The idea about barbecue lines started simply enough during our recent visit to Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin.
“Why would you wait in line at Franklin when you can get this so close?” Sherry Jacobson wondered as she ate some of Micklethwait’s brisket, every bit as fine as what you could get a few blocks away at world famous Franklin Barbecue. And there was almost no line at Micklethwait.
So we assembled an email roundtable of the Posse, all line-standing veterans, to take a swing at answering what may be one of the great questions of the BBQ scene, in Austin and beyond.
Line, line, everywhere barbecue lines, to paraphrase a classic song from Five Man Electrical Band.
But why do we feel we have to stand in such long barbecue lines, especially when there are good alternatives?
Certainly, social media and the practice of some joints staying open only until they sell out are factors. Fraternizing and scarcity -- even perceived scarcity -- are strong motivators.
In a recent Bloomberg story, Aaron Franklin advised: “Don’t look at that line as a reason not to go, look at it as a tailgating opportunity.”
In Dallas, where there are long barbecue lines at Pecan Lodge, the Observer a while back tackled the question and basically came up with the answer: We stand in line because it's worth it.
I hope the following discussion from Posse members in Austin and Dallas, mildly edited, is a bit more enlightening. (Note to skimmers: Don’t miss Bruce Tomaso’s response near the end. The adjunct professor of journalism at SMU nails it about barbecue lines, and long lines in general.)
Marina Trahan, fresh from standing in line at Cattleack BBQ in Dallas and disappointed that the place had already sold out of its terrific smoked bologna, was the first to respond. She also forwarded an academic study and another article.
There once was a project, in, I want to say NY, where one person began standing, appearing to be waiting for something and eventually a line formed behind that person.
Love the first law of science cited in the study: Satisfaction equals perception minus expectation. Still doesn't explain why people wait 3-4 hours in line at Franklin when they could walk six blocks and get the same food satisfaction with little or no wait. That New York mag sub-headline might start to get at the heart of the matter about long barbecue lines: “Because It Makes Us Feel Like Connoisseurs Among Connoisseurs.”
People want to bond over BBQ. Share the love when you have the time, maybe.
I think it all comes down to your BBQ agenda. . .If you are out on a tour of joints or otherwise not in any sort of rush, the line/tailgate atmosphere can be really fun. Places that provide samples or even free beer to those in line make it all the more enjoyable. There are always those other days, however, when you are in a hurry, or when there is less than ideal weather, that tip the scales in favor of avoiding the line. Sometimes you just can't accommodate the wait and you have to adjust your BBQ itinerary accordingly. Can't ALWAYS fly first class!
Does Micklethwait = Franklins? If it does, do people know that? Sometimes folks just want the "best" (or their perception of it) and some places are destinations as much as they are joints. Any joint in which a person drives more than an hour while knowing a solid line awaits them qualifies as a destination.”
Phil, good point about destinations. That does change the math of how you perceive barbecue lines.
I haven't read anyone else's answers, but here's mine.
I’ll wait when the BBQ warrants waiting. Either from a destination BBQ trip, or when I know the BBQ is worth the wait.
I’ll also wait when I'm taking others to a really good place. I met a group of friends who had never been to Hutchins in McKinney. We waited almost an hour for that meal, but it was worth it for the food and the experience.
That said, I went to lunch at the Baby Back Shak (Dallas) today. The line was out the door. Good for them, but I made a quick decision to not wait in that line. The meat there is good, but not line-worthy for me. I ended up at Mac's where I knew the line would be much shorter.
I do my best to avoid local lines. I am making the decision to get to Cattleack at 10:30 a.m. or at 1 p.m. But you do run the risk of them being sold out. I got to Cattleack at 1:30 p.m. two weeks ago and left with no food.
I also have to admit I don't eat at Pecan Lodge as often as I'd like because of the line.
OK, I'm going to jump in with both feet now. Unless it's a special occasion or a BBQ tour stop where I know it's going to be a long wait, I just don't have the patience to stand in barbecue lines very long.
Also, what's your definition of a line? For me it's anything over 20 minutes, similar to the wait you always used to have at Chili's or Bennigan's back in the gold ole days. And you could comfortably wait at the bar in most cases.
As the Posse's trip planner, I've always tried to build in estimated line-time to our journeys. Over the years, we have probably spent almost as much time in lines as we have eating. For instance, I'm guessing we've gone to Louie Mueller at least 7 or 8 times after starting at Snow's for breakfast. It's a short drive, but if you get to Mueller after 11 a.m., you're probably looking at a 30-minute-plus line, maybe closer to 45 minutes or an hour. So you plan for that and we all stand around and soak in the ambiance, shoot photos and socialize. The whole experience there could take two hours.
I’ve always been the guy looking for a great deal and beating a line falls directly in that category. If you can order 5 pounds of meat and beat the line, like at several joints, that's fine but you better have $100 in your hand and a hungry posse with you to eat. Otherwise, I will almost always go to a slightly lesser place from a food perspective if I can avoid waiting very long in line.
And there are those great joints that don't have a long line (yet) for one reason or another. Maybe that's a secret to keep to yourself as long as you can!
Waiting in line at restaurants in Austin is like a Manhattanite paying $30 a pound for a salad mix. It gives you a story to tell your friends. The Austin foodie will be Instagraming the experience and probably making new friends in the line. The New Yorker will have material for the next cocktail party.
For me, the calculus involves return on investment — in this case, of time.
I'll stand in a long line at Franklin because I don't get a chance to eat there very often, living, as I do, 200 miles away; because it's usually not all that unpleasant to spend a couple of hours outdoors on a weekend morning in Austin; because I'm almost always there with friends; because the people who work there are invariably pleasant and welcoming; because the food is excellent; and, yes, because there's a certain status gain in telling others, in person or through social media, that I drove 400 miles and waited four hours to eat at a place regarded throughout the Western world as one of the best of its type.
Change the investment inputs, and you alter the equation. Change them enough, and you'll reach a tipping point where the benefits (as calculated by the investor) cease to justify the costs. That's when you say F— it and head over to Micklethwait.
I wouldn't endure a three-hour line at Franklin if I lived five minutes away and could go there when the wait time is shorter. Or if the weather in Austin made Bullhead City, Arizona, seem like Tahiti. Or if I were stuck in line with Ted Cruz. Or if the BBQ tasted like Dickey's. Or if I were a vegan.
This week, my nephew is visiting from Phoenix. He arrived Tuesday just before noon, and we headed straight to Pecan Lodge from D/FW. By the time we got there, however, the line was out the door — and moving abnormally slow. So we got back in my car, drove the few miles to Slow Bone, and had a perfectly fine lunch.
My nephew is 22 and a robust omnivore. He'd have been content with a cheesy gordita crunch (well, maybe two) from Taco Bell. Had my Arizona visitor instead been, say, the food writer for The Arizona Republic, the calculus would have been different. I might have stuck it out at Pecan Lodge.
There are things each of us would stand in absurdly long lines for, and things we wouldn't. I'd gladly camp out overnight on a sidewalk for a World Series game, Notre Dame-Michigan, or Gaga. I did it years ago to get my son into a select pre-K program, open only to the first 25 enrollees. My wife would rather have her teeth drilled than sit through a baseball game, but she'd stand in line for 12 hours to see Hamilton. I'm not sure I'd go if it were being staged for free next door.
With all of these wise observations from everyone, at 10:00 a.m. today, I am going to walk out of our office building 100 yards to Cattleack BBQ. Wait until they open at 10:30. And eat my ass off, again! Brisket cooked like Franklin’s, spares, PBR hopefully, sausage. . .Jim are you going today?