Wood is hard to find and Pitmasters are wrong – Texas monthly

Like many of his fellow Texas pitmasters, Daniel Brown had plenty of contractors to supply the wood for his smokehouse. “Sometimes we got wood and sometimes they didn’t pick up the phone,” recalled the owner of Brown’s Bar-B-Que in South Austin. He was forced to close the trailer more than once. In 2015, he took an unusual step. Brown bought 65 acres of land in Dale, near his hometown of Lockhart. The ground was covered with oak trees, which is the most popular wood for barbecues in Central Texas. He and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a chainsaw and a wood splitter and became their own wood suppliers. “We cut wood on Monday, we cut on Tuesday and we bring cargo on Wednesday,” he said.

Wood is the most important component of the grilling process. Without it, a pitmaster is worse off than an ice cream man in a power outage. If the breast does not appear, the grill joint can still cook ribs and sausage, but without wood there is simply no barbecue. But every pitmaster is at the mercy of a timber supplier, usually an independent contractor, which can be a large operation that supplies ships (a rarity), a local timber warehouse, or a guy with a chainsaw and a dented F-150 hired from Craigslist. . Each option has its disadvantages. Reliable ones tend to be more expensive and cheaper alternatives are often scaly.

Due to a combination of supply chain problems, labor shortages and inflation, the price of almost every item the joint needs to stay functional is rising. Ensuring a steady supply of quality firewood is not a new or unusual problem, but add the above factors and it becomes a bigger challenge. The rapid increase in the number of barbecue areas in Texas over the past few years has not helped either – they have all been vying for the same fuel.

“I’ve played this game before,” Trevor Sales of Brix Barbecue in Fort Worth told me about buying a new wooden guy. In four years, Sales has used five wood suppliers. “They’ll bring you three or four cords and you can’t hear anymore and the wood is green,” he recalled of one of his frustrating experiences. (For information, one cord is a stack of wood eight feet tall and eight feet wide.) Some have tried to make living oak, red oak, and white oak a more popular mail oak. “You say you use oak leaf, but many of these wood suppliers will bring you whatever type of oak they have,” Sales said.

He eventually found a consistent, inexpensive van from Scott Parsons, who also handled Smoke-A-Holics grills and Terry Black grills. “It was like a gift from heaven,” Sales said. The wood was cut to the right length, properly chopped, and always delivered on time and worth a damn $ 350 a line. It took a year, then Parsons announced on Facebook that he was changing careers and leaving the country. The local lumber yard reported sales of $ 590 per line, but kept looking until he found another option for $ 450. Sales are not sure how long this price will last, but fortunately its operation only on the weekend goes through only one-eighth of the line each week.

Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth also relied on Parsons. He was able to keep up when they switched from using three strings of wood per month to three strings per week after being named the best grill in Texas in our latest Top 50 list. Parsons was gone a few weeks later. Co-owner Goldee Lane Milne tried not to panic. He asked among other local pitmasters and got a link to a guy named Woodchuck Russ, but didn’t deliver. He then made a deal with Gourmet Wood Products a few miles down the road. “We’ll probably hang out with them for a while because they’re local,” Lane said, adding, “I like the way they cut wood. Each piece is perfectly cut and has a good length.” specifications such as shortening the oven drying process to preserve some of the wood moisture.

Last year, Hutchins BBQ lost a contractor who provided timber for its two branches in McKinney and Frisco. The local lumberyard did not have enough supplies to provide the staggering eight to ten strings of oak and pecan a week needed for each site. The Hutchins were sent to scratch and eventually found a man in Wiley who cuts, chops and stacks wood outside the restaurant for $ 640 a cable. Think of a monthly wood bill of $ 25,000 or more the next time you complain about the price of a smoked breast.

At the 45-year-old Arnold Bros. Forest Products was called by second-generation owner Lennon Arnold a few months ago from Hutchins and several other grills that lost the same wood supplier. He reluctantly had to reject them all. “We’ve never had such a big problem getting wood,” he said. In December, I visited the company’s premises in Irving – to call it half full would be generous. There is an inscription on the entrance gate: “Temporarily closed to the public until further notice.” Arnold hung a sign in February.

Wood supplier at work
Wood supplier at work. Photo by Daniel Vaughn
A sign closed at the entrance gate at Arnold Bros. Forest Products in Irving. Photo by Daniel Vaughn

Left: Wood supplier at work. Photo by Daniel Vaughn

Above: Signs closed at the entrance gate at Arnold Bros. Forest Products in Irving. Photo by Daniel Vaughn

Arnold Bros. operates a processing plant in southern Oklahoma for white walnut, pecan and oak and another hour northeast of Abilene in Woodson for mesquite. The lumberjacks deliver whole trees to these facilities to cut them to the required size and send them to Irving, where they distribute them according to customer requirements. The lumberjacks bring in about half the number of trees the company needs, and the staff doesn’t have enough cutters to keep up. “It’s always been hard to find people who want to mow, and now it’s even harder,” Arnold said. They have been able to supply all their customers with barbecues, such as Smokey Joe’s Bar-B-Que, Pecan Lodge, Spring Creek Barbeque, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and Rudy’s DFW sites, but they can’t bring in any new customers yet. . These established customers should be lucky to receive a steady supply of their most important fuel.

