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E.S. Sparks

By E.S. Sparks

What happens when you take generations of tradition, inject new blood, a passion for the pits, and a family committed to providing the best damn barbecue to their community? You get a prime example of what makes Terry Black’s Barbecue a cut above the rest.

Mike Black, who co-owns the business along with his twin brother Mark, sister Christina, and parents Patti and Terry (the restaurant's namesake), did not always plan to follow in the family trade. While his lineage might suggest otherwise—he got his start working at his grandfather’s restaurant, Black’s Barbecue, which has been open since 1932 in his hometown of Lockhart, TX, “The Barbecue Capital of Texas”—his own story is surprisingly relatable to anyone who has wanted to strike out on their own.

Fresh out of college and unsure of what to do next, Mike went to work the pits at Black's and found himself enamored with the process. But when a dispute over how to run the business caused a fracture in the family, Mike and Mark decided to take a chance on opening their own restaurant here in Austin. Thus in 2014, Terry Black’s was born, and boy are we grateful. With three locations, the newest of which opened in Lockhart in late 2022, the wildfire growth speaks for itself. (Good thing, because our mouths are full!)

For anyone who’s ever dreamt starting a small business, following their passions or even just their taste buds: Take this as your sign.

Terry Black's BBQ

The original location offers a sunny patio perfectly situated on Barton Springs Rd. Photo via Instagram / @terryblacks_bbq 

You studied business finance at Texas State. Did you always intend to apply that to the family business or how did that come about?

No I didn’t. Like so many kids, I went to college and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My family has this business acumen and background, [so] I naturally gravitated towards business. I think naturally I’m just good with numbers. My brother [Mark] and I love to go to Vegas, we were going when we were 21, like, a lot, and playing blackjack and just having an amazing time out there. Somehow I got it together and I graduatedjust barely. And then I was like, What do I do with a business finance degree with no work history? All I’ve ever known how to do is play blackjack! [Laughs.] That was in 2010; the economy wasn’t in great shape. There were a few entry-level bank jobs, [but] I never really saw myself sitting at a desk. So I moved back home to Lockhart. I didn’t have any money so I moved back in with my parents. My brother and I were kicking around all kinds of [business] ideas, but he was still in college at the time. I said, Well, for the time being I’m going to go down to the barbecue restaurant there in Lockhart and I’m going to start working. I talked with my grandfather who was the owner [of Black's Barbecue] at the time and got approval from him. Within six months or so, I really liked the people that I worked with, I really liked cooking and what I was doing. Didn’t necessarily get along with my uncle, an attorney in Austin who had come back and kind of taken over the restaurant. He wanted to run the business one way... Not that I necessarily wanted to run the business by any means, but I wanted to stay true to our roots as far as cooking, put out the best product that we could produce and cook it all in the open pits. He didn’t see eye to eye with me, so it was like two rams head-butting. I saw the writing on the wall, that hey. this isn’t going to work out with he and I here, so I need to go branch out and do my own thing.

Well, I didn’t have any money. So I talked with my mother, my father, my sister and my brother and we pulled all of our money together, which was very little. My dad got a loan on the house and got a real estate agent and we found this location on Barton Springs. It was in terrible condition, it was a failed restaurant for many, many years. The owner of the buildinghe’s a great guy, great familythey worked us a deal, put a new roof on it. And then we got in there and got to work, me and a couple friends from Lockhart. We really built out the restaurant, we built the tables, we built the walls, we did everything. We opened up… and it was pretty ugly. But we [still] didn’t have any money, so we had this three-year plan of how we’re going to beautify this old, ugly building. And we did. Every dollar that we made we put back into the building and we made it to what it is today. It really feels like a barbecue restaurant. We’re blessed to have an amazing location down there and be very successful.

Yeah, that is a prime location!

If you said, "Where else would you want to be in Austin?" I would say that’s probably the best location in Austin. I love that location, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s across from the park and close enough to downtown, right next to residential [areas] to capture a lot of those regulars.

Was Austin always your first choice of location for Terry Black’s?

At the time, there was so much good barbecue in Austin and there were so many amazing places kind of migrating to Austin, so I saw it as the new barbecue capital of Texas. All of a sudden in 2009, 2010, ‘11, ‘12… we started seeing all these really good places open up. My brother and I, with our competitive nature and spirit, we said we want to compete with all of these other barbecue restaurants and we want to be where the best places are, and we saw that as Austin. We made a checklist: How are we going to separate ourselves from a lot of these other restaurants? What do they do? What are we going to do differently? So many of these places were open just on the weekends, or just for lunch. We said, Well, hey, there’s two of us! We’re going to grind, try to work as hard as we can, be open seven days a week, be open a.m. and p.m. (which a lot of places aren’t). We’re going to do musical chairs with our pits—as something goes on, something comes off. Cooking meats throughout the day so we can be open longer hours and really build that market share and get people to come to us. I really think that’s how we built our brand in the early days, just being accessible. And then [Mark] and I just working tables, meeting people and creating superfans and building those relationships. That was key in those early days.

