Pecan Lodge’s Justin & Diane Fourton on the Challenge of Great Barbecue

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The enduring trendiness of barbecue aside, Dallas has endured many lulls in the smoked meats scene. For years, mediocre chain restaurant barbecue dominated the landscape, until a tiny booth that opened in 2010 in the Dallas Farmers Market put Dallas barbecue on the map (with a little help from Guy Fieri). Since then, Pecan Lodge has moved to Deep Ellum and  a slew of barbecue restaurants have opened, but Pecan Lodge still endures as Dallas’ most beloved, and arguably best, barbecue joint.

Of course, with the wild success of a place like Pecan Lodge comes a multitude of challenges. The line wrapped around the door at this Deep Ellum institution (yes, it is already an institution) means more than just some damn fine brisket behind those doors. We sat down with Justin and Diane Fourton, owners of Pecan Lodge, to talk about the restaurant’s transition from a tiny stall at the Farmers Market to a massive and trendy restaurant, the tons of beef that go into those smokers every week and what the future holds. Hint: there just might be brunch involved.

Pecan Lodge seems like two separate restaurants, or maybe two eras of the same spot. The experience of ordering Pecan Lodge at the Farmers Market and the experience of eating in this huge restaurant with a patio are completely different. What was it like to make that transition?

Justin: It feels that way to us, too. The weird thing is that it feels like we’ve been here longer than we were at the Farmers Market. This feels more like home to us, being able to have our own dining room and patio and bar. All the things, in our minds, that Pecan Lodge was. Having those things exist makes Pecan Lodge at the Farmers Market seem like a blip on the radar.

Diane: It was a step. This is the complete expression of ourselves, but the Farmers Market was special to us for a lot of reasons. There was a pretty tight community in there. I miss those folks from that time. We were always really busy and kept our heads down, tried not to get involved in the drama that happens when there’s a lot of folks in one space. On the upside, we got to get to know a lot of people. They were good people, people who were trying to just do something for their families. That was a cool experience. One by one, people started leaving or they were asked to leave, and that place started to change. It was scary for us to make that jump. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. Would people still come down for lunch? Is it going to be different?

Are people going to come to Deep Ellum? That was a gamble. We love this area, and I’ve said many times that sentimentality was a big part of our decision. I spent a lot of time here when I was younger, and when we came back and had grown-up jobs, you hardly recognized it. We didn’t know if people would still come here. But it felt right, and it felt good to make a choice that wasn’t just about us. This was a chance for us to be part of a community. So we just said a prayer, crossed our fingers and jumped off the cliff again.

When you moved to Deep Ellum, do you think that your clientele followed you? Or did it change?

Diane: It’s always been a mix, and it’s still a mix, but it’s more of a mix. What may have changed is that people may come to see us who might not normally come to Deep Ellum. There are some different people coming here, and I think that was true at the Farmers Market. There were people who stood in line there who hadn’t stepped foot in a farmers market in years.

Justin: It works the other way, too. When we were at the Farmers Market, there was a part of our business that was very, very localized. We were feeding the farmers and the landscapers and the people in the businesses in that area. We have the same thing here, it’s just a different group. We see a lot of folks from DART because there’s a rail line right here, we see more police and fire department folks. We’re a little closer and more convenient for a lot of people.

Diane: There’s all kinds of folks, and they’re all standing in line together. It’s funny because that’s how I like to do my dinner parties. You have all kinds of people, representing every different faith or religion or no religion, every race, creed, sexual persuasion. We mix everybody in, and for three hours, we all sit down together. Maybe we don’t talk about the hot topics, we just enjoy the food. I think it’s a nice reminder that we’re all just really the same. There’s something that feeds the soul about being able to come together and just have a meal. I don’t like labels, and I don’t like to be boxed in. I relate to a lot of different kinds of people, so I’m happy and proud that we have lots of different kinds of people here.

Justin: We opened on a Friday night, and the Saturday of that first weekend we opened, I looked out and in one glance around the dining room, there were two families sitting inside. Their kids were outside drawing with sidewalk chalk. There was a couple standing in line, one of them was dressed like Jesus, and the other was dressed like Little Bo Peep. There were two firemen sitting at the bar. It was this awesome mix of people.

Diane: You see pictures from that night, and it’s a circus. It’s glorious.

