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THE ROOTS OF SUCCESS

Barbecue master Aaron Franklin looks back at his childhood introduction to restaurants in Bryan-College Station

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Aaron Franklin

Aaron Franklin opened his Franklin Barbecue trailer in 2009, then moved into the brick-and-mortar location in Austin in 2011. 

Tuesday marks the beginning of the work week at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. The line forms early, hours before the restaurant’s doors open at 11 a.m.

On a recent April morning, two Austin men were first among the dozens of people waiting to get into the restaurant, setting up shop by the front doors at 6:45 a.m. Folding chairs lined the exterior for those willing to wait, while country music played softly in the background.

This is what it takes to get lunch from the joint that Texas Monthly once said was “serving the best barbecue in the known universe.” Owner Aaron Franklin has become one of the most revered barbecue pit masters in Texas and across the globe.

All the accolades Franklin has accumulated over the past decade can be traced back to humble roots in Bryan-College Station. As a child, Franklin cut onions, made sauce, scooped sides and buttered Texas toast at his parents’ barbecue restaurant in Bryan.

Aaron Franklin

Patrons gather early to wait in line at Franklin Barbecue in Austin on April 19.

“I worked one of the positions in the kitchen and it was just the coolest thing ever,” Franklin said. “I had such a blast.”

Now his restaurant has reached such notoriety that it has attracted visitors including former President Barack Obama and such food personalities as Gordon Ramsay and the late Anthony Bourdain.

Franklin was the first pit master to earn best chef honors by the James Beard Foundation. He’s a bestselling author. He’s hosted his own PBS show and has his own Master Class series on Texas barbecue.

“Certainly, I’ve covered Aaron Franklin, some people would say more often than necessary, but he’s the most important figure in Texas barbecue,” said Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly. “He’s the most influential figure in Texas barbecue right now for sure. A person like that requires that kind of coverage.”

‘We were always making stuff’

Born in Bryan, Franklin spent his first 18 years in the area. His father, 84-year-old Ben Franklin, is from Bryan and went to Bryan High School, graduating in 1955. Aaron’s paternal grandparents are from Hearne. His mother, Debbie Franklin, 68, worked at Texas A&M University for about 20 years in the Department of Architecture and later as the assistant to the director of the Memorial Student Center before retiring in 2019. Ben and Debbie still reside in College Station.

Fingerprints from Aaron’s father are all across Bryan-College Station. Ben helped restaurateur Ken Martin open such places as Pepe Taco in Bryan, and he served as the general manager, or “colonel,” of the Fort Shiloh steakhouse that stood on Texas Avenue near the College Station city cemetery.

Aaron said Ben worked with developer John Culpepper to develop Manor East Mall in Bryan, an area now known as the Tejas Center.

“I kind of, from a young age, was always helping my dad paint or helping him work on the truck or helping him go clear out equipment from some restaurant, or helping make something,” Aaron said. “We were always making stuff. I think that’s really my foundation as a child.”

Aaron’s maternal grandparents moved to Bryan in the early 1970s and bought a record store called Tip Top Records on Coulter Drive in 1982. Part of the shop’s operation was repairing cassettes and car stereos, which led to Aaron fiddling with motors and parts from a young age. He said those skills carried over later in life when he opened his restaurant. He built most things, including his barbecue pits, on his own.

“Franklin Barbecue’s always been kind of a DIY kind of thing,” Aaron said. “We don’t really hire out for anything. We just keep it all in-house, and I think I kind of get that from my upbringing.”

In addition to spending hours with his grandfather at the record store, they made frequent visits to Martin’s Place in Bryan, a barbecue joint that’s been open since 1925. Young Aaron would sit on his grandfather’s knee while he played dominoes and drank beer with his buddies.

“I don’t think this apple fell far from the tree,” Aaron said. “It turns out I’m pretty much a perfect combination of my grandfather and my dad.”

‘I was soaking it in’

In the late 1980s, Aaron got his first taste of life at a barbecue restaurant when his father bought Ben’s Bar-Be-Que — from another man named Ben — at the corner of Texas 21 and Sims Avenue in Bryan. Ben and Debbie owned the restaurant for about three years, and Aaron said it planted the seed that would later blossom into what is now Franklin Barbecue.

“Aaron, he spent every day after school [there] and he loved it,” Debbie said. “I had no idea that barbecue was going to make such an impression on him, but it did.”

Ben’s Bar-Be-Que, which featured a horseshoe bar and a traditional brick pit that used wood to cook and smoke meats, was a basic operation, Aaron said. The restaurant was only open for lunch, serving staples such as brisket and pork ribs, and featured some east Texas flair with a rib sandwich. The sides were the classics: beans, cole slaw and potato salad. A small dessert menu included banana pudding and snow cones with banana syrup.

