s all mom. It’s just something that we like to eat. It’s not that it necessarily goes with barbecue, but we like it.
DV: I found that dirty rice in an odd place last time I was there – in a sandwich.
GG: That’s the Kitchen Sink. It’s got dirty rice, sliced brisket, homemade spicy sausage, grilled jalapenos and onions, cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce. Top it off with a bun and figure out if you can eat it all.
DV: In many of these interviews I’m talking to seasoned pitmasters, but you’re very new to the game.
GG: It’s kinda weird. I was watching this show the other day with all these barbecue places in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. These places had been there for years. I was hoping that we could be here for half that amount of time.
DV: Barbecue years can be like dog years. How much longer do you think you’ve got as this pace?
GG: I don’t know, but we’ll find out. We’ve been blessed, so I think we’ll be around for a while.