Story by Palmer Brigham
When Joe Slack, owner and pit-master of Red Wagon BBQ, couldn’t find the kind of barbecue he wanted in the local area, he found himself traveling to places like Austin and Dallas for what he was looking for, a barbecue place that treated its business as a craft.
Slack, head of tourism at Homestead Heritage, a local community of artisans and where Red Wagon is located, and a fellow member of the area, expressed concern about people coming from out of state for authentic Texas barbecue in Waco but not finding it.
“I want good barbecue, but not just for me,” Slack said.
When a member of the Homestead Heritage community interested in building a barbecue pit approached him, Slack realized that he wanted to bring the same kind of business to Waco that he had seen at places like Franklin Barbecue in Austin, where people stood in line all day for quality barbecue.
One of Slack’s Students in his guitar making class was Austin barbecue legend John Lewis Jr., who worked at Franklin Barbecue before he was pit-master at La Barbecue, another barbecue joint in Austin. At the time, Lewis’ advice on quality barbecue was, “It’s not the cook, it’s the cooker. Your pit has to be right.”
Despite the fact that he heard these words before he was even interested in barbecue, Slack remembered Lewis’ words when he started down the barbecue path. Slack enlisted the help of Lewis, who designed the pit Red Wagon BBQ uses.
To further ensure a quality product, Slack goes above and beyond to make sure he uses all natural meat by touring farms and getting to know the people who run the facilities. Slack said he does this so he can hell his customers that he knows exactly where their food is coming from.
“That’s our thing. We focus on quality more than profit,” Slack said.
Red Wagon BBQ is housed in a red trailer inside a screened-in building in front of the barbecue pit. Slack said that Red Wagon was a “community effort.” In addition to the member who constructed the pit, he credited the community with helping construct, paint and wire the building with electricity. He also said that the Red Wagon helps support Café Homestead, a local farm-to-table eatery.
From guitar-making to cooking food, the community of Homestead Heritage approaches what they do with a craftsmanship and attention to detail they feel is missing in a mass-production-oriented world, something Slack also wants in the quality of barbecue that he produces.
“If you want something to be good, you have to do it as a craft,” Slack said. “You have to get your hands on it.”
Anyone who knows good barbecue knows to look for smoke, the mark of the time required to create quality barbecue. At Schoepf’s Bar-B-Que in Belton, not only can you see the smoke, you can literally feel the heat of freshly made barbecue. More evidence lies in the stacks of mesquite wood outside.
Walk into “the pit” to order your barbecue, see it taken out of their steel box warmers and watch as it is weighed in front of you. Enter the next room to choose between a multitude of homemade sides, everything from macaroni cheese to cucumber salad. Almost 25 years ago, Ronnie Schoepf Jr., along with his father and stepmother, started to look for a place to open a new restaurant. The three decided to return home to Belton.
According to Schoepf, downtown Belton had grown quiet and when the family bought the building that now houses their family business, it was falling apart.
“We woke this quiet street up,” Schoepf said.
Now he and his wife, Staci, have been running the place together since they bought it from family in 2007. The two have worked to improve and expand the business since then.
“My name is on the door,” Schoepf said. “And I provide food I’m proud to have relation with my name.”
Schoepf said they smoke their barbecue fresh, regardless of the circumstances. Whether it’s warm or cold or their wood is wet from the rain, they have to “work with whatever the lord has given us that day.”
One of the couple’s biggest undertakings was transforming the land behind the restaurant into a live music venue. Their first concert was held for Belton’s nationally recognized July 4th Parade and Rodeo in 2008. The next year, Schoepf’s introduced its annual Texas Music Series, featuring different artists every Thursday night from April to August. According to Schoepf, the concert series has become a popular event, attracting over a thousand people from all over Texas each week.
Downtown Belton has grown in the past 25 years. Now Schoepf’s is located between several fast food chains and has helped pave the way for other local restaurants. At the prospect of competition, Schoepf said that he just focus on making his restaurant “the best it can be.” He is encouraged that Belton is becoming a destination with more choices, which is attracting more people to the city.
“When you’re a family in a local business you live here, you raise your family here, you’re a part of the community and people look for you to to be involved,” Schoepf said. “You want to take care of the community like you take care of your family.”
When brainstorming names for his new business, Frëkin Güd BBQ‘s owner and pit-master, Shaine Snider, said his mom slammed their list of prospective names down on the table in defeat and said, “I don’t know, but it’s freaking good!” The name stuck, along with some changes to represent their German heritage, but their barbecue is all Texan.
“I thought we could cook really good, so we went for it,” Snider said.
Snider taught himself how to smoke barbecue, which he described as a trial and error process. Growing up, he said that he was crazy about cooking and even used to light the fire for his parents and grandparents every chance he had, a passion that stuck with him since. Snider said that one of his favorite things is cooking brisket or ribs.
Shaine and his wife Carla opened Frëkin Güd BBQ together just under a year ago to bring barbecue to Bellmead.
“I wasn’t quite prepared for the business side of it,” Shaine said.
But if the new business has taught him anything, it’s the value of hard work. From running the business to putting the appropriate amount of time into make the perfect barbecue, Shaine said that he works around 90 hours each week.
The two also take pride in their work. “It’s amazing how there are a million potato salad recipes out there, but my wife could come up with one that is the best,” Snider said proudly.
He explained the process of owning a business has included lots of learning. The couple found a building and just jumped in.
“If you want to do something, do it,” Snider said, “If we would have to close today, it would have been worth it. It’s just money.”