Barbecue is serious business, especially in Texas.
On a recent trip to Austin, my wife, Ryann, and I decided to tackle the infamous Franklin Barbecue. For those who haven't heard of this BBQ temple, it has been consistently ranked as the top barbecue restaurant in Texas and has established a bit of a cult following. I've actually attempted to eat there on two different occasions over the past couple of years, but was surprised to find a multiple hour wait both times I showed up; I was hungry at the time and in no shape to stand outside in 90+ degree heat for hours, so I bailed. Since those visits, the infamous wait has grown along with the purported unparalleled deliciousness of the food. Arriving later won't yield the desired result, either, as they supposedly sell out of food on a regular basis.
This time, we knew the scope of the task at hand, so we would be prepared. We would be in town on a Tuesday, reportedly one of their slowest days. In fact, there are multiple foodie websites that claim only a 90 minute wait on both Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Perfect.
We got up at a decent time on said Tuesday, planning to be in line at 9:30am, ready for the 11:00am restaurant open. Good plan, right? We rolled up to the restaurant to this:
Let me clarify what's going on here:
THE INTERNET IS WRONG. THERE IS NO 90-MINUTE WAIT. EVER. IT'S 5 HOURS.
Here's the front of the line right around when we got there at 9:30am. See the people at the front? They got there around 6:00am. On a Tuesday. For the 11:00am open.
I took pictures as I walked back toward our place in line.
See the girl in the yellow shirt in the upper left? That's Hailey, a Franklin employee whose job it is to manage the line. We'll come back to her.
The line continues around the corner, up, and to the right. We were close to the end.
I took a video, attempting to capture the length of the line, and the dedication to barbecue:
Right around 9:45am, Aaron Franklin, the owner and recent James Beard Best Chef Award Winner, came out to his truck (bumper sticker: BRISKET IS MY SPIRIT ANIMAL) parked next to where we were posted up in line. Ryann had been doing some reading about Franklin BBQ before our visit, so she recognized him as he loaded an air compressor into the truck bed.
"Excuse me, are you Aaron?"
"Hey there, yes, that's me!"
"Wow, can I take a picture with you?"
"No problem, thanks to all you guys for hanging out here and waiting!"
Soon after our star encounter, Hailey found her way to our part of the line in back, holding a clipboard. It was just before 10:00am at that point. Keep in mind at this time, we didn't know how fast the line moved, and expected a 1.5 - 2 hour wait, just like the internet said.
Hailey: "Good morning, guys. At this point in the line, you can probably expect to eat around 2:30pm"
Wait. What? 2:30? 4.5 hours from now?
"Yeah. We'll probably still have brisket."
Wait. What? Like, you might not? Like, I could stand here for 4 and a half more hours, then not get brisket?
"Well, we're pretty good at estimating, so you should be fine."
She then asked what we planned on ordering (3 lbs brisket, 1 sausage links, 1/2 lb pulled pork), explaining that there wouldn't be any turkey or ribs left by the time we got to the counter. She marked down our order on her clipboard and moved on to the people behind us in line.
When she got to the people after them (so, 2 places behind us), she proclaimed that they would be the last people to get brisket, and handed them an "official" sign:
She then established a large gap in the line, and started explaining to everyone behind that point that they probably wouldn't be getting any brisket. And definitely no turkey or ribs. General discussion among the non-brisketeers ensued, followed by a slow abandonment by most people behind the "Last Man Standin'".
At this point, Ryann and I had a general discussion of our own. She said she would be happy to stay, but we'd need a chair, a hat, some snacks, drinks, and sunscreen. We had come dramatically ill-prepared for such a long, hot, outside wait.
Fortunately, there was CVS less than 300 yards around the corner, so the decision was made. I would go for supplies, and we would stay for barbecue!
CVS had chairs right by the register, and I gathered the rest of the items on the list. I was not the only one in there shopping to survive the line.
I returned to The Franklin Line, and we waited.
It wasn't really like standing in line at Disneyland, or at Marshall's, though. It was a fun atmosphere, more akin to tailgating than waiting in line. The line itself moved so slowly, even once the doors opened, that you only had to move every 15-20 minutes; plenty of time to set up your chair and get comfortable.
The line was full of locals and tourists alike; just in the groups close to us, we talked to people from Austin, Houston, Florida, Illinois, San Diego, and Australia. There were picnic blankets, coolers of beer and drinks, and board and card games everywhere; we made fast friends with those around us and really enjoyed the time spent outside, relaxing.
