From food truck to Magnolia Avenue, Emma and Travis Heim talk about their popular BBQ venture. jlmarshall@star-telegram.com
From food truck to Magnolia Avenue, Emma and Travis Heim talk about their popular BBQ venture. jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Living

Meet the BBQ sweethearts of Fort Worth

By Preston Jones

pjones@star-telegram.com

August 18, 2016 7:56 AM

FORT WORTH

It’s a little before 6 p.m. inside Heim Barbecue on a recent Thursday, and the last of the sausage — both the all-beef and the jalapeño-cheddar varieties — has just been sold.

This has been a common occurrence since Travis and Emma Heim threw open the doors to the brick-and-mortar incarnation of their dream on Aug. 6.

The hungry begin lining up almost, it seems, with the sunrise, ready for the start of business at 11 a.m. Some walk over from the historic Fairmount neighborhood or the bustling hospital district. But others have come from Dallas, Abilene or even Austin to get a taste of Heim.

When the smoked meats — lovingly tended to and prepared on one of three enormous (and expensive) Oyler smokers housed in what Emma affectionately describes as their “modern art project” — begin hitting the butcher-paper-lined metal trays, the line-dwellers’ eyes begin to light up and the dining room begins to fill up.

Travis watches as devoted fans and first-time visitors alike devour the food he’s been fine-tuning since age 12.

This moment, arguably the buzziest restaurant opening in Fort Worth in years, coupled with statewide attention, is a product of skill aligning with serendipity. Both Heims are quick to point out how fortunate they feel — “incredibly blessed” is how Travis characterizes it — but it is also true that no one would care about Heim Barbecue if the food were not really, really good.

Heim Barbecue has consistently run out of meat (after selling well north of a thousand pounds per day).

Sinking your teeth into the moist brisket and tasting the smoke, salt and pepper is to likewise feel lucky. The same can be said for the signature bacon burnt ends, with hints of sweetness and char. Or the green chile mac and cheese, all gooey and spicy.

These Texas delicacies rarely lingered long at the Heims’ food truck, and they aren’t hanging around the brick-and-mortar location either. That Heim Barbecue has, at least in the early going, consistently run out of meat (after selling well north of a thousand pounds per day) is a detail that nags at Travis, as he is someone for whom details matter.

Without prompting, as we stand inside the towering smokehouse behind the restaurant, he explains to me the intricacies of temperature, heat, moisture, smoke and time, the minute adjustments required to get the brisket or the ribs or the pork cooked just so, reaching the state of smoky nirvana so many Texas pitmasters seek (and so many eager diners line up to eat).

It’s a revealing indicator of just how seriously the prodigiously-bearded 27-year-old from Fort Worth takes his barbecue — and how intent he is on building upon all of the unexpected success he has enjoyed to date.

Heim Barbecue, it would be fair to say, attracts not so much customers as rabidly loyal followers.

Emily McLaughlin, who operates a clinic across the street from Heim’s physical location, and Jeff Knipper lined up at 3:15 a.m. the night before the official grand opening, purely out of loyalty to the Heims.

“We can neither confirm nor deny that we’ve been in line for nearly eight hours,” McLaughlin told the Star-Telegram on opening day. “We were here stupid early. But we are fans of Travis and Emma, we were fans from the trailer, so our allegiance to them got us up in the middle of night.”

“I think our knees buckled when we had that first bite [at the Heim trailer],” Knipper said. “We were sold from there on.”

I think it’s just always been — the reason we do all of the stuff that we do is because we’re passionate about it.

Travis Heim

Even those critics who have grumbled about the lines, which were far longer (initially) at the Heims’ spot at the Republic Street Bar, cannot deny the skill with which Travis Heim makes barbecue.

“They deserve the attention,” wrote Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn last fall. “Over several visits, I’ve witnessed the evolution of the quality of Heim’s barbecue. … I wouldn’t suggest holding out that long before you get some of their barbecue.”

The Heims are also after something bigger than critical acclaim and long lines.

The couple wants to embed themelves along the bustling commercial strip that Magnolia Avenue has become in the last two years, a fixture among fellow culinary enterprises like Melt Ice Creams or Ellerbe Fine Foods. Heim Barbecue wants, in other words, to become a community destination.

“I think it’s just always been — the reason we do all of the stuff that we do is because we’re passionate about it,” says Travis. “Maybe it’s just barbecue in Texas, but it’s such a communal kind of thing. That’s why we have community tables. It’s almost like your favorite sports team, your favorite barbecue place — talking about church or politics or whatever. Everybody has their spot, and they’re constantly trying to figure out: ‘Is this place better than this place?’ It’s cool.”

