The Posse always enjoys going to Pinkerton’s Texas Pit Barbecue in Houston. The food is great. So is the bar. And the conversations can be stimulating. For a young dude, owner-pit master Grant Pinkerton is full of wisdom, barbecue and beyond.
That’s gotta be one of the factors that attracted the attention of Forbes magazine, which last November included Pinkerton on its prestigious 30-under-30 list of “youthful visionaries” who are changing their industries. Forbes calls the list its “annual encyclopedia of creative disruption.”
Pinkerton, the first pitmaster to be included, was also cited for his work in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. With flood waters steadily rising, he kept his place open and served first responders for free.
We arrived at Pinkerton’s a little before 7 p.m. on a recent Friday. It was our last stop of the day on a tour of joints in and around the Bayou City. Grant Pinkerton was away at the Rodeo and not on site. There appeared to be plenty of barbecue left and none of us was in a rush to eat so we settled in the bar for a drink.
In the current world of Texas barbecue, with many places building their business models on selling out early, it’s a treat to be able to enjoy a leisurely dinner of good smoked meat. Pinkerton’s is one place you can. . .to a point.
At 7:10, one of the servers came into the bar and told us: “I’m cutting my last brisket, so you better get in line if you want some.”
We did. We ordered fatty brisket, turkey, ribs (wet), some sides, and settled at a table on the porch in front of a big TV showing the NCAA basketball tournament.
After a few bites of food, Robert Seale, a commercial photographer who often eats at Pinkerton’s, held up some brisket.
“It’s 7:30 p.m. and you’re looking at a piece of brisket like this,” he said. “It’s wonderful. The one thing holding Grant back is sausage. But he’s working on it.”
We ordered another round of drinks and kept eating. A short while later, Grant Pinkerton, wearing a big Cowboy hat, and his girlfriend, Sarah McQuillan, returned from the rodeo.
After our greetings, Grant settled in a chair nearby and the wisdom began flowing. He talked about a lot: Setting up his operation for halal cooking, the importance of side dishes, moving customers quickly through the line, his aversion to giving away free burnt ends, and if it’s even worth it — from a strictly business investment standpoint — to try to be No. 1 in Texas Monthly’s ratings of the state’s barbecue joints. His place made the magazine’s Top 50 list last year.
I’m inclined to call Grant Pinkerton the “Professor of BBQ”, and he ain’t even 30 yet. Still, Forbes did mention that his restaurant generated $2 million in revenue during its first nine months of operation. Impressive.
Where to begin?
While we ate, we noticed a couple of women customers at tables nearby wearing headscarves -- hijabs. We asked Pinkerton about that.
“I’m the only place in Houston that does halal barbecue,” he said, referring to a method of cooking that follows Islamic dietary guidelines. “We have separate pits for pork and beef, separate cutting boards.”
He says it helps business, particularly in a place as diverse as Houston.
“It really matters with the females,” he said about sides. “The guy who only eats meat, his wife really cares about the sides.”
He mentioned something heard from another Houston barbecue operator, Ronnie Killen. Brisket is a loss leader, or very close to it. Because of the use of superior cuts of meat, shrinkage during the cooking process itself, and the cost of rub ingredients and labor, it's expensive to smoke brisket.
“We should all be charging $28 a pound for brisket," he said. His place charges $20.
"You can cook a lot of brisket, but you're not making any money," Pinkerton continued. "And you have to run out. Leftover brisket is not good."
Pork ribs are another story.
If a joint sells 100 racks of ribs a day, the profit just from them ranges from $2,800 to $3,000 a day, Pinkerton said.
And don’t get him started on what he calls "fancy f------ pickles," which, he says, can add $10,000 a year to a joint's operating costs over regular pickles. Or, large portion sizes and free burnt ends, which some places offer customers as a taste treat at their cutting stations. Profitability evaporates quickly with such largesse.
Each brisket on the pit produces about one pound of burnt ends, Pinkerton explained. Doing the math, if you cook 25 briskets a day, and you get a pound of burnt ends from each brisket, at $20 a pound that totals $500 a day, more than $100,000 a year.
“And you’re giving away something that everybody will pay extra for,” he said.
Indeed. The Tejas Chocolate Craftory in nearby Tomball charges $8 for about a quarter-pound of burnt ends when it offers the special dish.
Several years ago, on a tour of Gulf Coast joints, we wrote a story with the headline: “Houston, we have a barbecue problem.” No more. In fact, Grant Pinkerton says, Houston has too much barbecue.
“We’ve reached peak barbecue,” he declared.
Is he worried about business?
“I’m not going to do a damn thing differently,” he said.
Pinkerton said that he has actually done an analysis of whether it would be worth the extra investment to try to become the No. 1 rated joint in the state by Texas Monthly, meaning the extra revenue generated by extra customers would more than cover the extra costs.
“Maybe not,” he concluded.
So, there you have it. The state of the business of Texas barbecue from one its top pit masters.
The Posse can’t wait to get back to Grant Pinkerton’s joint.
Pinkertons BBQ, 1504 Airline Dr, Houston, (713) 802-2000. Open Wed-Fri & Sun 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm, bar open until midnight on Fri-Sat. Website: www.pinkertonsbarbecue.com