Aaron’s potato salad is a riff of his mother’s version that was used at Ben’s Bar-Be-Que, he said. When Franklin Barbecue first opened in 2009, the menu featured a rib sandwich like the one at Ben’s, but was later replaced with a sandwich called the Tipsy Texan that is still on the menu today.

While Aaron tended to his chopping and scooping duties, Debbie waited on customers and worked the register. Ben cooked and cut the meat. Debbie said she recalls Aaron hiding in boxes, playing with the fire and doing homework at the end of the bar.

“I was soaking it in, and like, ‘Wow, this is cool,’” Aaron said. “I remember the energy of lunches being really exciting. And I was just a kid. I would sit there and watch TV in the afternoons and drink a Coke once the lunch thing was over, but the energy … being able to see that and how cool that is stuck a little bit.”

Running a restaurant with fewer than five people proved to be too much for the Franklins, Aaron said, and led to them selling the restaurant. He enjoyed the experience, but said the long hours were tough on his parents.

“The funny thing was — I didn’t realize, as a 10-, 11-, 12-year-old wouldn’t — I didn’t realize how hard they were working,” Aaron said. “I think if I had known that, I never would’ve gotten into this, because when they started I was like, ‘This is amazing!’”

‘Things started coming together’

Music became one of Aaron’s passions during his teenage years, and is still one of his hobbies. He grew up watching “Austin City Limits,” and he attended shows at the Stafford Opera House in Downtown Bryan, now known as the Grand Stafford Theater. Debbie said Aaron worked at her parents’ record store as a teenager.

Soon after graduating from A&M Consolidated High School in 1996, Aaron moved to Austin. He had older friends from high school that had moved there to pursue music and he decided to join them. Aaron, who plays drums and guitar, started playing shows with different bands.

“Working with my parents at the music store, he was really into music,” Debbie said. “He played guitar, he played bass. We bought him a drum set, and then later on he bought a really nice drum set. … He had a little band and he would go out and they would have little shows. Then when he moved to Austin, he had shows on Sixth Street, your typical music scene.”

While on tour, Aaron said he discovered a fellow band member was into barbecue. The two got to talking, and the other musician asked if he had been to traditional joints like Cooper’s in Llano and Louie Mueller in Taylor. Aaron hadn’t, and the two began traveling to explore different restaurants around the state.

It didn’t take long for Aaron to fall in love with barbecue, he said, both the food and the aesthetic.

“The ambience of these places is so cool,” Aaron said. “There’s the old screen doors with the worn-in handles. I’m a nut for old stuff. I’m super into antiques and midcentury stuff and older styles of architecture. … All that kind of stuff kicks back to a different time, different place.”

Thoughts of innovation soon came to mind, he said. He began wondering what made brisket so tender, and if it could be more tender, or cooked in a different way with more fat trimmed off of the top.

“It really got me thinking, how to overanalyze all of this stuff,” Aaron said. “And really, I’m still learning, and we’re still changing and doing stuff. But I think all of the things started coming together for me. I got really, really nerdy about barbecue about 20 years ago.”

Aaron Franklin

Ribs, brisket and turkey are among the menu highlights at Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

‘Something special’

When Aaron fired up an offset barbecue pit in 2002 for the first time, it triggered some nostalgia. Before he attempted to smoke his first brisket, he had to call one person: his father.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I bought a brisket. I bought a little barbecue pit. How do I cook this thing?’” Aaron recalled. “He was like, ‘Well, just build a fire and throw it on until it’s black. It’ll taste pretty smoky. Just cook it until it’s black. It should be done.’”

It didn’t turn out well, Aaron said. But he stayed at the craft. He started cooking for friends in the backyard and then small amounts of people. Seven years after that first failed brisket, he bought a trailer for $300 and opened up Franklin Barbecue behind a friend’s coffee roaster in Austin.

Just prior to the trailer opening in 2009, his paternal grandmother died and left his parents with a small inheritance. Aaron said his parents helped him buy necessities, like a warmer, that helped him launch the trailer, and bought him a welder that he used to build his first barbecue pits. In 2011, Franklin Barbecue moved into its current brick-and-mortar location, and it has grown from cooking two briskets per day into a booming business that now makes more than 100 a day.

“I don’t think we would’ve opened if it weren’t for [my family’s] help, for sure,” Aaron said. “That was to get to the trailer, and then the rest of course is kind of history.”

Vaughn said he first visited Franklin Barbecue in January 2010. It was in the trailer’s first year, so Vaughn and his family ate at a picnic table in an empty gravel lot. A month later, Vaughn stopped by again a half-hour before the trailer opened and hollered at Aaron if he could wrap up some brisket to go. Vaughn made a third visit that September before the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest in Austin, and said he was miffed when he arrived 15 minutes early and found a small line waiting for the trailer to open.

