Ronnie Killen introduced his new brisket to the media last week, but the chef had more than the benefits of upgrading the meat at Killen’s Barbecue from USDA Prime to a wagyu-Angus product from Snake River Farms on his mind.
Over the course of a 30-minute discussion with several local food writers, the chef that CultureMap frequently refers to as “Houston’s king of meat” commented on Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s 50 best barbecue joints. That the magazine omitted Killen’s Barbecue from its ranked top 10 raised some eyebrows, and Killen used the opportunity to comment about the other restaurants on the list and what it means for his restaurant.
Killen mostly spoke without a lot of input from the media, so the headings below are only a guide to the subject and do not reflect direct questions from reporters (his responses have also been slightly edited for length and clarity). The provocative answers may cause some consternation among Texas Monthly fans, but the unvarnished opinions also represent a refreshing amount of honesty from a man who has little to gain from potentially alienating the publication.
On whether he was surprised not to be included in the top 10:
Ronnie Killen: Not really . . . Let’s just say it’s hard, because I know what we serve and I know what we go through on a daily basis. I told the Houston Chronicle on the podcast we did — Snow’s is number one, Cattleack three, Franklin’s number two — I go, it’s not really about accessibility on what you do.
To me, when you think about this, if you have a line that’s five hours, how many people can actually do that? Not a lot of people, unless you’re flying in or driving in and you know that’s what you’re there for. The normal public won’t wait for that. You get people who are barbecue enthusiasts going to these places that know they’re going to have to wait. They’re happy to wait.
We get people, just general public people, that want this stuff yesterday, and they don’t really care (as much) about quality. They care (more) about quantity. It’s about, how much food am I going to get? That’s the mentality of a lot of people that are locals, in my opinion.
You think about Snow’s — I’ve never been there — they’re there one day a week. That’s almost like a hobby to me. If I could do it one day a week, first of all, I wouldn’t have my employees, because they couldn’t afford to work here one day a week or two days a week with prepping. I hand it to them that they can do that.
On the volume that Killen’s serves compared to other barbecue joints:
RK: The next barbecue place I was thinking about doing would definitely be a small capacity type, more artisan-style. Would I trade what we do in sales to do a fraction of that? No, because this place does too well.
In that capacity that we do, you think about 10 percent bad brisket, which is a low percentage. If you cook 100 briskets, that means you have 10 briskets that could be either way. You think about how many people that actually feeds, it feeds 100 people, because I usually figure one brisket (for) 10 people.
When you start figuring that out, and you look at other stuff, I’m going, if you have 25 briskets, and you have two that are bad, the percentage is a lot lower of people who are unhappy with what you serve. I wish that we could do less.
Over time, I remember when I first opened this place, and I don’t really like to throw numbers out, I wanted to do $10,000 a day. If I can do $10,000 a day, I’m gonna be happy. On the weekends, we do up to $35,000.
The numbers that we do and the volume that we do, it’s a lot. Especially being open for dinner, we don’t have that rush of people going, I gotta get there (because) they’re going to be out of food at 1 pm. We still have a steady line all day, but it’s different because people know they can come here later on and get the same barbecue. It’s good, but it doesn’t create that (attitude of) I’m going to camp out in line all day.
On the one aspect of Texas Monthly’s criticism that upset him:
RK: I’m upset with Texas Monthly because they said our restaurant is built for efficiency not soul. When you think about what this building used to be, it used to be a kids’ cafeteria for the schools back in the '50s. It was a daycare, it was an administration building, so many different things. It went back to what it was.
As far as soul, I’m going, ok, we don’t have soul because we don’t have smoke all over the walls, all over everything, because we keep it clean.
We did the Behind the Pits series with them probably about five months ago. They sold out in 45 minutes when we did. They called me, and they go, Ronnie, please, we need 12 people. Can you do 12 people for us, because our VIPs didn’t get a chance to get tickets, and we love Killen’s. I’m going, we’ll figure it out. We’ll do it.
But then they came back and said we didn’t have soul. It was good for you when you were making money. I’m kinda pissed off about that. I’ll say it. That’s what it is. We’re good enough for that, but we’re not good enough (to be ranked in the top 10).
I don’t care about ratings. Ratings are opinions. Opinions are like something else — everybody’s got one. That’s my opinion on that.
The thing is, it’s going to push us harder to be better everyday, being consistent. I think with Graham (Laborde), hiring him, and being at all the restaurants, getting a new set of eyes. That’s what I think is important for us, continuing to be better. That’s what we do.
I didn’t mean for this to be bash Texas Monthly or anything like that. That’s where this whole thing started. My issues are going back before the issue even came out. That’s why I posted the morning of. I just said did we deserve to be there? No. A lot of people did, but I didn’t think we did.
Has not being in the top 10 affected business at the restaurant?
On his plans for Texas Monthly’s MeatUp event this weekend and participating in the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival:
RK: Also, we’re doing the MeatUp thing. I’ve got to say this. There’s probably going to be people who are upset about it, but I posted something not too long ago. I posted a picture of the brisket, and I said this is soulless, dry brisket.
Our dish that I put on the paper is soulless, dry brisket. I’m sure I’m going to get shit for it, but I don’t care. It’s just a way of playing back with them. They may be upset, but I don’t care.
We do a lot of stuff for Texas Monthly. The Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival, the first two years I went up there and did that, they give us $1,000 (for food) to do that. I spent probably $10,000 . . . That’s not even counting travel, hotel, where we stayed, putting up the people. I’m not doing it this year. It’s, like, sorry.
I know that sounds like a sore sport and everything, but that little comment really made me mad. I don’t care about (where we placed). We’ve got lines, my sales are where we are, that’s all I care about. And making people happy. If people are still happy to come to my restaurant, I’m good with that. If we don’t have a line, then maybe I’ll think about it. It’s ok. It’s all good. Hopefully, they won’t be too mad.