New Restaurant Drama
Legendary barbecue restaurant fires potential investors, but it's still committed to moving into Houston
Barbecue fans in Houston experienced a collective wave of euphoria last year when Louie Mueller Barbecue owner Wayne Mueller revealed he was making plans to open a restaurant in Houston. Why wouldn't they?
The beloved joint in Taylor holds a constant spot in the Top Five of Texas Monthly's statewide barbecue rankings and has been blessed with a James Beard Award.
The only problem is that nothing has happened since that initial announcement. No lease. No construction. No delicious, pepper-crusted brisket and beef ribs being served to an endless line of meat-obsessed Houstonians. With Mueller set to appear on Sunday at Saint Arnold Brewing Company for the second Super Beef Sunday and to reprise his role as one of the headliners at this year's Houston Barbecue Festival on April 26, the time seemed right for an update on his plans.
"I didn’t have my investors lined up as soundly as I should have. Since then, I’ve probably fired six potential investors."
Does Wayne Mueller still plan to open a Houston restaurant?
"Our intention is still fully to be there," he tells CultureMap. "Last year, we sort of leaked out a little ahead of schedule. I didn’t have my investors lined up as soundly as I should have. Since then, I’ve probably fired six potential investors."
Mueller concedes that finding the right partner has proven to be more difficult than he expected, but he has a very specific set of ideas about the sort of people he's looking for.
"I came close a couple of times and pulled back because my gut didn’t feel right . . . I’m looking for real synergies. I’m looking for a partner who can bring things to the table that I don’t have," he says. "That’s not just capital. I've been dealing with people in the hospitality industry, but I’ve come to understand that’s not the best match for me.
"What I really need is someone with a better knowledge of real estate, property development, traffic flow and redevelopment that can help us best choose our location and develop the space that would work the best."
Houston Barbecue Power
Despite the delays, Mueller remains committed to Houston. "I want people to know I’m serious about coming there. I love Houston," he says. "The last thing I want is any enthusiasm to die or the embers to go cold, which is why we renewed to the Saint Arnold event, why we’re coming back to the Houston Barbecue Festival."
Mueller is anxious to open but won't commit to a bad deal. "This lag has been a plow on my butt, but you don’t want to do the wrong thing. I’m in this for the long haul," he says.
"It won’t be called Louie Mueller Barbecue. It will still have the Mueller base brand. I want to decouple the notion that we’re expanding it."
Ideally, Mueller will be able to identify the right partner in the next couple of months and close on a property by the end of the spring. If that comes to fruition, the restaurant would likely open in late 2015 or early 2016.
Turning to his plans for the restaurant, Mueller wants people to know that the Houston restaurant won't simply be a clone of the original location. "It won’t be called Louie Mueller Barbecue. It will still have the Mueller base brand. I want to decouple the notion that we’re expanding it. I want it to be a Houston establishment not 'Taylor East,' " he says.
In order to give the restaurant a Houston feel, the decor will incorporate elements of the city's history, particularly the areas in the Second Ward and East End that Mueller has scouted for a location. A self-described "history buff," Mueller adds that the neighborhoods "represent how Houston grew as a city initially as a port town. I really like the old area."
While the menu will serve the central Texas-style barbecue that's become a worldwide phenomenon, Mueller also plans to include some east Texas and Gulf Coast elements in the menu. "We’re going to look at some potential seafood ideas. At least to add in some flavor or flair to the menu," he says.
One thing that won't change is Louie Mueller's cafeteria line style service. Mueller acknowledges that waiting in line — sometimes for an hour or more — stinks. "Unlike having other distractions for people like a bar or waiting for a table, it’s really just a cattle call. That’s a new thing for people," he says, but the process has tangible benefits. "It’s essential that people see what we’re serving them, that they can choose what it is and see that it’s fresh."
While the idea of using servers seems appealing, Mueller fears the lag between when the meat is cut and ultimately brought to the table would be too long. "Once the bark is breached, the clock is ticking. You don’t have a lot of time on these meats before they start to dry," he notes.
Houstonians who've dined at either Killen's Barbecue in Pearland or CorkScrew BBQ in Spring have learned that, although the waiting may be the hardest part of consuming top quality barbecue, it's worth it in the end.
Hopefully, the waiting on Houston's very own Mueller outpost comes to an end soon. The delay will definitely be worth it.
Louie Mueller Barbecue and CorkScrew BBQ will be at Super Beef Sunday Feb. 1 at Saint Arnold Brewing Company. Tickets are $50.