Houston Barbecue History

Leonard McNeill & Lenox Bar-B-Q

In 1949, Harrisburg Boulevard east of downtown was a bustling center of activity, both legal and illegal. These were postwar boom years, and the street was lined with speakeasys and juke joints filled with blue-collar workers from the oil-patch industries of the area.

At Henry’s, a general store on the corner of Delmar Street, locals would gather in an upstairs room to play cards and shoot dice.

One night, the festivities included a man who owned a restaurant across the street on Harrisburg called the Lenox Café, named after nearby Lenox Street. Down to his last dime, he put up the deed for his restaurant as collateral for anyone who’d play him in a game of craps.

Leonard McNeill, a regular at these games, took the offer and won. At the time, he was 32 years old with a wife and young son, and worked as a machinist at the nearby Hughes Tool Co. And he’d just won himself a restaurant.

McNeill would eventually transform Lenox Café into Lenox Bar-B-Q and become one of the most celebrated restaurateurs in Houston history. At its peak, Lenox Bar-B-Q catered some 200 tons of smoked meat a year, rivaling Fort Worth’s Walter Jetton as the king of Texas barbecue caterers.

Leonard McNeill - Lenox Bar-B-QLeonard McNeill ca. 1960
Photo courtesy Lenox Bar-B-Q

And it all started with a dusty café at 5407 Harrisburg.

“It wasn’t much to look at,” says Charles McNeill, Leonard’s younger son, who told the story of how his father acquired the place. “Maybe six stools and three booths and a cigar box for a cash register.” It was a hamburger and sandwich joint.

In 1955, McNeill got his first catering job with the Houston chapter of the International Typographical Union. For big catering jobs, barbecue was a natural choice – people loved it, and it could be produced in volume. McNeill’s barbecue catering business took off.

The original café burned down in 1957, and McNeill built a bigger restaurant and catering facility at 5420 Harrisburg, at the corner of Altic Street, where Lenox Bar-B-Q still stands today. Over the next 20 years, it became one of the biggest catering companies in Texas.

By all accounts, Leonard McNeill was a gregarious and popular businessman and natural showman. He was a consummate “networker,” in today’s parlance.

“Leonard would go to business meetings and come back with scraps of paper sticking out of his pockets,” says Erik Mrok, current owner of Lenox Bar-B-Q. “They’d be scribbled orders for catering jobs like ‘Lunch for 200 at the Exxon refinery in Baytown next Tuesday.’ He was a great salesman.”

McNeill tapped into his connections at the oil companies to become the go-to caterer for the refineries around Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur. He became closely involved in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo as well as the Houston and Texas Restaurant Associations.

And if that wasn’t enough, McNeill is credited with inventing the upright, rotisserie-style barbecue pit still used today in many barbecue joints.

According to Charles McNeill, his dad bought a rotisserie bread-baking oven from a bakery down the street and re-engineered it with a firebox and smokestack. This allowed for even larger volumes of barbecue to be cooked for the expanding business.

The Lenox empire continued to expand through the 1970s. McNeill’s eldest son Leonard Jr., known as Jeff, moved to Las Vegas to open a restaurant and catering operation with help from contacts with the Howard Hughes Corp.

With guidance from his father, Jeff McNeill even opened a barbecue joint in Las Vegas called Hungry Farmer BBQ. Though that location would close, a former employee of Lenox would return to Houston and open several Hungry Farmer BBQ joints, two of which still exist (no longer related to Lenox or the McNeill family).

McNeill also tried his hand at a barbecue franchise. He partnered with a Houston restaurateur named Lloyd Smallwood to open Longhorn Barbecue at 1630 Gessner, complete with a drive-through window. That venture never got past the inaugural location. When it closed, the operations team would go on to help build the Luther’s Bar-B-Q chain that was eventually acquired by Pappas Restaurants.

Leonard McNeill died suddenly in 1977, and son Charles took over the operation. He eventually sold it to Mrok, a business acquaintance.

Though hampered by the light rail construction along Harrisburg, Lenox still does a big catering business, as well as individual to-go orders during the week.

If you visited in the past and placed a to-go order, Leona Joseph probably was the person the one filling it. She worked at Lenox starting in the 1970s and had fond memories of her old boss, whom she and everyone else knew as “Bully McNeill.” (The nickname “Bully” at the time referred to someone who was jovial and happy-go-lucky).

“Bully always took care of his employees,” said Joseph. “Years ago, Harrisburg had used car lots everywhere. One day, Bully came in and handed car keys to all the cooks. He bought them cars as a bonus. He was a good man in my book.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
J.C. Reid
Houston Chronicle Barbecue Columnist
J.C. Reid
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