Editor's note: In this exclusive new CultureMap series, contributor Tyler Pratt spends the evening getting to know some of Austin's biggest personalities. We kick things off with Austin's barbecue master — and beer connoisseur — Aaron Franklin.
You know Aaron Franklin. You’ve stood in his barbecue line for hours or been lucky enough to have a friend bring it to you. (Maybe he’s even personally sliced up the mouth-watering brisket after the long wait, throwing in some bonus fatty cuts with a wink.) No doubt you’ve read about him in any one of countless publications or seen his signature horn-rimmed glasses and giant grin on TV. At the very least, you’ve heard of him. He’s 36-years-old, already an Austin legend, and he makes some of the best damn barbecue in Texas.
But this isn’t a story about the merits of Franklin’s brisket or a claim that his restaurant serves the best barbecue ever. This is just about beers on one of those amazing Austin evenings where the weather is perfect, the mosquitoes aren’t too aggressive and you fall in love with the city all over again.
The Draught House
Franklin and I are sitting on the tailgate of his beast of a truck in the parking lot of The Draught House in Rosedale drinking Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap. “I’m in the habit of drinking local beers — got to keep it local,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve bought a beer from the store that wasn’t made in Austin in probably a couple of years.”
Franklin loves beer. He’s well-versed in Austin’s brew scene and used to spend his afternoons grabbing drinks and eats with friends and enjoying a variety of Austin establishments. But with a restaurant that keeps him working seven days a week; a 1 am wake-up time; and his first child, daughter Vivian; he keeps busy to say the least. Still, he jumped at the opportunity to hang out over beers and show me a few of his favorite haunts. During the evening, Franklin barely stops smiling. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, he’s affable, quick to laugh and even faster with a joke. And there's never a lag in the conversation.
“It was fun sitting around a fire, it was kind of nostalgic. It reminded me of being a kid down at my parents’ place, poking at the fire — it smelled the same.”
Franklin grew up an only child in Bryan, Texas. His parents owned a barbecue restaurant called Ben’s BBQ where worked as a kid, and (no surprise here), he loved it. “What 10-year-old kiddo wouldn’t love poking around fires and stuff?” he says. “It’s cool! I would work lunches and then just sit at the end of the bar watching M.A.S.H. Yeah, I don’t like M.A.S.H. very much, but I watched it anyway because we only got one channel.”
You might think an upbringing in barbecue is where his love affair with brisket and ribs began. But it would be a long time between working in his parent's restaurant and when his passion for barbecue kicked in.
His parents shuttered Ben’s BBQ when he was 12, and Franklin spent a lot of time working, tinkering and developing a life-long love of music at his grandparents' record store. He learned to play guitar, repaired instruments and listened to a lot of rock ’n’ roll. Franklin credits College Station’s early-‘90s live music scene for expanding his musical discovery. “When me and my friends were in high school, there was a cool crew of college kids there that were booking shows,” he says. “The first show I ever saw was Dinosaur Jr. at a club for like 300 people. And it was flippin’ awesome.”
Franklin rattles off rock ’n’ roll, punk and metal bands he’s been into over the years: Led Zeppelin, Man or Astroman?, Jawbox, Torch, Baroness. But he’s been listening to a lot of old country and jazz recently. “I’ve been welding all day at the shop, and my friend went through my iPod and was like, ‘Man, you’ve got a crazy selection of music on here.’ But I always thought of myself as a super one-trick pony on the music. I just like loud rock ‘n’ roll.”
After high school, Franklin moved to Austin with his best friend, Benji, who’s now the general manager of Franklin Barbecue. Broke, and with no college plans, Franklin worked a series of random jobs around town; he built conversion vans, installed car audio, made custom cabinets and more. He liked the odd jobs because they allowed him to play music and go on tour. “Not that we go paid for it,” he laughs. “A buddy would just be like, ‘Hey, I got a van! Let’s go play some rock 'n' roll!’ I was in my early twenties so it was fun. At the time, I didn’t mind sleeping on hardwood floors, next to someone’s cat in a sleeping bag.”