You’ve been open for a while now, and the one thing that never seems to die at Pecan Lodge is the line. Have people gotten used to it now? Are they more willing to put up with the wait?

Diane: I want to think, and I hope this is the case, that they see that we’ve made a genuine effort to make everything go as smoothly as possible. In the beginning, there was nothing that we could do. We only had one pit. A bunch of people found out about us, they all came down, and we were having to do constant counts on the line. Justin would send me out like an asshole with the Slim Pickins sign, and I couldn’t even look people in the eye. It would break my heart because people would get all wigged out, so I would just count the feet.

When we moved here, we had three pits. We finally found someone to help us build some bigger ones, so we’ve been retiring the older ones and replacing them with pits that have much larger capacities. We have two lines in our kitchen, and most restaurants only have one. A lot of people don’t understand that logistically, it doesn’t matter how many cashiers we have, we’re still going to have a wait. You have a shit-ton of tickets back there, and those orders have to be processed. We could have five cashiers and it wouldn’t matter. It’s not the cashiers that hold it up, it’s a capacity thing. We have two lines where they’re cutting and plating the food, and that helps us move much faster.

I also think that some people will come down and check us out, and they’ll endure the line to see what the buzz is all about. If we let them down, they’re not going to come back. We put a lot of focus on trying to be consistent. People come here with huge expectations, so we have to focus on quality and consistency. That means spending a lot of time with your staff and knowing that one little misstep can have a domino effect. That’s the nice thing about having a smaller staff, we can keep that connection with what is going on in the kitchen. We’ve been in the trenches. There’s not a job out there that Justin or I haven’t done. We couldn’t do it without our staff. In the beginning, it was just us. But as it grew, we had to invest in a staff that we could trust. That’s been a huge part of our success. We’ve been grateful for the line, I can tell you that. I don’t know if it’s going away or if it ever will.

Justin: I would say that it’s a little bit shorter than it was at the Farmers Market. There are times when it gets a little bit crazy, but the thing is that we’re serving probably four to five times as many people as we were at the Farmers Market without the line growing. There’s been a lot of efficiencies that have been introduced into the process to allow that volume to grow.

Diane: And without the quality suffering. If the quality goes, nobody is going to stand in line for something that is just mediocre. You can go a lot of places and find mediocre.

I don’t think people understand what goes on in the kitchen at all. Not only do you have the smoking of the meats, but you also have the fried chicken and the sides and the dessert and the bar.

Justin: In the beginning, I don’t think a lot of people knew what they were getting themselves into. They heard about a new barbecue place, and they get down there, and see a giant line. Now, people just know that it is part of the experience. That makes it a little bit easier on us.

Diane: I think if you come here and there isn’t a line, it feels like a bonus. You could come here at 1 p.m. on a Friday and there not be a line. It has been done.

That might be the holy grail in Dallas — an empty Pecan Lodge at 1 p.m. on any day.

Diane: It doesn’t have to be! If you have more than four people, go through the express line! You might have leftovers the next day, but it’s worth it. So worth it. If you’re talking to four people in line and you like each other, get together and go through the express line. There’s ways that you can do it.

Justin: During the week, we at least try to keep the line in the restaurant. In the air-conditioning. We’ll pull people into the express line to keep the door closed. We’re doing our best to make it as comfortable for people as we can.  We’re not running out of food anymore, at least not as much. You don’t have to get here at 9:45 because we’re going to sell out early. You can come at 1:30, and it’s still OK. By 3 p.m., we’re closer to being sold-out, we might just have one or two things left.

Diane: All you can do is your best. You have to hope that if people do wait, that it is worth it. We do still sell out of beef ribs a lot, but some days we won’t sell that many.

What is “not that many?” How many beef ribs are you selling in a day?

Justin: On a weekday, probably 20 or so racks of ribs. On a weekend, probably 40, maybe 60 racks. That’s a lot. On an average week, we go through about 7,500 pounds of brisket. That’s almost four tons. That’s just the brisket.

How are you dealing with brisket prices? They’ve been consistently going up for the last couple of years, and a lot of joints are feeling the pinch.

Diane: Ugh. It’s been hard. It used to be a predictable cycle, and we could catch a break at least part of the year. Now we’re not getting a break. I guess some restaurants were lucky enough to lock in a price for brisket, but we weren’t.