From trashcan to food truck

The mantra for barbecue enthusiasts is “low and slow” — meat cooked for a long time at low temperatures over a carefully tended fire.

The revered sites for Texas ‘cue — Dallas’ Pecan Lodge, Austin’s Franklin Barbecue or any of the Lockhart trifecta — turn the art of cooking brisket, sausage and ribs into something like perpetual motion: The fires must be stoked, the meat fretted over, no detail too small, again and again, 24 hours a day.

BBQ faithful line up for Heim BBQ before dawn

On opening day at the Fort Worth restaurant, fans of the one-time food trailer showed up as early 3:15 a.m. to be first in line and others drove several hours from Austin. (Video by Rick Press)

rpress@star-telegram.com

For outsiders, it might seem as if the ascent of Heim Barbecue has been anything but “low and slow,” with the Heims transitioning from wheels to walls in a span of 18 months. It has been a dizzying rise, a swift progression from pop-ups to permanent space on burgeoning Magnolia Avenue.

As Travis toils in the smokehouse, hands stained with ash and smoke, Emma works front of house, expediting food from the kitchen to the pick-up station and making sure she greets every customers with her disarming smile and effervescent personality.

I did commercial real estate in college and I’ve had a million other weird, crazy jobs, but my idea was always, if I don’t know what I’m doing, then I figure out who does know and then talk to them.

Travis Heim

Long before Travis and Emma first toyed with the idea of making food for a living a little over three years ago, Travis was tinkering with recipes and cooking methods, perfecting his approach to barbecue through trial and error.

“I did commercial real estate in college and I’ve had a million other weird, crazy jobs, but my idea was always, if I don’t know what I’m doing, then I figure out who does know and then talk to them,” Travis says. “The first brisket I cooked, I was 12, on my granddad’s old smoker. Then my grandfather would do ribs a lot and that was always — oh, man, his ribs were so good.

“[Barbecue] was something that I cared about and was pretty cool. After we got married, a good friend of mine bought us a Weber grill. Before that, I would smoke meat out of a trashcan, where I’d put an electric element in the bottom and it was just so stupid-looking —”

“He’s cooked on everything,” Emma cheerfully interjects. “And then I got to eat really bad barbecue.”

But Travis progressed, refining his approach and finessing his sauce and rub recipes — “It was just because we kept buying sauce, and I was like, ‘All of these are terrible,’ ” he says now — and devising showstoppers like the bacon burnt ends, which are hunks of pork belly seasoned and smoked in such a way as to become addictive little pleasure bombs.

The Heims began hosting pop-up events in June 2013 with friends and family, eliciting a rapturous response.

That positive feedback begat the next step: taking the leap and pouring every cent they had into the Craigslist purchase of a used food truck in late 2014.

It was not a decision the Heims made lightly. (The couple met via a church youth group while Travis was at Calvary Academy, and Emma attended Temple Christian School. They began dating 10 years ago when Travis was a high school senior and Emma was a freshman at Tarrant County College, and have been married for five years.)

“He had this crazy idea and then we found the food truck on Craigslist,” says Emma, 28. “I was actually in Midland — I used to do oil and gas [work] — and [he] called me. He was like, ‘I’m nervous,’ because it was a deposit first [and] he was like, ‘We don’t have the money to do this,’ and I’m in this La Quinta or something in Midland and I think I cried.”

We spent our savings account [for] the entire deposit for the food truck. Then all of the money in our checking account we spent on meat for the first day.

Travis Heim

For Travis, there was the financial risk to consider, but also the prospect of committing to a decision that could change his family’s life forever.

“A lot of the hesitation was, ‘I don’t think I know what I’m doing,’ and then also we spent our savings account [for] the entire deposit for the food truck,” Travis recalls. “Then all of the money in our checking account we spent on meat for the first day. Literally, there are still people that come in, friends that came on the first day [and we say], ‘We wouldn’t be here if y’all hadn’t showed up.’ 

Fans and fisticuffs

The Heim Barbecue trailer opened for business in February 2015, and it wasn’t long before the leap of faith exceeded the Heims’ expectations.

Writing for the Star-Telegram just two months afterward, critic Malcolm Mayhew observed of the brisket: “Order it however you’d like — lean, moist, crusty. Travis Heim … speaks the language fluently. … It was like the brisket of Central Texas greats such as Snow’s or Louie Mueller, admirably vivid and rich in flavor, tender in texture.”