All that changed not long after his met his wife, Stacy. The two were introduced at a bar on West Sixth Street and immediately hit it off. When they moved in together, Franklin realized he needed to buy a grill. He experimented with cooking briskets, his dad offering the sage advice, “Cook it until it’s done.” According to Franklin, the first batch wasn’t very good. But he kept at it. Soon, it became a social thing, for example cooking for his friends after shows.
“It was fun sitting around a fire, it was kind of nostalgic. It reminded me of being a kid down at my parents’ place, poking at the fire — it smelled the same.” And the rest is history.
Franklin’s friend Big Jeff got him to taste Bobby Mueller’s barbecue, which he says was a game-changer; he later went to work for Bobby’s son, John (which is a story unto itself). As time progressed, Franklin’s brisket technique improved. His barbecue get-togethers grew in size, so much so that they became social calendar events for a growing group of friends. The sheer amount of brisket he was preparing led to the purchase of the famous smoker, followed by the risky move of opening a trailer, and then the even riskier endeavor: the brick-and-mortar.
Halfway through reminiscing his journey, a bar patron teeters over to ask Franklin about his shirt, which features a logo for the band Hot Snakes. Franklin flashes his big smile and makes easy conversation. The two laugh, trying to figure out what the Mickey Mouse-esque character on his shirt is. “It’s weird, I randomly grabbed this, but almost every day I have some type of beer shirt on,” he laughs.
Black Star Co-op
As the sun sets, we head to Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery on North Lamar Boulevard, Franklin’s second choice for the night. The entire staff recognizes him when we arrive, and everyone asks him about Stacy and the baby. “[Vivan] started rolling over a couple days ago,” he gushes. “Now she’s just rolling down the hallway. It’s crazy. Stuff is getting real. We put her on her back, she flops over. She starts crying. We put her back on her back. Flop. It’s kooky! I think she’s going to be able to start bussing table soon.”
"I’m some dude that used to sleep on the floor, playing rock ‘n’ roll and drinking Pabst. And now I get to make barbecue? And actually own a house? That’s pretty cool."
It’s here at Black Star that Franklin is most indecisive about his beer selection. We taste a few and he opts for Black Star’s Rebellious Dockhand. We sit on the patio and he explains what he looks for in a beer.
“I chose the Pearl Snap at Draught House because it’s clean, it’s crisp, it’s got just the right amount of hops. That’s my favorite Austin Beerworks beer. Austin Beerworks [beers] are my training wheels for a slightly hoppier beer, because I’m really not into hoppy beers at all. I’m definitely more into the Belgian, kind of super malty stouts and porters. I don’t like IPAs much, but I’m warming up to them. I’m also warming up to sours. I really like something crisp, like the Live Oak Big Bark — that’s my beer. I also like a Hops and Grain Alt-eration.”
The conversation naturally takes a turn towards food when our fries and complimentary chicken wings arrive. “I really don’t eat a lot of fried food,” Franklin says. “I work with so much grease and red meat that at the end of the day, Stacy and I are like, ‘I would just like some roasted broccoli.’ We just want to sit there and eat a sheet pan of roasted vegetables.”
When he can, Franklin likes to eat out. One of favorite restaurants? Uchiko. “The coolest thing about Uchiko is that is Tyson [Cole] is back there, he’ll just whip something up. I’ll be like, ‘Man, this is the most amazing thing I’ve had in months!’ and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I just threw it together.’” His other staples include Contigo, La Condesa, Torchy’s and Tamale House. And when it comes to barbecue, he names Louie Mueller’s without skipping a beat. He also cites Snow’s BBQ in Lexington and the “perfectly cooked porkchop” from Kreuz’s Market in Lockhart among his favorites.
As we talk, Franklin dives into why he’s so open about sharing his recipes, tips and techniques. “We’re so lucky to be as busy as we are. You can’t plan what has happened to us. That’s an anomaly. People are waiting five hours in line for something? I feel bad they are waiting that long, but I can’t make them go away. That’s like the luckiest thing in the world. I’m some dude that used to sleep on the floor, playing rock ‘n’ roll and drinking Pabst. And now I get to make barbecue? And actually own a house? That’s pretty cool. I feel blessed having such good fortune with this, so I don’t feel bad sharing things.”
Still, there has to be a secret. There’s got to be more than just salt and pepper, right?