Inevitably, I had to use the restroom, which wasn't a problem. There is a side door that leads into the restaurant, and people are in and out all day. I snuck a preview picture of the operation when I went in:
As the line shrunk in size, the "TAKE A CHAIR, LEAVE A CHAIR : )" corral slowly filled back up. My guess is if you're early enough, you can just snag one out of here. Obviously, we were quite late, and had no such opportunity.
Hailey came through the line multiple times throughout the day, updating everyone on the status of the wait and meat availability. Believe it or not, they nailed both the time at which we would eat, and the amount of people that would get food. Credit to the folks in line, too, for not ordering more than they said they would once they got to the counter, which would have screwed up the count.
We asked Hailey some questions while she was around.
Q: Why does the line move so slowly?
A: The limiting factor is the meat slicer behind the counter. He is very skilled and efficient, but it still takes 1-3 minutes per person in line to prep the meat. They've tried to find more slicers, but Aaron is very particular about the cut quality, and they haven't found more people up to the standard required to run a second line.
Q: This business is so wildly successful, with demand exponentially outstripping supply. Why haven't more locations been opened?
A: The simple answer is quality control. Aaron is exceedingly demanding of the high quality product they provide, and doesn't believe it could be maintained at this time in higher volume and/or more locations. Quality comes first, by a large margin.
Q: Is the amount of meat available each day consistent? Will people who show up at 9:30a always get food?
A: Yes and no. They cook a similar amount each day, but the amount available to the folks in line varies depending on how many pre-orders for hot food have been placed.
Q: So can I pre-order and skip the line?
A: Definitely. However, you have to order 5 lbs. of meat, minimum, and the pre-order list is usually filled 2-3 months in advance. When they open up a time slot for pre-order, they get over 500 emails in less than an hour. There are no guarantees you will get your order, even if you get in there early. Pre-orders must be picked up between 10:00am and 10:30am, otherwise you have to wait in line to get it. Don't be late!
Q: With all the people in line, is there a problem with seating in the restaurant?
A: Not usually. There are 14 - 15 tables inside the restaurant, and because the line moves so slowly, there are generally open seats.
Q: When is the best time of day to arrive?
A: Your best shot at getting food with a short wait is to come between 2:30pm and 3:00pm, then take whatever is left. You might get lucky and get what you want, but if you don't, you didn't have to wait in the massive line.
Q: How long does the brisket take to make?
A: Between the meat prep, smoking, post-cooking care, and slicing, each brisket takes 44 hours worth of work.
After the Q&A, we finally made it inside. As we worked our way along, I picked up a hat and t-shirt which were in bins next to the line. Plenty of time to try them on and figure out the right size.
One of the things we learned early in the line, and you can see on the far left "sign" below, is you can show up at any point during the day, skip the line, and pick up a chilled, vacuum sealed whole brisket to go!
We were so excited at this point, we could hardly stand it. Additionally, it looked like we were definitely going to get brisket, which we weren't 100% sure of, being so close to the end of the line.
WE MADE IT! SLICE ME SOME OF THAT, PLZ!
Here's our final order. 2 lbs of brisket to go, 1 lb to eat in, 1/2 lb pulled pork, 1 sausage link, beans, potato salad, coleslaw, and bread.
Not pictured: a hat and t-shirt. Which I was wearing. Total: $120
We made it!! This is us, ready to enjoy the fruits of our (mild, full of beer, snacks, good weather, and good company) suffering:
The slicer gave us a nice variety of lean and moist brisket.
Our hopes were exorbitantly high, but the brisket far exceeded them.
I've had a lot of barbecue during my 11 years in Texas, and this was definitively the best (Killen's in Houston is solidly in 2nd place; it's excellent, but not as good as this by a measurable amount. 3rd place is so far below these 2 that I won't even choose one). The sausage was very good, but didn't amaze me; same goes for the pulled pork. Killen's pulled pork is much better. I wasn't wild about the sides either. Again, Killen's sides are really fantastic, so score another point there. However, the brisket here at Franklin was on such another level, it does stand above all the rest. As I found out later, one of the reasons the Franklin brisket is so good is they pay a premium for all natural (no hormones, antibiotics, etc) meat from Creekstone Farms in Kansas. Whatever the reasons, I can't wait to go back.
JUST OUTSTANDING - THANK YOU FRANKLIN Barbecue!!
While it was a long day and a long wait to "just have some barbecue", we had such a good time, we wouldn't hesitate to do it again. It seems that no matter what time you get there, you're in for a 4.5 - 5 hour wait (first in line got there at 6, ate at 11; last in line got there at 9:45a, ate at 2:45p), but I would probably get there around 8:00am next time to avoid the sold-out-meat-stress. That way I can try some turkey and ribs!
And we have leftovers!!