Barbecue Rescue: Houston Pitmasters Answer The Call During Hurricane Harvey
This is the second installment for Houston Restaurant Recognition Month where we acknowledge restaurant and bar professionals who helped the community after Hurricane Harvey. Part 1: Houston Hospitality Workers Among First Responders To Hurricane Harvey.
As Hurricane Harvey pressed inland over South Texas over the weekend of August 25, people across the Gulf Coast anticipated some kind of impact—but no one knew to what extent. By Monday, August 28, the storm circled back out towards the Gulf of Mexico, and made another run inland, this time just west of Harris County. Houston was on the “dirty” side of the storm—and the subsequent deluge was tremendously destructive.
Many Houston-area homes were damaged as bayous crested banks. People displaced by the flood took refuge in temporary emergency shelters. They needed to be fed, and one thing Houston barbecue purveyors know is how to cook for lots of people. As calls from emergency shelters came in by the dozens, these greater Houston-area barbecue joints that volunteered their resources and time to feed those in need.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Tin Roof BBQ fed thousands. (I can personally attest to this, as I was one of the onsite volunteers.) Meals went to the shelters at Crosby Middle School, the Crosby American Legion Hall, Atascocita Pentecostal Church, Huffman First Baptist Church, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and others. (When it comes to feeding the masses after a disaster, true charity is non-denominational.)
Tin Roof cooked its entire stock of 95 briskets, plus multiple racks of ribs, turkey breast, and smoked sausage. Tin Roof also received important community support so it could fulfill its mission. Atascocita Walmart opened their doors especially for Tin Roof on Monday morning and sold it all the bulk pork they had so the restaurant could keep cooking. (Tin Roof was able to buy the pork thanks to monetary donations from the community.) Atascocita McDonald’s donated countless trays of buns. By the Wednesday following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, meals for over 4,000 people had been prepared and delivered.
Kingwood suffered significant damage due to the rising San Jacinto River. When the river flowed over US 59 and West Lake Houston Parkway on the southeast side, logistics of getting food and supplies into Kingwood became a huge challenge. Initial plans to deliver food and supplies by helicopter were set aside when it became clear air rescue of stranded residents was the bigger priority. So, Tin Roof BBQ put out a call to the community, and with the help of Banded Brigade Outdoors, coordinated a delivery point at the restaurant. Supplies and clothes were collected, and in one day five school busses were filled with donations, which were delivered to Kingwood once the waters receded.
The weekend Hurricane Harvey made landfall, owner Grant Pinkerton vowed to stay open “come hell or high water”—and he did. As waters rose in The Heights, Pinkerton’s functioned as a neighborhood mecca of sorts for folks to ride out the storm. It was one of the few restaurants in Houston that remained open through Sunday.
With waters continuing to fill the bayous surrounding The Heights, it became clear that people in the area surrounding the restaurant were going to need help. On Sunday night, August 27, Pinkerton posted to his Twitter account and Facebook page “To all first responders/high water rescue personnel/fire stations—if you can get to Pinkerton’s BBQ, WE HAVE BBQ for y’all.” In the first few days of the storm, Pinkerton had “pretty much cooked through” all the food in the walk-in cooler.
By Tuesday, Pinkerton says the restaurant served about 950 Houston police officers, 50 National Guard members and more than three dozen constables. By week’s end, the number grew to over 3,000 people, including rescue workers and first responders.
Asked about his thoughts of the week of the storm and recovery efforts after, Pinkerton recalls being amazed at “the absolute outpouring of people just looking to help out any way they could. We had people wanting to chop onions, wash dishes—literally wanting to just help out as best they could. If they couldn’t help, but could donate, they wanted to. It was absolutely amazing.”
Ronnie Killen was set up at NRG Stadium to prepare food for the upcoming Coldplay concert. Once severity of the storm became clear and the concert was cancelled, Killen changed gears. He pulled all the meat for the pits at the stadium and refrigerated it for later use. It was a smart move. As the storm dumped enormous amounts of rain on Houston, it was uncertain that restaurant delivery trucks would be able to navigate flooded roadways. With dwindling supplies on hand, Killen transferred all the food from the stadium to his barbecue restaurant.
Once the immediate danger of the storm had passed, Ronnie Killen opened the doors at Killen’s Barbecue and served free meat plates to Hurricane Harvey evacuees and first responders, as well as to anyone in the Pearland who were weary and in need of a hot meal. He started a GoFundMe effort to raise enough money to provide 30,000 meals—and personally donated $50,000. Killen’s GoFundMe site raised over $100,000 to feed Hurricane Harvey evacuees and first responders.
In the first two days alone, Killen’s restaurants provided about 3,500 meals to evacuees, emergency personnel, and volunteers. He also continued to prep and send meals for distribution to rescue kitchen operations from Killen’s Steakhouse during the second week of recovery efforts, serving on average over 3,000 meals per day.
Chef Ara Malekian of Harlem Road Texas BBQ and his volunteers cooked more than 2,000 pounds of meat to feed local sheriffs’ departments, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, several Houston Fire Departments and more. “I won’t forget the look on the faces of the National Guardsmen unloading the barbecue from the back of the truck when they smelled the food,” Malekian recalls. “All they had been eating was MREs.”
“It was amazing that through social media how our entire restaurant community came together and started coordinating everything,” Malekian said. Whether it was by phone, text or Facebook, “no matter what you needed, whether it was proteins to cook, or a means to get food delivered, once you put the word out, you would immediately have five or six people responding to help.”