“It was that meal that I was like, ‘Man, they really need to be inviting this guy to the next barbecue festival,’” Vaughn recalled.

At that time, Vaughn was writing his own barbecue blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ. He had a star rating that featured a sixth star, which described a place worthy of a honeymoon destination. Franklin Barbecue was the first place Vaughn awarded a sixth star.

Shortly after Vaughn joined Texas Monthly in 2013, the publication ranked Franklin the top barbecue joint in the state. It was ranked No. 2 in 2017 and was No. 7 in Texas Monthly’s latest Top 50 ratings released last October.

“For a pit master to get the sort of accolades that he’s gotten, I think that would’ve been really far-fetched for anyone to have guessed,” Vaughn said. “But I did know then that the barbecue that he was serving was something special.”

Aaron Franklin

Jeff Savell, left, head of the Texas A&M Department of Animal Science's meat science section, has collaborated with Aaron Franklin at Camp Brisket and Barbecue Summer Camp.

‘I get to visit with a lot of old friends’

Some of Aaron’s trips back to Bryan-College Station these days are to events, including Camp Brisket and Barbecue Summer Camp, hosted by Texas A&M's meat science program within the Department of Animal Science. These annual events allow aspiring cooks to come together, interact with and pick the minds of the state’s best pit masters on how to prepare one of Texas’ most sacred meats.

“The cool thing, and I think this is what Camp Brisket and Barbecue Summer Camp tend to do, is it brings the same people back every time, so it’s people that I never get to hang out with,” Aaron said. “It’s kind of work-related, so it’s feasible to actually show up, but I get to visit with a lot of old friends that I never get to hang out with, so that’s super fun.”

Jeff Savell, who runs both barbecue events, said they are a great opportunity for attendees to see and hear about Aaron’s knowledge and passion.

“When he does something, he does it full,” said Savell, who was recently named A&M's Vice Chancellor and Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “He’s been so gracious to come up and show exactly how he goes through and trims briskets before, and how he slices briskets. It’s an art and a science, and he entertains all the questions. And I think all the people are mesmerized whenever they have watched him do that.”

It wasn’t until after Savell met Aaron that the two made the connection that Savell knew Ben in the 1980s when they attended conferences and meetings about food service.

“I didn’t have any idea until years and years later that Ben was Aaron’s father, but he helped me tremendously know more about the restaurant business, and he was always so gracious to me when we would go over and eat and visit. He just gave me a lot of insights,” Savell said. “Fast-forward decades later, and all of the sudden you have this relationship with the son. I feel like that’s kind of an interesting time that I knew Aaron’s father through this other way. And then you come and have this connection years later, and you still see someone who’s committed to educating people and being friendly, being in this business.”

Aaron Franklin

Aaron Franklin, center, poses for a picture with fans Andres Rincon, left, and Kateryne Olaya, both visiting from Colombia, at Franklin Barbecue in Austin on April 19. 

‘They love what they do’

On that April morning in Austin, an ever-growing group of people waited for Franklin Barbecue to open, and it wasn’t just locals. Several people were from out of state, and there was a couple visiting from Colombia. A woman at the end of the line read a book to pass the time, and said she would be able to cover multiple chapters before finally getting a chance to order at the counter.

About 10 minutes before the restaurant opened, those in line prepared to move. Asked if it was worth the wait, one of the two men at the front of the line replied, “Hope so, we’re about to find out!”

Vaughn said the special thing about the restaurant is that it serves the demand for consistently great Texas barbecue.

“Every visit, without fail, that’s the thing that I think Franklin brought,” Vaughn said. “That expectation that if you come to my restaurant, you stand in this long line … you’re going to get great barbecue at the end of it. We’re not going to have an off day or on days, or this or that. We’re going to be great every time, every day, every brisket, along down the line. I don’t think before he came along that barbecue joints considered cooking that way, and that customers demanded that out of their favorite barbecue joint.”

Debbie said she’s proud that her son has stayed humble amid his rise in the barbecue world.

“They do what they do, they love what they do, and that’s why they’re successful,” Debbie said.

When Aaron emerged from the kitchen and entered the dining room, it only took seconds for most of those at tables and in line to fix their eyes on the acclaimed owner. He held friendly conversations with patrons and was glad to pose for photos.

It’s a long way from chopping onions and serving sides in Bryan, but still connects him to those childhood years.

“I feel like I’ve got such an odd combination of small-town barbecue stuff, growing up at family businesses meets super-Austin-music, rock ’n’ roll kid,” Aaron said. “I’ve got these — like everybody — you kind of collect weird influences and inspirations throughout your life. And they’ve all come together for Franklin Barbecue.”

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