The Owners of la Barbecue, One of Austin’s Top BBQ Joints, Came up with the Entire Concept in Three Days
Not only that, but to this day, co-owner LeAnn Mueller doesn’t just run the place that's known as Franklin Barbecue’s rival. She’s also a world-class photographer who has shot the likes of Willie Nelson and Jay-Z.
While many pit masters choose barbecue, LeAnn Mueller would say barbecue chose her. Her family’s barbecue legacy started in 1949, when her grandfather opened Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX, becoming one of the first restaurants to serve — and massively popularize — Texas barbecue. The restaurant was often referred to as the “cathedral of smoke” and the Mueller family is known as “barbecue royalty” in the state.
LeAnn's father, Bobbie, took over the pits in 1974 and LeAnn started helping out cleaning tables and washing dishes on the weekends during high school.
“I never wanted to do barbecue,” she says. “That was not my goal at all. It’s just something that I know. I’d go to a college, wouldn’t like it, I’d come back and my dad would hire me. That kept happening, so he started having me make the sides, and then I was in charge of the chicken, which moved into me making sausage and seasoning and brisket and ribs.”
Bobbie wanted LeAnn to take over the barbecue business from him one day, but LeAnn had her sights set on becoming a photographer. She sold everything she owned and saved up enough money to put herself through school at Brooks Institute of Photography in California.
“I needed to prove I was something else besides barbecue,” she says.
After graduating, she moved to New York with the goal of securing representation. She’d only been there for two months in 2006 when her dad called and said he was coming up— to accept the first James Beard Award ever given to a barbecue restaurant (which he accepted with a simple, humble “Thank you very much”).
Two years later, Bobbie passed away suddenly at the age of 69 and LeAnn found herself living back in Texas. Her brother Wayne had taken over the pits at Louie Mueller and her other brother John wanted to open a barbecue trailer in Austin.
“He owed a lot of people a lot of money, so he begged me to put everything in my name,” says LeAnn, who agreed against her better judgment. “A year into that, the books weren’t being taken care of— nothing was being taken care of. So I had to let him go and we had three days to turn J Mueller BBQ into la Barbecue.”
LeAnn decided to name the trailer la Barbecue with a lower case “l” — both to represent the grammatical feminine signifier and to play on the thought that anyone can create barbecue.
“I refused to put my family’s name in the title of the restaurant,” she says. “I wanted to show my brothers I can do this and I don’t need to put Mueller in the name.”
“It was crazy," says Ali Clem, LeAnn’s wife and partner in la Barbecue. “We came up with all new recipes, all new cooking processes and a whole new concept in three days.”
Suddenly, LeAnn found herself with a debt to pay off — and a barbecue business she swore she’d never have. She and Clem also faced some harassment at the hands of John’s regulars, who were mad he was fired.
“We had people coming in there, his customers, being extremely rude to us, calling us names, making fun of our sexuality," recalls LeAnn. “It was really hard.”
“I think in the beginning there was no respect from barbecue people,” says Clem. “Like we didn’t know what we were doing.”
But one year later, all the bills were paid, the lines were longer than ever and la Barbecue was receiving rave reviews and landing at the top of every Texas barbecue list.
“We had families that were working for us," says Clem. “People were depending on us. We had regular customers who loved us. And we were having fun.”
Throughout all of this, LeAnn was still juggling a photography career, which had her flying around the country to shoot photos for magazines like Texas Monthly, Rolling Stone and Vibe. She's photographed the likes of Willie Nelson and Jay-Z.
“The only reason la Barbecue survived was because of my photography career,” says LeAnn. “And I’m still doing photography to make sure everyone’s salaries are on point. I don’t have savings, but I make sure everyone who works for me gets paid very well.”
La Barbecue grew from one pit to two, then expanded to a larger trailer and continues to grow. Just last year, they went brick and mortar by taking over the kitchen of Quickie Pickie, an East Austin convenience store where guests can pair their brisket with French Gamay or local IPA. LeAnn only sources all natural, organic prime beef and they prefer potato bread to the slices of white bread usually found at Texas barbecue joints. However, the meat is served just like it would be in Taylor: on a tray lined with butcher paper and sides of pickles and onions.
LeAnn’s team is also bigger than ever, which is necessary to serve the ‘cue fanatics who line up daily— many of whom are still surprised to learn that la Barbecue is not owned by one woman but two.
"My favorite is when people come in asking for 'Allee, the guy who works here’ and I’m like ‘Ali? Yeah, that’s me,’” says Clem with a laugh.
Building a solid team has also allowed LeAnn to start taking la Barbecue on the road. She recently partnered with the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas for a pop-up and is currently planning more events both around the state and out of the country. But ask her who holds the role as la Barbecue’s pitmaster and she'll tell you there isn’t one.
“A pitmaster, to me, is how I saw my dad,” she said. “My dad did everything. If anybody called in sick, he was the only person running the show…I mean, the dude did everything. But barbecue today is definitely a team effort if you want to do it well and consistently. I think that is the key to longevity.”
The team effort, however, doesn’t mean the ladies of la Barbecue hustle any less these days.
“The thing that’s interesting about barbecue —at least our style of barbecue — is that you’re really working in the elements,” says Clem. “And it’s not easy! But our guys know that, if I’m lifting something, not to be like ‘Hey, let me get that for you!’ Dude, I can lift a 100-pound box of brisket, it’s fine.”