For two weeks, Harlem Road collected donations and served displaced residents and first responders in the Richmond, Dickinson and Fort Bend County. Malekian says his group was grateful to be able to feed over 5,000 people. That was thanks to the help of over 25 volunteers and almost $4,000 in donations, as well as food donations from Sam’s Club in Richmond, World Casing Corporation, chef Richard Knight (who also led the Midtown Kitchen Collective meal donation effort), Cake & Bacon, and Savory Spice Shop. Joey Victorian of Victorian’s Barbecue also assisted with cooking and meal delivery.
Wade Elkins began his Hurricane Harvey-week recovery efforts by helping package and load meals for about 500 at Les Ba’get, which set up early-on as a rescue kitchen. He procured eight briskets that first evening, took them home, borrowed a pit, and smoked them for service the next day. On Friday of that first week, Marble Ranch of Iola, Texas, donated 500 pounds of Wagyu ground beef. “I distributed the meat I couldn’t use to other chefs in the area, and then cooked and sent out over 400 cheeseburger meals,” Elkins said.
He also received assistance from chef Lee White and chef Garrett Blinn of Buttz Gourmet Food Truck who donated buns and rolls for the burgers, as well as from Evren Seven who contributed chips to go with the burger deliveries. 5.ATE Café in Spring lended its kitchen, and Momentum Coffee in Spring served as a set-up and distribution base later in the week.
Looking back, Elkins has much to think about from that week. “[There was everthing] from Richard Knight rowing his canoe through subdivisions saving Houstonians that were stranded in their homes to Adam Brackman going days without a wink of sleep to save people from high water,” Elkins recalls. “And then you have vendors like Marble Ranch donating over 8,000 lbs of Wagyu beef to chefs to cook and distribute to those in need. I remember how the most minute piece of information posted to social media could be life changing for people, for example which stores were open, what roads were closed or opening back up, etc. Simply put, the most amazing and memorable take-away from that week is the resilience and love displayed during these times. I’m proud to be a part of the Houston restaurant industry family and network—the most selfless group of people I’ve ever been around.” We couldn’t agree more, Wade.
During rodeo season, you’ll normally find this cookoff team participating in the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo World Championship BBQ Cookoff. After Hurricane Harvey, though, they went all over southeast Texas serving those in need. By the end of the first week, they had teamed up with fellow BBQ team Gettin’ Sauced Cookers in their efforts to feed first responders and flood victims. Working together, they were able to turn out over 5,400 meals in one day!
Among their many efforts, which spanned weeks, Greg Brenham of Third Coast and other volunteers helped feed storm victims being sheltered at George R. Brown Convention Center, delivered supplies to Elks Lodge in Katy (a major distribution center to several emergency responder groups), fed first responders at NRG Center and much more.
Third Coast Community Partners also set up a fundraiser on its website to help those impacted by Hurricane Harvey, with 100-percent of donations used for relief and recovery efforts in the Greater Houston area.
Owner Wes Jurena of Pappa Charlies Barbeque wasn’t even sure his restaurant would survive the first weekend of Hurricane Harvey. As a resident of Sugar Land, he couldn’t even make it in to check due to high water. However, once he heard from others who drove by and reported that his place was not only undamaged but even still had electricity, he knew he needed to do something to help.
His son, Jared, was able to make it to the restaurant and cooked the brisket on hand to deliver to first responders at the George R. Brown Convention center who needed hot meals. “Jared also took the initiative to open our kitchen to his friends at Wokker Food Truck who needed refrigeration and a place to prep. This quickly became an impromptu commissary for several and for the next two nights, all fed well over 500 meals to the GRB and first responders,” Jurena said. Looking back now, he proudly recalls “the rapid response of those in the hospitality industry willing to roll up sleeves and get to work helping.”
Pappa Charlies also donated meals to the volunteers working with Operation BBQ Relief once they arrived in Houston. Since regular restaurant supply deliveries were nonexistent, Operation BBQ Relief was able to provide proteins back to Pappa Charlies to allow them to continue serving first responders in the area. “They even took the time to send a handwritten note afterwards thanking us for feeding them,” Jurena recalls. In just 11 days, Operation BBQ Relief served over 370,000 meals to displaced individuals in the Houston, Beaumont, and Victoria areas.
On August 30, Blue Oak BBQ of New Orleans started a GoFundMe page to raise $5,000 to go towards preparing and delivering food to victims of Hurricane Harvey. “We saw the city of Houston assist New Orleans during Katrina, and we’re ready to pay it forward,” the page read. Our barbecue neighbor from the Crescent City most certainly accomplished that goal.
Patrick Feges of Feges BBQ was in New Orleans participating in the Pause for the Cause event at Blue Oak BBQ on September 9, and returned with three full coolers with 700 pounds of pulled pork donated by Blue Oak BBQ for Beaumont-area recovery efforts.
All of these stories have a common thread. It is the outpouring of effort and support by those in our Houston (and extended Gulf Coast) restaurant community, whether or not they were asked. They were proud to be able to help wherever they could, in any role needed. It is testament to the resilience of Houston and its citizens, and will be remembered fondly despite the tragic circumstances many endured as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent catastrophic flooding in our region.
Writer, blogger and photographer, KCBS Certified Barbecue Judge, and freelance Barbecue Columnist at Houston Food Finder. Sharing pictures and stories from my journey across Texas (and beyond) in search of quality barbecue, pitmasters, pitmakers, destinations, events, and related subject matter. Also found at TXPitQuest.com.