Barbecue is for everybody. It’s an all-American culinary tradition practiced in backyards across the continent, by people from just about any background.
But barbecue can also be for almost nobody — like the select few customers who can afford to take a couple of hours to stand in line at a restaurant that’s open only one or two mealtimes per week. At some barbecue places, waiting in line is a half-day activity, like a Super Bowl party, but in the morning.
Now that prestige has entered barbecue culture, a working-class food has been co-opted, and a cuisine with deep roots in African American and Mexican cultures is increasingly seen as exclusive and hierarchical.
All of which annoys Travis Heim, the democratizing, brisket-for-the-people co-owner of Heim Barbecue. When he started the business with his wife, Emma, the Heims just wanted to serve good food. But now his goal is different: no lines and recognition for everybody.
“Having to wait four or five hours, that goes against my belief of how you do restaurants,” Travis Heim says. “That’s sort of why we do what we do, where we make really good food but the mechanic that works next door at Mockingbird can actually go and enjoy it and go back to work.”
Heim Barbecue’s Mockingbird Lane location — its third; the others are in Fort Worth — has been open for only a few weeks, but business is booming. There’s already talk about adding another smoker. High demand is not a problem the Heims expected to have in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s a problem nonetheless because they believe in serving everybody.
“Almost every minute of the day the smokers are completely full, which is awesome, but it’s a little hurdle that we didn’t think we’d have,” Travis Heim says. “I talk about how I don’t want any lines, and we still get lines. We want to make craft barbecue, but make it actually accessible. We want to do lunch, dinner, breakfast now with breakfast tacos, and that's hard. The consistency, the quality — you’re not just doing one rib cook, you’re doing maybe three or four throughout the day.”
The Heims’ experience with making large volumes of barbecue gave them the courage to open new locations across North Texas. Not many of the Dallas area’s favorite barbecue spots have multiple locations; Hutchins BBQ and Tender Smokehouse do, but Pecan Lodge, Cattleack Barbeque, Smokey John’s, Smokey Joe’s, The Slow Bone, One90 Smoked Meats and others stick to just one pit.
But Heim Barbecue’s Dallas debut builds on the successes, and the lessons, of the Fort Worth originals, which in turn came after the Heims started out in a food truck. In the early days, they were more focused on producing good food — and paying the bills — and less focused on the importance of hospitality.
“I’d got laid off from a job in an oil and gas company that I was working for,” Travis Heim says. “It was kind of just, well, I like cooking barbecue, and I’m sort of good at it, so let’s try and make this work. The first day we opened, I think we had $100 in our bank account. We thought, ‘This is totally insane.’ That first year, it was, do we have enough money to pay for our light bill or our phone bill? There was no well-thought-out plan for how to grow our brand or anything.
“The goal of what we do is to make people happy, to make people have a good experience,” he says. “But I can assure you that was not what we were thinking about when we were thinking, 'Do we have enough gas to drive home?'”
Now that the Heims have gas money, they’ve got a lot more on their minds. They’re working daily on maintaining consistency across three high-profile locations. They’re working on introducing an employee 401(k) plan to go with the company’s other benefits. And they’re trying as hard as they can to serve crowds of customers quickly.
Another aspect of the Heims’ democratizing mission is their belief in sharing the credit. Ask Travis Heim about the term “pitmaster,” and he’ll go on a little rant about the way celebrity chef culture is used to erase the contributions of other workers.
“That sort of celebrity chef bullshit has gone into the barbecue world, so this idea of a pitmaster — is a pitmaster somebody who cooks barbecue once a month in their backyard, or is it the guys who work for us who wake up every morning and cook their ass off?” Heim asks. “There are so many people that are involved with the process of making the food, trimming, doing everything that’s involved with it, so to be like, ‘This one figurehead is the reason behind everything,’ it annoys me. I see a lot of people, especially people who are minorities, they don’t get a lot of credit. They’re not on the Food Network with the title pitmaster. It annoys me.”
That’s not to say that the Heims don’t love so-called craft barbecue hot spots with celebrity pitmasters. They love those joints just as much as everyone else does. But they’re trying to model a different kind of business.
“I think none of the barbecue places would be opening in the last five years if it wasn’t for Aaron Franklin,” Travis Heim says of the James Beard award-winning owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin. “That’s great, and it’s my favorite barbecue. But we can do 99% of that, but we can also make it to where you don’t have to stand in line for two hours. That’s just my personal bullshit.”
For that attitude, Dallasites — including Love Field workers and travelers — can be thankful. The only thing better than a great two-meat plate is being able to enjoy it over a normal-length lunch hour.
Heim Barbecue, 3130 W. Mockingbird Lane (Love Field). 469-397-4346. Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.