Meet the fam: (left to right) Mark Black, Patti Black, Christina Black, Terry Black, Cherie Black (Mike's Wife), daughter Berkley and Mike Black.

Terry Black & the twins

I think with so many success stories, they aren’t really linear. We want to see them that way because that makes more sense, but a lot of time it’s just opportunity meeting experience and a genuine love for something. 

Yeah absolutely. You know, I had been working at the barbecue restaurant in Lockhart for three years, grown up around it all my life. So opening this restaurant, I thought I knew so much more that I didn’t really know. Looking back, I didn’t know very much at all, but I did know how to work very, very hard and have the ability to just figure things out. Surround myself with good people. Have that business knowledge not necessarily gained through college but just gained with experience. My dad’s an accountant, my sister has an accounting degree, I have a finance degree and my brother has an economics degree. We knew to save every dollar that we could. Invest it back in the business. Save that money for Uncle Sam—which [is where] a lot of people mess up. They serve amazing foodand great people open these restaurantsbut they make a dollar and they think it’s a dollar they can put in their pocket. Uncle Sam is going to come calling at some point. So we saved every penny we could in those first couple of years because we knew you’ve got to ride the highs and withstand the lows. That’s part of our success.

Is it fair to say then that shortsightedness is something an up-and-coming business should be conscious of in order to maintain longevity after an initial success?

When you open a new restaurant, you have to work so hard and keep a tight knit group of people. You’ve got to save—rathole that money for a rainy day because you never know when your walk-in cooler is going to go out, your AC is going to go out, your taxes are going to pile up… God forbid something like Covid, you can’t plan for something of that magnitude. But little things—be prepared for those things.

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With your family history, at the turn of the century your family had a hotel— 

Yeah, wow, you really did some digging! [Laughs.]

Well hospitality seems pretty deeply ingrained. What do you think are some of the core tenets of hospitality?

Connect with your clientele. Be a good person when you’re talking to people on the inside and outside. There’s so many people that go out there and put on a good face and glad-hand people, but at the end of the day, they don’t treat their staff with the same respect. They don’t really live that. So I think just being a good person and living that in front of the customer, in the back of the house, in all that you do—that speaks to being hospitable. And just believing in what you do. Do something you enjoy, do it with passion. Love what you do and that hospitable nature will shine through. People will see that and they can feel that.

You spoke to your competitive nature, but you do produce educational content to teach people how to prepare barbecue for themselves. I find that very interesting; to make it accessible for people while also having that competitive edge of wanting to be the best.

People always ask us, "Who are your competitors?" And I always say the same thing: We don’t have any outside competitors. We’re competing against ourselves—we’re trying to be the best Terry Black’s Barbecue we can be. Run the best business we can, train our staff the best and give the best experience. I’m not worried about what “XYZ” down the street is doing; they can do their thing, and honestly, if they need my help they can always reach out to us. If they need wood, if they need supplies, we’re more than willing to help. We were at the Texas Monthly Barbecue Fest and several people came up and said, Man, I just want to thank you and your brother for helping our staff. [Someone from] Jack’s BBQ in Seattle came up and said, “I appreciate you talking with me about your scrubber system.” That’s something we’ve got here in Austin that’s pretty foreign to barbecue restaurants, so I can talk with people about our experience with scrubbers and teach them what to do and what not to do. Just tell them how we do things at Terry Black’s Austin because it’s such a high-volume beast, it’s a unique environment. We love to help people, we want to see other people be successful. Why not? Anybody that needs help, we’re more than willing to help and create friends along the way. You never know when we’re going to need help, right?

We’re always trying to better our craft and bring in people that can first learn from us and then teach us something to make us better. You’ve never really mastered the craft. In my mind, if you say you’re a master of something, then you’ve kind of gotten to the pinnacle, to the top, and you stop learning. I never really want to master anything because I want to continue to grow and constantly get better and learn from other people.

Stay hungry, right?

Absolutely. Stay hungry. Eat barbecue. [Laughs.]

Brisket Breakdown: Mike Black shows us how it's done.



1003 Barton Springs Rd

Austin, TX 78704


3025 Main St

Dallas, TX 75226


900 N Colorado St

Lockhart, TX 78644