Houston BBQ 101

Are Lines Just a Marketing Ploy?

Standing in line to eat barbecue has become something of a Rorschach test for Texans. Some see it as a fun opportunity to meet other barbecue fans and talk shop and swap stories. Some have vowed never to stand in line for barbecue, believing it is an inalienable right of every Texan to get barbecue without delay. And then there is the persistent conspiracy theory that long lines at popular joints are just a marketing ploy to make the place appear popular and successful.

The conspiratorial thinking goes like this: Barbecue joints purposely engineer their ordering process to slow things down, which creates a noticeable line of guests waiting to get in. Because human nature is such that when we see a big group of people waiting to get in some place, then we think there must be something really great inside, and we should check it out, too.

But is it really a ploy? The answer is emphatically, “No.”

So why do barbecue joints have lines when most other restaurants don’t? It basically comes down to economics, specifically a limited supply of cooking space, preparation space and personnel, order stations and dining-room tables. Indeed, barbecue joints have to carefully balance all of these factors to provide a smooth experience for guests.

Everything starts with the unique nature of the cooking process. Because it takes as long as 12-14 hours to cook barbecue, the amount of food that can be served on a given day is preordained. Barbecue is cooked in batches starting the day before, and when that batch is sold out, it’s not possible just to cook more because of the low-and-slow cooking process.

That’s another refrain from the conspiracy crowd: “Why don’t they just cook more?” Because smokers are big, unruly beasts, and there is only a limited amount of space for where they can be placed.

So every day, barbecue joints have a limited supply of barbecue they can sell. This compresses the time they have to sell it — which is why most places aren’t open for dinner. The demand at lunch results in all the food being served and the infamous “Sold out” sign going up in early afternoon.

But what if a pitmaster could produce an unlimited supply of barbecue? Would that mean no lines? Again, the answer is no, because the other pieces of the barbecue-service puzzle factor in, specifically the cutting and ordering stations.

When it comes to service, the most important member of the team is the meat cutter. We all cut meat (while eating a steak, for example), so most people think it’s a trivial process. On the contrary, meat cutters are some of the most skilled workers at a barbecue joint. A pitmaster can cook world-class barbecue, but if an inexperienced cutter slices the brisket in the wrong direction relative to the grain, or if the slices are too thick or thin, the brisket is ruined.

So for most barbecue joints, there is one or at most two meat-cutting stations, often manned by the owner himself. It is a necessary bottleneck that is created to ensure the barbecue is properly prepared.

Another complaint is, “Why don’t they have more order stations?” For counter service, in which you place your order first, it seems natural that adding more order stations would speed up the process. But assuming there is even any space to add cash registers, all those orders are again going back to one or two cutters. In this case, the orders would simply pile up at the meat-cutting stations.

But let’s say we have an unlimited supply of barbecue, meat cutters and order stations. Would that solve the line issue? No, because barbecue joints don’t have an unlimited place for people to sit and eat. Dining rooms tend to be small with a limited number of tables. So even if you got your tray of barbecue instantly, you’d be in a line holding it waiting for a seat to open up.

In effect, waiting in line combined with the deliberate ordering process is a self-regulating way to modulate the flow of guests into the dining room, thus ensuring everyone gets a table to enjoy his or her barbecue.

Far from being a marketing ploy, the presence of a line at a barbecue joint is usually a sign that the pitmaster/owner is committed to serving only the highest quality of barbecue.

How the HOUBBQ Guide helps: Each barbecue joint’s profile page includes Location Details with Ordering info, including notes about line protocols and ordering procedure. If there are any special instructions or notes for the line at a specific joint, it will be listed here.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle. 
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