Can American Barbecue Survive This?
The somewhat solitary nature of a pitmaster’s existence lends itself well to our new normal—but then there’s everything else to consider.
Barbecue-wise, Los Angeles has never had it so good. Any conversation about the best will surely include Andrew and Michelle Muñoz, who in a short period of time have grown Moo’s Craft Barbecue from a sometimes-East L.A. backyard operation into a household name—assuming, of course, your household is extremely into brisket. Moo’s Sunday set-up at Smorgasburg would draw lines all day long, never mind the approximately hundreds of other very good things to eat, right under the noses of the focused faithful.
Like so much else that Los Angeles would look forward to on a weekly basis, there is no Smorgasburg right now, not for the foreseeable future. But for the last couple of Sundays, there was still Moo’s—no line, no wait. After working hard to establish himself as one of the West Coast’s most talented pitmasters, Andrew Muñoz recently walked away from a stable career as an insurance underwriter. He and Michelle were not about to stand by and watch everything they had built burn to the ground, so they got creative.
After tinkering with the idea of selling vacuum-packed meats in bulk, because real pandemic preparedness means having vast reserves of smoked meat on hand, Moo’s moved to contactless curbside pickup in L.A.’s Arts District—order online, earlier in the week, whether it’s a plate or a week’s supply, pay in advance, set up a pickup time, park, pop your trunk, and wait for the drop.
Right now, even the most conscientious restaurants offering pick-up or delivery can require larger teams, working in often-confined spaces. At Crafted Kitchen, where Moo’s does prep work, serious precautions have been taken, reducing the maximum number of teams on site from eight to four, ensuring each group is roughly twelve feet away from the other. Typically, there’s a sizable team on hand to make the Smorgasburg event go smoothly, a team that can include Andrew’s father, Harvey—he’s home now, for the duration, and they’re down to a skeleton crew. Show up on Sundays, and it will most likely be Michelle making deliveries. Last Sunday, there were a lot of cars. The pickup went on for hours. Business, for the moment, is good.
“We’re finding that people are still coming out, our core group of followers, and it’s consistent from one week to the next,” Andrew tells me, after a solitary morning of trimming brisket. Normally, Michelle would help, but these days, like so many parents everywhere, she’s at home, newly cast in the unpaid role of teacher’s assistant.
“Right now, the support is there,” says Andrew. “It’s not Smorgasburg, but more the equivalent of when we do a brewery pop-up, which we’ve been doing some Fridays and Saturdays.” In other words, not quite Smorgasburg busy, he says, but still hitting targets. Last week, they finished up with only a half a pound of brisket to spare.
Muñoz estimates that to stay afloat, Sunday pickups twice a month should be able to do the trick, for as long as he needs to, but like everyone else, he’s just not sure what the future holds. For him, it’s not about whether or not people will show up, but he wonders how long he’s willing to tolerate the risks involved.
"We’re lucky we can get meats delivered, but we have to go out and get ingredients,” Andrew says. “We need salt, we need pepper, we need to go buy things every three or four days. It’s nice to see that we can do this under a different model, but at what cost? We have two kids at home, we have parents who are borderline in age, so we’re weighing all those things.”
“What concerns us is the unknown," he continues, "and what we’re potentially bringing back home. We might just be better off self-isolating for a month or so.”
Nearly 1,000 miles away in Portland, Kyle Rensmeyer is dealing with his own anxieties. The Texas transplant opened Holy Trinity Barbecue less than a year ago, lending the city’s growing scene a generous amount of credibility. A pivot to selling meats in bulk—chilled, and vacuum-packed—for delivery appeared to be going encouragingly well, until somebody complained to the health department.
“They were really accommodating, very nice,” says Rensmeyer, of the official he spent the better part of a morning on the phone with. Ultimately, however, there just didn’t seem to be a satisfactory workaround, and now he is left figuring out how to safely offer pickups from a food cart.
“I have so many mixed emotions, asking people to come out,” he says. Many of Portland’s world-famous carts have now closed. In his own pod, only one out of six or seven was open this week. Still, says Rensmeyer, he’s eager to keep the lights on, and with only one employee, they’re finding it easy to work safely. After an initial trial weekend in late March, he's confident they can establish a protocol that allows for a relatively risk-free pickup situation and minimal wait times.
“All of us have been put in a tough situation—you still have bills to pay,” says Rensmeyer. Like Muñoz, one of the hardest parts of the job right now is having to go out for supplies. At the worst possible time, he started running low on the grits they use for one of their very popular sides. Four potentially risky stops later, he ended up ordering them online from Bob’s Red Mill, just five miles or so away from his cart, and now he’ll just have to wait for them to be delivered, at a time when nothing seems to be arriving on time.
For some of the most popular outfits in Central Texas, a little old-fashioned ingenuity has gone a long way. This is a part of the country where picking up barbecue without getting out of your car is already a thing, so it’s no surprise that Esaul Ramos and his team at 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio were able to successfully make the switch to both drive-thru and curbside pickup.
The response has been immense. And while waiting in line at Austin’s Franklin Barbecue has always been part of the experience, the crowds now seem perfectly satisfied with the shift to curbside pickup—just meet the $50 online minimum, and you’re good to go. That is, of course, if there’s anything left—an inventory check during a recent lunch rush showed things to be pretty much business as usual—nearly everything had sold out.
Besides saving jobs and keeping a roof over their heads, many operations are taking things one step further, finding ways to give back to the community during a time when so many of us are under financial pressure.
In tandem with a popular pre-order and pickup scheme, Orange County, Calif.’s Heritage Barbecue recently managed to organize a Sunday family drive-thru meal for unemployed restaurant workers, giving away and estimated 1,500 pulled-pork sandwiches.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, the pandemic put plans for a grand opening of the long-awaited Horn Barbecue on hold. Pitmaster Matt Horn is offering pop-up pre-order events with curbside pop-up, as well as free meals to first responders, healthcare workers, and anyone straight up hungry, through a series of community meals.
Horn says he’s only following the example of his mother and father, who always opened their home and fed people in need. For anyone interested in contributing toward the cost of the meals, Horn launched a Go Fund Me page, currently accepting donations