Justin: The chain restaurants are able to contract buys where they pay a set rate for several years, so we just suck it up. We haven’t changed our prices much over the last couple of years.

Diane: We finally had to adjust prices because there was just no end in sight. The price was just going to keep going up. Finally, if we didn’t do something, our business brain kicked in and we had to do what we had to do.

Justin: Our cost has doubled per-pound since we’ve moved from the Farmers Market on brisket. Brisket alone makes up for more than 60 percent of our costs here, and that’s including rent, electricity, everything else. Just brisket. It’s our single largest expense. We try to tweak other things, like using a less expensive plate or figuring out if reusable silverware is cheaper than disposable, it just doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, our whole thing hinges on the price of beef.

Diane: The drought played a big part in the price, and I’ve heard from some ranchers that the demand for premium beef is huge in Japan right now. They have customers that are willing to pay those high prices, and that means that the rest of us have to pay the same price. It is what it is.

I feel like people already kind of bitch about the price of barbecue, about how expensive it is. Do you deal with that here?

Diane: If they do, it’s because they don’t understand what they’re eating. It’s deceptively simple on the surface. It’s just barbecue, how hard could it be? How expensive could it be? It’s very expensive. It’s time consuming, and you’ve got to have someone there that can tend to it the way that we do. It’s very labor-intensive. You have to have someone that is trained to tend that fire and check it every two hours and make sure that the temperature stays consistent. There’s a whole science behind it, and when you’re producing it for a lot of people, it gets really tricky to do.

Justin: We went to a Tex-Mex restaurant the other day, and I ordered a combo plate for $15. If you look at the plate, you get rice, and beans and sour cream, and pico, and that’s three-quarters of the plate. You get a little line of ground beef in your enchiladas or whatever, compared to a pound of beef that’s just sitting there on a plate. There’s very little meat in those enchiladas compared to what we serve.

Diane: We just sit there in awe and say “man, can you imagine what their margins are?” This is so delicious, but can you imagine how awesome those margins are? To be fair, there are places that make barbecue that do it much more efficiently than we do. There are advances in technology in making barbecue, where you just push a button and basically set it and forget it. We don’t do it that way. It makes sense for some people, and it’s one way of doing it, but we get our end product from this very labor-intensive process. The way we do it, there’s no shortcut.

Justin: The wood that we use to run the barbecue pit costs more than the gas and electricity to run the restaurant. In fact, I think it’s about double, but I don’t know of any other way to do it to get the results that I want.

Diane: Why would you even do this if you weren’t trying to get exceptional results? There are a lot of things that you could do that would be so much easier than running a barbecue restaurant. Why do this if you’re not going to be able to get a really awesome product at the end, one that you’ve really labored over and it shows? 

Since the success of Pecan Lodge, a few more barbecue spots of this ilk have made their way into town, but there doesn’t seem to have been the same rush or oversaturation that we’ve seen with, for instance, burger joints. Do you think that’s why it hasn’t happened, because it is so hard to do barbecue and do it well?

Diane: Maybe. I think there have been a few that have popped up. If more barbecue comes to Dallas, it’s a win for Dallas. It’s hard to run a restaurant, period, and on top of that, learning all the nuances of barbecue — that’s taken us years. We’re still learning. We’re always looking at how we can make things a little better. A little more caramelized. I used to paint, and I feel like our food is a lot like art in that way. We’re looking for inspiration for something that we can add to the menu.

Justin: Ironically enough, though, we haven’t changed the menu in like four years. Right now, everything is so well-oiled and fine-tuned that even something as simple as adding a menu item throws a major kink into the system. I don’t know that other restaurants really feel that in the same way. There’s a learning curve on every new dish, but here, because of the volume, if we add something, we have to take something away.

Diane: People want that, though, it's like going to Grandma's house. They’ll get upset. They don’t want you to change it. Go ahead, throw a special in there, but by golly, they want that mac 'n’ cheese. We put as much emphasis on the sides as the meat. They’re not afterthoughts. Those are recipes that we cherish. If they screw up the banana pudding, that is a disgrace to my grandmother and that batch is getting thrown out. And it’ll get thrown out four times in a row if I have to. Every little thing that we do, there’s so much attention on it. Everything we’re focused on, we’re hyper-focused on. And everything that you do add, everything you take on, you have to be badass at it.

