Thursday, September 24, 2015

Mike Johnston's BBQ chase

Via Twitter, I learned of Mike Johnston, founder of Savory Spice Shop, who went on a serious BBQ trek. I reached out. Below is our Q&A. Mike is on the right. More pics to come.

Q: What prompted this? 

In late 2014, as we were developing our Savory Spice marketing plan for 2016, we had the idea that we wanted to do an American barbecue road trip that featured all the different regions of barbecue. Barbecue blends sell incredibly well at our shops and we have blends that we have created around the typical flavor profiles found in North Carolina, Memphis, Texas and Kansas City regional barbecue. Doing this barbecue chase would give me firsthand knowledge that we can share with all of our customers and possible develop more. I’ve done other smaller scale trips to areas to learn about a particular blend or spice, and our customers really seemed to like hearing about them. I think it just legitimizes us and our knowledge about spice. Here are a couple other examples of trips I’ve taken: & However, the timing of the release (or at least my knowledge of it) Johnny Fugitt’s book, The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America, definitely was part of the inspiration of chasing barbecue. It inspired me to think big in terms of the amount of places I’d try to hit. He and I have since communicated via email and although we won’t meet up during the trip we plan to get together afterwards to discuss. And I’m very much looking forward to that conversation! I know we will have a lot to discuss…and debate!  

Q: How much time is this taking? 

I’m going to be out chasing BBQ for 38 days. The original goal was to hit 76 spots, but that number seems to be rising. In Texas alone (my first leg of the trip), ended up going to 33 barbecue joints, up from the 27 that were planned. If my math is right, that is a 22% increase. If I keep up that pace I’ll end up going to 93 joints in 38 days. The amount of days out will not likely change though…my wife wants me back in Denver on 9/25…happy wife, happy life! That said, she has been so cool to let me do this trip and supportive all the way through. In fact, she is joining me today for the part of the Memphis leg. 

Q: Is it worth the expense?

I think so. I’m doing my best to keep the costs down by pulling around my Casita trailer and sleeping in it. More times then not, even though I’m offering to pay and expect to pay, these barbecue business owners are giving me food and swag. I think they recognize that we can both benefit from this experience. Paying or not, I’m think when you can get in front of pitmasters and others that make barbecue their business there is information that you can glean that is priceless. 

Q: Have you always been interested in Texas BBQ? 

Not being from Texas, I can’t say I grew up on Texas style barbecue. However, when we opened our first shop in Austin a few years back, my eyes were opened to brisket and beef ribs…and sausage smoked right! I’ve done smaller crawls of Austin when I’ve visited in the past, but hadn’t been to legendary spots like Lockhart, Taylor and Lexington. Even Austin has changed tremendously, of the 10 planned stops there, I hadn’t been to 9 of them…I think many of them have opened since I last visited. I don’t want to forget about Pecos, San Antonio, San Marcos, Houston, Tyler, Longview and the Dallas area. These were all first time visits for me… and each amazing in their own way. 

Q: Do you smoke meat at home? 

I do a little, but nowhere near the quality and level of what is going on in Texas. That said, with my new friends at Pitmaker I see a new smoker in my future. While I’m gathering knowledge for my customers, I’m going to be using it at my home. Lance Kirkpatrick, the pitmaster at Stiles Switch was very generous with his time and just from what I learned in that visit alone I believe I’ll be 10 times the barbecuer when I get back to Denver. 

Q: What’s your favorite Texas BBQ menu item? 

I like brisket and the beef rib, but if you put a gun to my head and said pick I’d go with the unbelievable sausages that are smoked here. I give extra credit to the joints that make it in-house; there really is a big difference to the final outcome. 

Q: What have you learned? 

I’ve learned a lot, but I’m going to reserve most of that for our promo next year, but here is an interesting story that Daniel Vaughn, food editor and critic for Texas Monthly shared with me… One of my employees, Sam, has been following my journey and asked me to find out why there are pickles, raw onion and bread on pretty much plate. Back in the day, meat markets would bring in fresh meat each week, process it and sell it throughout the week. Whatever was left over at the end of day Friday they needed to get rid of somehow, so many of them smoked it. Saturdays end up being barbecue days. But these folks weren’t restaurateurs, they were butchers and market owners, they didn’t have sides to go along with the cue, so they added items to the plate that were already available for sale on the their shelves. Market staples like pickles, onions, bread, cheese, hot sauce and even avocados (I haven’t tried this but Daniel and his friend David both say they’re amazing together, but just aren’t offered enough theses days). Since they weren’t offering up potato salad, mac and cheese back then, those items, Sam, became traditional barbecue sides and in Texas that tradition, along with many others in barbecue, remains the same. It’s just a happy coincidence that they taste great together! 

Q: Any highlights (and/or lowlights)? 

Sorry I have no real lowlights...I guess some might say being yelled at by Jon Mueller, but I wouldn’t call it one because in the end I got him to smile for the camera! Highlights are many…too many to list, but I’d say the experiences that stick out are…my first top in Texas at Pody’s and not knowing that Israel, the owner was also on in law enforcement... he scared the crap out of me and then let me off the hook…the prefect way to start my trip….meeting Big Ern Servantes and having him take me on a cool side trip to Hay’s BBQ (great sausage donuts there), my visit to Stiles Switch…every single person working there (and mind you I dropped by during there busy lunch hour with two friends) was super welcoming and Lance just made it so memorable, doing a two stop lunch interview with Daniel Vaughn (I learned more about the history of Texas barbecue in that visit), finding Bet the House (thanks to Lance) and meeting the trio of pitmasters (Jess, Cody and Shawn) and the rest of the team there, meeting legendary pitmasters Roy Perez of Kruez’s BBQ and Toostie of Snows.I could go on, because there were highlights after highlights and I feel bad not mentioning everyone, because honestly, in those short visits I feel like a made new friends and I want to support them all. 

Q: Any surprises?  

Just how welcoming everyone has been to me. There was only one spot where I felt unwelcomed…I won’t name names. So 99.9% of the people…in some way, shape or form….made me feel good about stopping there and talking with them. And many helped open more doors for me. Honestly, I was a bit “scared” of going in a trying to talk with these Texas barbecue folks…figured I might get a…”beat it Northern”, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Texas welcomed me, gave me confidence to talk and learn and made me feel like family. Every other region I go to will have their work cut out for them to match my Texas experience. I thank them all.

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