Ronnie Killen Reflects on Evolution of His Pearland BBQ Restaurant
Sponsored by Visit Pearland
Ronnie Killen is virtually a household name, not only in his hometown of Pearland but all over the greater Houston area and its suburbs, and for good reason. He is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, multiple-time James Beard Award semifinalist and has six different restaurant concepts. Four are in Pearland — Killen’s Steakhouse, Killen’s Barbecue (part of the Pearland BBQ Trail), Killen’s Burgers and Killen’s TMX. A second location of Killen’s Steakhouse is in The Woodlands and it will soon be followed by a second location of Killen’s Barbecue. In addition, he opened Killen’s STQ in Houston in 2016 and just a few months ago opened Killen’s Heights, a restaurant serving the comfort food he grew up with, also in Houston.
While he’s expanded his restaurant empire extensively over the past few years, ultimately, it started in Pearland with Killen’s Steakhouse. Killen’s Barbecue, opened in 2013 within the renovated walls of his former elementary school cafeteria at 3613 E. Broadway. It is perhaps the latter one — the barbecue restaurant leveraging his skills as a competitor in barbecue competitions — that has earned the most national attention. Professional accolades and compliments from satisfied customers have piled up over the years, including from Texas Monthly’s barbecue journalist, Daniel Vaughn.
Despite the acclaim, Killen says he remains true to his core beliefs of serving good food and doing his part to educate the public along the way. We sat down with the celebrity chef to learn more about his approach to all things Killen’s Barbecue.
In what ways has business been impacted by COVID? How have you approached the pandemic situation?
We had safety measures in place for a long time before anything got shut down. We had to focus more on to-go and delivery options. Even with our packaging, we had to change everything because we wanted to make sure that when people got our food, it would still be really good. We were hustling as soon as the first shutdown happened on March 20. On March 21 we were giving away food at the Heights location to all the restaurant industry people who were out of work. We did that about three months, four times a week in different locations. We set up pop-ups and handed out food to police officers and frontline workers.
The barbecue place hasn’t really skipped a beat. Same with the burger place. The steakhouse was more affected [people not coming for dine in] but it’s now coming back.
How do you maintain the same quality with more to-go orders?
We try to leave just a little more fat on the meat to keep it moist. The packaging has vent holes and we use safety seals. We also use paper bags instead of plastic to hold warmth better and reduce steam. It’s been a challenge.
How many people does Killen’s Barbecue serve on its busiest days?
On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, at least 1,000 to 1,500 dine-in or order to-go per day. There are at least 700 to 800 in the line and inside the dining room, plus tons of to-go orders. We still have lines out to the road, but now people can order online and not have to wait. Every time I drive up I’m showing people my barbecue pits. I’ll take them on a little tour and show them what all the different types of wood are, what we use them for and what temperatures we use for smoking meats. To me, it’s about teaching. If you can teach somebody, or somebody is interested in what you’re doing, that to me is a sign of success.
Do you still see people visiting because they consider Killen’s Barbecue a destination?
About 90% of our business are guests who consider it a destination. (Our data is through the credit card sales.) We also get a lot of Pearland residents ordering to-go.
What are currently the most popular meats, sides and desserts?
The beef ribs and brisket are the main drivers, then smoked turkey and chicken for the health-conscious customers. People love the sides, too: creamed corn, collard greens, mac and cheese, broccoli rice casserole, pinto and baked beans (the latter uses navy beans and takes 24 hours to make).
Have the best selling items always been the same?
The beef ribs and brisket have always been the things that people drive out for, and then it depends on the time of the year. In the summertime, people love sausage and we go through tons. When it’s cooler, we make brisket chili. We’ve been doing brisket chili forever and it goes over really well.
We have specials, too. We have smoked prime rib, pork chops and barbecue pork chops. We change the specials, but the main thing is still the same: brisket and beef ribs. Those are just what everybody gets. If there is a barbecue plate, very seldom does it never not contain beef brisket.
Where are you sourcing your meats these days?
We still work with Snake River Farms in Idaho. The meats are amazing. They have different ratings, and when we were just starting we used the Snake River Prime Gold. We still get that, but we only serve it on the weekends because the wagyu is very fatty and the majority of customers don’t like that fatty taste in the brisket. The barbecue connoisseur people — they love it.
Snake River Farms has another line of wagyu beef that is called Double R Ranch. It’s the same cattle, the same everything; it just has less of the marbling. Double R Ranch, which is part of Snake River Farms, is where we get our regular daily brisket and our beef ribs. Our pork ribs are still Compart Family Farms. We still make the sausage in house with Creekstone Farms brisket and Compart pork. For our chickens we use Bell & Evans, which is amazing. We’re the only restaurant that serves it. My daughter goes, “Dad, this chicken tastes like chicken” and I go “Exactly.”