Justin: I’d love to do baked beans, but the problem is that the convection oven is used almost exclusively for baking potatoes for The Hot Mess. There’s just not room. What equipment can we use to produce a side dish that can feed 4,000 people on a Saturday? That just happened to be pinto beans, because I can put a huge pot on the stove, and I have room for that.

Diane: Sometimes I do miss the days at the Farmers Market when we would put up a sign that said “ring bell for service,” and we used to go back in the kitchen and play around with stuff. I used to make these little fried fruit pies, and I loved making them. I had this thing called a Sweet Lupita, and it was really fun because I got to used sugar glitter. As the line started to grow, we needed the fryers for chicken and okra. There just wasn’t room. The oil had to be the right temperature for fried chicken, so I couldn’t just throw a fruit pie in there. One of these days, though. Maybe we’ll get another fryer.

Justin: We already did. In our first year at the Farmers Market, on Sundays during football season, it would be so slow that we would roll a TV in the kitchen and play around while we watched the game. We’d make chicken-fried brisket or whatever else. Whoever’s turn it was to make food that week for the game, we’d make it in the kitchen.

Diane: That’s how we came up with the fried rib, do you remember that? You were just fartin’ around in the kitchen with it. We used to make a lot of breakfast, too. We’ve debated a lot about brunch, and that’s something that we will likely do. We want to make sure our kitchen is ready. If our staff is working Saturday night, you might be clocking in at 5 again the next morning. I’d rather not do something than have someone who’s hungover or burned out and half-ass doing something. I’d just rather not do it at all. With brunch, we need to make sure we can balance all the things we do. We can’t just jump into things willy-nilly.

Justin: We also have to consider anything that could interfere with the barbecue going out. If that gets messed up on our busiest day, that’s not going to be good.

Diane: But wouldn’t brunch be fun? We could do chicken and waffles and huevos rancheros. We have a list we keep at home with fun ideas. We could do shrimp and grits, all kinds of fun stuff. We’re working on it, we’ll get there eventually. We still love this so much. You have to love it. Otherwise it’s just a beat down.

With all of that attention and hard work that you’re putting into this barbecue, is it a little infuriating — even the tiniest bit — that Dallas is still really not part of this national conversation about Texas barbecue. It’s all about Franklin’s (in Austin), all the time.

Diane: No, not at all. Aaron has earned that spot. He’s the real deal. He and Stacy are really good, really hardworking people. That’s not hard for us. Who cares? It’s a win for Texas. We have good barbecue in Austin, in Dallas, in some little small town. It doesn’t matter. It’s a win for the state over all.

I think a lesser person might be bitter about that, or jealous, or whatever.

Justin: The way that I look at it is that this is a really hard business to be in. If we’re successful and someone else is successful, good for them. I’m happy for them. The last thing you want is for someone to go into this business and fail. It’s devastating. We barely made it through the first year, and I don’t know that you could call it making it in the second year, but it did start to turn for us then. I don’t want to see anyone go down.

Diane: We have a lot of respect for anyone in this business. We don’t compare ourselves to anyone else, either. We have our own thing, and we are our own worst critics. There’s no one more critical of our food and our operations than us. Everyone has their own stuff to worry about, and that’s their business. It’s none of our business what anyone else is doing.

Justin: If I feel like I’ve done the best I can do, and I produce the barbecue that meets all my criteria for what good barbecue is, then I’m happy. People have their own personal preference for what barbecue should be, and sometimes that influences where you end up on whatever list it is.

Diane: The lists, and the ranking, and the recognition is all really cool. When you’re working really hard, and you get noticed, it feels good. But we’re not doing it for the lists. The lists are helpful in spreading the word about us, especially because we’ve never had a marketing budget, but those lists have helped us get attention. When a film crew comes down to see you, people who don’t know about you come to visit. Your fan base grows, and your loyal customers grow.

That’s the value, but at the end of the day, we’re doing this to make a living and because it’s something we love. We need to put our kids through school. The lists help us meet that need, but it isn’t our goal. The goal is to pay our bills, and the attention that we get, shit, we’re grateful for it. Fame isn’t a goal for us, that’s a very hollow goal. If you’re doing something this hard to be famous, you’ve got a rude awakening waiting for you. You have to have something to get you through the times when it really sucks.

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