Vysvětlením problémy at Arnold Bros. there is a labor shortage, but it illustrates the fragility of the product supply chain when there is no developed supply chain. Depending on the grill joint, pitmasters need one to forty strings of chipped and stacked wood per month. And unlike breasts, black pepper, napkins and nitrile gloves delivered to barbecue sites during the week, there is no regional or national firewood supply chain.

In the best of times, food and restaurant suppliers can take over new restaurants by ordering more products through their wholesale accounts and possibly adding more trucks and delivery drivers. With the current shortage of products and manpower, this capability is no longer guaranteed – and this is an advantage of an advanced supply chain. Timber suppliers are often run by small two-member teams that are unable to add clients to the job. When a company like Arnold Bros. It can’t take on more customers, it needs several business owners to fill the void. But it is hard work that requires specialized equipment, access to trees and a lot of physical work. These independent suppliers are not part of a larger system that can grow and contract on demand or cover gaps in services. This is something ButlerWood in Seguin is trying to change.

Roy Butler and his sons Austin and Jake founded their ButlerWood firewood business in 2004. Roy came up with the idea of ​​loading stacked wood into metal cages for easier transportation. Instead of unloading the wood and stacking it on the grill joints, they unload the cages using a forklift and pick up the empty cages on the next delivery. “We designed the company to deliver large amounts of wood to companies in an efficient way,” Austin said. Using a cage system, they deliver 130 wood ropes per week through their sister company J Butler Trucking to Goode Company Barbeque in Houston, most of Rudy’s, and to customers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Washington and Nevada.

ButlerWood is currently harvesting timber from its two-hundred-acre site. The company has a large wooden yard in Seguin, where it naturally gathers and heals supplies, and plans to open another in Gonzales. At the beginning of next year, each type of customer can order firewood, which will be delivered directly to his home or company on a redesigned website. “People will order wood as if they were ordering razors for home,” Austin predicted.

Nick Pencis of Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue in Tyler called the Butler brothers when he had problems with several local timber suppliers, who now deliver oak and pecans from Seguin, 272 miles away. Pencis said the wood is good and reliable, but it also costs $ 650 per cord.

Israel “Pody” Campos does not have a local wooden yard to supply Pody’s BBQ in Pecos, West Texas. He used to smoke with a combination of woods such as red oak, white oak, pecans and even cherry wood, but now he is gone to all the mesquites. “Mesquite has always had a traditional barbecue flavor to me,” he said. “It’s a base in West Texas.” Every six months, Baldo transported Aranda mesquite from Comanche to Pody’s, about 330 miles. Sadly, Aranda died recently, but his wife, Tina, said she planned to continue the business.

Of all the common grill owners I spoke to, the only one who didn’t complain about his wood supplier was John Brotherton. Since founding Brotherton’s Black Iron BBQ in Pflugerville in 2017, he has used Sierrah Wood as a post oak in Leander. “If there are any problems, it will be fixed the same day,” Brotherton said of Michael Wheeler, who owns Sierrah Wood. Brotherton shared a story about Wheeler dislocating his shoulder and still not allowing Brotherton to want wood. “He brought me wood in two days at a time until he was healthy enough to bring me some ropes,” Brotherton said.

This probably shows how lean these independent wood suppliers are running their operations. Except for his wife, Lori, who was in her 35th week of pregnancy when we talked and still helped him lay the wood, Wheeler has no staff and does not receive many requests. “I think the work is too hard, especially in the summer,” he said.

It was another injury that first led Wheeler to a firewood business. In 2014, he underwent spinal fusion surgery. The doctors couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause, but he said, “When I was trying to get my body back, everything sucked for some reason to swing an ax.” He realizes how mysterious the statement sounds, but six months later he had eight ropes of wood stacked in the yard, and Lori thought they might find a better place. They advertised wood for sale and it was gone in two days. Wheeler found a supplier for the wholesale purchase of timber and continued to sell and supply firewood, but relied on large wooden yards for already cut logs. This limited the custom sizes it could offer customers. He wanted to work with whole trees.

“We have access to ranchers who want their dead spot oak away,” Wheeler explained. It comes most of it from the Rockdale area and is almost exclusively a postal oak. Pillar oaks tend to die before they capsize, leading to what are called dead standing trees. If Wheeler cuts down a dead standing oak today, he will let it rest for two weeks before splitting it, and then another two weeks to allow the wood to mature sufficiently in the hearth. The green tree takes six to nine months to properly season.

Wheeler currently supplies timber to Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Rockdale and Pustka Barbeque in Hutto, as well as Brotherton’s, for $ 450 a line. It has capacity for more local customers as well as large expansion plans. Wheeler can only hold twenty strings of chopped wood, so he can’t sit for long and needs to make room for the next one. He would like enough land to store thousands of cords. He also has a property in the Fort Worth area and plans to expand his business there next spring, but is still looking for someone to run it. When I asked Wheeler why it’s so hard to find the right person, he laughed and said, “Everyone wants to be a lumberjack until they have to be a wooden guy.”

David Berry

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