Not long after that review, Emma — who had been shuttling back and forth between her office job and the truck, turning out sides like the revered banana pudding or potato salad — quit her 9-to-5 gig to join Travis full-time in the barbecue business.

Six months into owning and operating the food truck, the Heims would cross paths with Will Churchill, the Fort Worth auto dealer and entrepreneur who has been making his own mark along Magnolia Avenue.

“Rachel, Will’s wife, she [Facebook] messaged and wanted us to do a catering like the next day or something,” Travis says. “We couldn’t do it; it was late notice — it was unfortunate. She messaged back, ‘Totally understand. Would you guys ever be interested in opening a restaurant on Magnolia because we have this space that I know might be cool.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, every day of my life, that’s what I think about.’ 

It wasn’t long before the Heims had entered into a partnership with the Churchills and Will Churchill’s sister, Corrie Watson, all of whom took a minority stake in the business. They helped the Heims transition from the food truck to a physical building, next door to their Kent & Co. wine bar and car showroom.

“Corrie and I have been blessed,” Churchill told Fort Worth, Texas magazine last October. “We’ve had opportunities growing up; it’s just our giveback to the community that’s supported us forever.”

The opening of a brick-and-mortar Heim Barbecue was already a hot topic of conversation before Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor threw the Punch Heard ’Round the World in May. That was when Odor slugged the Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista, whose showboating bat flip in the 2015 playoffs made him public enemy No. 1 with the Rangers and their fans.

The Heims opened their restaurant in a partnership with Will Churchill and Corrie Watson, whose Kent & Co. is their neighbor.

Among those fans was the dryly funny Travis, who decided to create, on the spot, a T-shirt proclaiming that “Rougned eats free” for life.

The resulting attention from the viral storyESPN and USA Today reported on it, among many others — caught the Heims by surprise. While the T-shirt endeared Heim to locals even more, angry Blue Jays fans unleashed with negative reviews for the as-yet-unopened restaurant and even some death threats.

Says Travis, “That was insane.”

Growing up

With the transition from truck to restaurant tables largely completed, the Heims are now grappling with their new roles: restauranteurs, a job neither has held before.

“Everything kind of feels — people are like, ‘Oh, my god, have you ever even worked in a restaurant? Are you crazy for doing this?’ ” Emma Heim says. “It just seems like it’s a natural progression.

“It’s the next step for what we’re doing. We started backyard pop-ups, backyard barbecues, then we went to a food truck, outgrew that in like two months, then it was like, what do you do next, when you’re in such demand? You open a restaurant.”

So there will be many more days of long lines, hundreds of pounds of carefully sourced meat sold and weary nights spent tending the smokers. There are still aspects of the restaurant to implement, Travis says, which will come online over the next few months: consistent dinner service, a bar menu — featuring a mouthwatering creation known as the “Heimburger,” alongside smoked wings — as well as a potential to-go window behind the building.

Even as he sits in a booth, wrung out from another grueling day, Travis occasionally stares into the middle distance as he speaks, like someone who cannot believe his good fortune even as he and Emma are utterly exhausted by it.

We started backyard pop-ups, backyard barbecues, then we went to a food truck, outgrew that in like two months, then it was like, what do you do next, when you’re in such demand? You open a restaurant.

Emma Heim

“When we first started the truck, I was more concerned with just paying the bills,” Travis said on opening day, the line stretching around the block. “Somehow we ended up here, opening a restaurant. We’re really blessed, but it’s also a little crazy looking back on it. It’s our dream coming true.”

Sustaining them both throughout it all is their passion — for the food, and for each other.

“At the end of the day, I wouldn’t do this unless it was for you, you know, because it’s crazy,” Emma says to Travis. “I mean that, and the possibility of potentially handing it down and keeping it going and what it really could become as Heim Barbecue continues to grow. There’s just so much that could still happen.”

For Travis, the key ingredient — the ineffable component in that brisket, that pulled pork, those bacon burnt ends and those sausages — is a marrow-deep love of what he is doing, and whom he is doing it with and for: his wife, his friends and family, his community.

“There’s so much of what we do that’s technical, scientific,” he says. “Just the idea of taking this hunk of meat that used to be thought of as one of the worst cuts that you could buy — it’s too fatty, it’s all weird and everything — and then turning it into something that’s just delicious, that people really love. It’s really cool.”

Preston Jones: 817-390-7713, @prestonjones

What is your barbecue IQ?

On the opening night of the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival, barbecue takes center stage and we get saucy with the crowd to test their knowledge of the Texas delicacy. (Video by Steve Wilson and Rick Press, Star-Telegram.com)

Steve Wilson Star-Telegram

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