The 10 Austinites of the Year: Aaron Franklin

The 10 Austinites of the Year: Aaron Franklin

In less than a year, he smoked the competition and has all of Austin lining up to get a taste from “the best barbecue restaurant in America.”

Aaron Franklin is one of the friendliest guys you’ll ever meet. The retro glasses–wearing Austinite wakes up at 3:30 most mornings to master the barbecue pit and clean grease traps, but he always has a smile on his face. And why not? It’s been a good year for him and his wife Stacy (“the more attractive half of Franklin Barbecue,” he says). In March, the Franklins moved their barbecue trailer into a brick-andmortar building, and the lines got even longer. In July, Bon Appétit published a feature proclaiming them “the best barbecue restaurant in America.” And in October, Texas Monthly added them as a newcomer to its barbecue festival.

But flash back to before the four-page Bon Appétit spread, two-hour-long lines and YouTube videos about how even Hitler can’t get Franklin’s ribs. One day in 2002 Aaron just wanted to make a brisket. He called his father, who had owned Ben’s BBQ, in Bryan, for directions and didn’t find much help. “I ended up with an offset smoker from Academy,” Aaron says. “I remember lighting up the fire for the first time and thinking, ‘This smells like my childhood.’”

The Franklins began hosting backyard barbecues for their friends. In Austin, word of mouth grows faster than a party, and soon they were up to 130 people. By that time Aaron had worked for John Mueller’s Bar-BQue, and he’d refined his recipe on his own. “I started being nerdy about barbecue,” he says, “I was practicing for running my own place.”

For the biggest party, he had to rent tables and chairs and buy preprepared sausage. “The last person in line got the last piece of meat,” he told me. “We’ve been winging it ever since.”

The turquoise-and-white trailer opened in December 2009, and for a while Aaron ran it alone. Brought up with family businesses (in addition to his father’s barbecue joint, Aaron’s grandparents ran a record store), the process came naturally. Golden reviews from blogs like Man Up Texas BBQ and Full Custom Gospel started rolling in.

Then in March, SXSW descended with all of its rock-and-roll indie fury. The line at Franklin snaked to the street, and the business picked up steam, or smoke. Soon they were up to two smokers, three full-time employees (not counting the Franklins), two refrigerators, a canopy and double the seating. A bigger space made sense. On the second day of SXSW in March 2011, the new and improved brick-andmortar Franklin Barbecue opened. The building, on East 11th, has been a barbecue restaurant for about the past 35 years. “It’s one of the only buildings in town that has any barbecue mojo to it,” says Aaron.

The crowds swarmed, especially after the Bon story. Now Aaron spends most of his days on “projects.” He’s up for the job. A hard worker, Aaron doesn’t just smoke meat: He has built all of his smokers. “It’s just a little light welding,” he jokes.

He also built the trailer, pulling walls down, moving windows and rebuilding plumbing and electrical wires. The trailer sign? That was Stacy and Aaron tinkering away, then painting. Same for the one at the building. It doesn’t end there. “We did the building ourselves,” he says proudly. “Not one contractor was a part of that.” Most days he works on projects until he “can’t do no more projects, around dark,” he says. Sunday nights he reserves for welding and adjusting the new smoker (20 feet long!).

In one day, Franklin Barbecue races through 40 briskets and 30 racks of ribs, enough for 400 people. That’s in two hours. They would like to stay open until seven, serving more locals than tourists (hint: many “old-timers” peek in around one-thirty and find lunch).

As Franklin says, “barbecue is a feel thing. It takes a long time to learn.” He has the help of John Lewis (“a fellow barbecue nerd,” Aaron says, pushing up his glasses), and he’s teaching other employees, as well as trying to find more storage. “But the workload is 10 times what it was six months ago,” he says. “Everyone says, ‘Y’all make more,’” he told me, still smiling. “And we’re thinking, ‘Well, it’s kind of hard.’” In other words, be patient. You’ll get your brisket and espresso barbecue sauce. But for now you’ll have to wait in line, like everybody else.