“We’re not doing anything crazy. We’re just putting the labor into it. We’re just working hard enough to make it as good as we possibly can. The passion for it is kind of the missing ingredient. But that said, our recipes and whatever we do, they change all the time. If I get an idea, or want to try something, and it’s better, then we’ll stick with that for a while. And then we’ll be like, ‘I’m tired of that. Let’s do it like this.’ We don’t have any kind of historical barbecue place that we are trying to maintain that has to stay the same. We can do what we want, and what we want is to make it as good as we possibly can.”
Back in the truck, Franklin drives east to our third and final destination, Contigo. We discuss the future of Franklin Barbecue, and Franklin says there’s no plan to expand the business. “The one thing that would crush me was if I felt like a sellout.”
“I want no part of the corporate kind of thing,” he says. “People call us and are like, ‘Hey, we can franchise, we’ve got this great deal with a developer.’ I get stuff all the time. And I’m like, ‘No. I want no part of it.’ This is what we do. We’re a local place and we’re keeping it that way.”
"Austin has traditionally harnessed people that are passionate, people that are artistic … Austin has always been a pretty liberal, accepting place. And I feel like that spirit is dying rapidly."
That doesn’t mean there aren’t future opportunities in the works. Following his stint on the TV series BBQ Pitmasters, Franklin is currently in the works to have his own show on PBS. “If somebody had shown me a video from the future that was like, ‘This is what you’re going to make,’ I’d be like, “Get out of here. No way. That’s B.S. I figured we’d open a little barbecue trailer and there would be a line on Saturday. I figured it would be busy enough. I didn’t look for it to be just bonkers. But I’m pretty stoked that it is.”
At Contigo, everyone again knows Franklin. He hasn’t been around much since Vivian was born, so the staff is excited to see him. He gets wrapped up in conversations that range from the career paths of drummers from obscure indie rock bands in the ‘90s to how he can help a bartender entertain some family in town for a wedding. After some debate, he decides on Hops and Grain Brewery’s The One They Call Zoe. We settle in at a standing table and talk about what it was like working with Anthony Bourdain and then later Chef Nobu, for what I thought was an American Express commercial.
“It’s funny that you say that,” he says. “It’s not even American Express. Everyone gets it wrong. It’s Chase Sapphire.” Franklin goes back to something we talked about earlier in his truck. The restaurant doesn’t do any PR and has never spent any money on marketing. He continues to credit all the success to hard work and passion.
“See, my point is,” he laughs, “they spent who knows how much money on this silly commercial and all this marketing and no one knows what card it’s for.” Franklin adds, however, the commercial did afford him the opportunity to buy the restaurant a much-needed walk-in cooler.
One final round of Zoes later, the conversation moves to Austin’s future. “Austin’s always been a place where anybody could do anything,” he says. “Austin has traditionally harnessed people that are passionate, people that are artistic … Austin has always been a pretty liberal, accepting place. And I feel like that spirit is dying rapidly. With all this money flooding in, and this moving in, and this corporate thing is moving in over here, it’s crushing our spirit as a city.”
Franklin hopes people continue to invest in the spirit of what made Austin so great, and he hopes his business offers some of that identity: a place with an old-school vibe, where people can hang out, get a beer and a meal. Which is why he says he won’t franchise, move or even open a second location.
“The location fell into place so organically. That’s where we are. That’s our home. Why move? That’s where everyone knows we are at. Why open a second location? It’s hard enough to run one. I’m not willing to sacrifice quality just to make more money. It’s not about making more money, it’s about doing the best we can and making the absolute best barbecue we can.”
Not to say that Franklin’s location doesn’t come with aches. He and his team, which is mostly made up of close friends and family, feel the literal pains of all the work in their knees and backs. But, that’s not a reason to outsource and sell. Franklin ponders the future over the last bit of pale lager in his glass.
“If that day comes in, say 30 years, if somebody’s worked there a long time, maybe I’ll just Willie Wonka this thing off. Who knows, it’s hard to say. But I do know that we’re not going to let it coast along, half-assed in its end days. Not going to build a second location in Dallas just to make money. No, man. If that time ever comes, I’ll just close it. And be like, ‘Hey remember that place a long time ago? Damn it was good.’”