What is one thing you’d like to add to the menu at Killen’s BBQ?
I love the big, thick pork chop. We used to serve it everyday. I would definitely like that on the menu more because I like it. I could eat it everyday. It’s probably good it’s not on the daily menu right now. [laughs].
Thoughts on the current barbecue scene
I think that barbecue has come full circle. When you look at the top 10 barbecue places in Texas, the majority serve three or four meats, do it perfectly every time and have classic sides like beans and potato salad. When you [limit the menu], it helps because you’re not going to have many off days. It’s a lot harder to offer a dozen different proteins daily than it is to do 5 different proteins.
Also, barbecue’s not cheap anymore. Most barbecue places back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s were meat markets looking for ways to use big, tough cuts of meat. Now, everybody wants prime grade brisket.
On current food trends
People are over-complicating the food. I see people trying to mix so many different things and come up with these weird creations, and I’m going “That may be good, but that’s not going to last.” I tell people all the time: My food may not be perfectly beautiful. People reorder food because it tastes good not because it looks good.
How does your training background impact the way you look at the meat now?
When you learn it the way I did, and you see an animal slaughtered, you respect it because you don’t want to just go “Okay this meat comes from a box”. This is a living creature that gave its life for you, so you have to honor it, respect it and cook it right. It means something. There are only two briskets on a cow; that’s it. When you cook a hundred briskets in a day [such as on a weekend or during the rodeo], when you consider that and think about all the animals, it gives you a different perspective on taking care of the product.
What’s a key piece of advice about smoking barbecue you can share with people?
Start with a good product and burn a clean fire. Good barbecue is the byproduct of managing a fire correctly. It needs to breathe, and it will if you’re constantly removing the ashes to get good airflow. I like to move the meat twice: when we put it on and when we take it off. If you touch it and move it, you crack the bark, and if you crack that layer, the juices come out. So you don’t want to do that.
How has the food at Killen’s Barbecue has changed over the years?
We used to sell out of brisket and everything by 2 or 3p.m. I didn’t like having to say we’re sold out. I decided that instead of cooking everything, putting it in a warmer and selling it throughout the day, we’re going to change our cooking style and we’re going to have it where food is going to be ready throughout the day. People say “Oh, well, Killen’s isn’t what it used to be.” Actually, we’re not. We’re better. It’s fresher.
In what ways are things easier or more challenging than when you first opened Killen’s Barbecue?
Keeping our menu available throughout the day. It was a lot easier when we first opened and we could say “Oh, that’s all we have, we sold out.” I just didn’t like that business model. Another thing has been trying to keep up with sourcing enough products, because there’s so many more people opening barbecue places. The good thing about us, and something we’ve always been about, is if you buy the best product normally you don’t have a ton of competition.
On legacy and priorities
That’s my last name [on the business]. On Father’s Day I went out to my dad’s grave site and was sitting there and I was like, “How can I keep my dad’s name going and keep his legacy going?” The only thing I can do is keep on doing the best I can do. To me, it’s not about money. We don’t have to be where it’s so money-driven that it’s all about the bottom line and you don’t give back. To me giving back is the most important thing.
Are there lessons you have learned through Killen’s BBQ that are applied to your newer concepts?
Find the best product you can get your hands on, and just don’t mess it up. I tell people that all the time and they’re like ‘Don’t mess it up? What do you mean?’ And I say “Take care of it. Don’t overcook it. Let the product speak for itself.” That’s our motto. It’s hard to make something taste great if it’s not a good product.
How has Pearland changed since opening Killen’s Barbecue?
If you look at the population, there’s so many more people. It’s not really a small town anymore. When I moved here there were 5900 people. I can’t believe how much it’s grown. It’s just crazy. [Pearland’s population is now nearly 130,000 residents.]
What are your favorite restaurants in Pearland (that you don’t own)?
It’s a little hole in the wall, but Lila’s Mexican Restaurant would be one of my favorites. You can tell the pride that they put in their work and the food is very authentic. I also like Cane’s and Shipley Donuts. Now Hubcap Grill [is here]. Ricky Craig, the owner, is a good friend of mine. Hubcap Grill’s burgers are always great. I’d say also, Thanh Phuong — its food is also really good. I used to eat there all the time. I don’t have time to go as often as I used to.
Do you miss that, being regular Ronnie?
I do. It’s, you know, it’s definitely fun to be Ronnie, but sometimes I just like to go and enjoy regular food and go eat. Don’t treat me different than you would anyone else. I don’t want special service or special food.