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Wood Is Hard to Find, and Pitmasters Are Scrambling – Texas Monthly

Like many of his fellow Texas pitmasters, Daniel Brown was fed up with the suppliers who were supposed to deliver the wood for his smoker. “Sometimes we’d get wood and sometimes they wouldn’t answer the phone,” the owner of Brown’s Bar-B-Que in South Austin recalled. He was forced to close the trailer more than once. In 2015, he took an unusual step. Brown purchased 65 acres of land in Dale, near his hometown of Lockhart. The land was covered in post oak trees, the wood most popular for barbecue in Central Texas. He and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a chainsaw and a wood splitter and became their own wood suppliers. “Monday we cut wood, Tuesday we split, and Wednesday we bring a load in,” he said.

Wood is the ingredient most essential to the barbecue process. Without it, a pitmaster is worse off than an ice cream shop during a power outage. If the briskets don’t show up, a barbecue joint can still cook ribs and sausage, but without wood, there simply is no barbecue. But every pitmaster is at the mercy of a wood supplier, usually an independent contractor, which could be a big operation that ships (a rarity), a local wood yard, or a dude with a chainsaw and a dented F-150 hired from Craigslist. Each option has its downside. The reliable ones tend to be more expensive, and the cheaper alternatives are often flaky.

Because of a combination of supply chain issues, labor shortages, and inflation, just about every item a joint needs to remain operational is rising in cost. Securing a consistent supply of quality firewood isn’t a new or unusual problem, but add in the aforementioned factors and it’s become more of a challenge. The rapid increase in the number of barbecue joints in Texas over the last several years—all vying for the same fuel—hasn’t helped either.

“I’ve played this game before,” Trevor Sales of Brix Barbecue in Fort Worth told me about shopping around for a new wood guy. In four years, Sales has used five wood suppliers. “They bring you three or four cords and you don’t hear back anymore and the wood’s green,” he recalled of one of his frustrating experiences. (For reference, one cord is a stack of wood eight feet tall and eight feet wide.) Some tried to pass off live oak, red oak, and white oak as the more popular post oak. “You say you use post oak, but a lot of these wood suppliers will just bring you any kind of oak they have,” Sales said.

He finally found a consistent, inexpensive supply from Scott Parsons, who also serviced Smoke-A-Holics BBQ and Terry Black’s Barbecue. “He was like a godsend,” Sales said. The wood was cut to the right length, properly split, and always delivered on time, and a heck of a value at $350 per cord. That lasted for a year, then Parsons posted on Facebook that he was changing careers and leaving the state. A local wood yard quoted Sales $590 per cord, but he kept searching until he found another option for $450. Sales isn’t sure how long that price will last, but luckily his weekend-only operation goes through only one eighth of a cord each week.

Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth relied on Parsons as well. He was able to keep pace when they went from using three cords of wood per month to three cords per week after they were named the best barbecue joint in Texas in our latest Top 50 list. Parsons was gone a few weeks later. Goldee’s co-owner Lane Milne tried not to panic. He asked around among other local pitmasters and got a reference for a guy named Woodchuck Russ, but he wouldn’t deliver. Then he struck a deal with Gourmet Wood Products a few miles down the road. “We’ll probably end up hanging with them for a while because they’re local,” Lane said, adding, “I like the way they cut the wood. Every piece is cut perfect and it’s a good length.” The company has also been accommodating of Goldee’s requests when it comes to other specifications, like cutting short the kiln-drying process to preserve some of the wood’s moisture content.

Last year, Hutchins BBQ lost the supplier who provided wood for its two locations in McKinney and Frisco. A local wood yard didn’t have enough supply to provide the eye-popping eight to ten cords of oak and pecan per week required for each location. The Hutchinses were sent scrambling, and eventually found a man in Wiley who cuts, splits, and stacks wood outside the restaurants for $640 per cord. Think about that $25,000-plus monthly wood bill next time you’re complaining about the price of smoked brisket.

At 45-year-old Arnold Bros. Forest Products, second-generation owner Lennon Arnold fielded calls a few months ago from Hutchins and a few other barbecue joints that had lost the same wood supplier. Reluctantly, he had to turn them all down. “We’ve never had this big of a problem getting wood,” he said. I visited the company’s lot in Irving in December—calling it half full would be generous. A sign on the entry gate reads: “Temporarily closed to the public until further notice.” Arnold hung the sign in February.

A wood supplier at work
A wood supplier at work. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
The closed sign on the entry gate at Arnold Bros. Forest Products in Irving. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Left: A wood supplier at work. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Top: The closed sign on the entry gate at Arnold Bros. Forest Products in Irving. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Arnold Bros. operates a processing facility in southern Oklahoma for hickory, pecan, and oak, and another an hour northeast of Abilene in Woodson for mesquite. Loggers deliver whole trees to those facilities to be cut down to size and shipped to Irving, where they’re split to customer specifications. The loggers are bringing in about half the amount of trees the company needs, and there aren’t enough cutters on staff to keep up even with that. “It’s always been hard to find people out in the sticks who want to cut, and it’s even harder now,” Arnold said. They’ve been able to supply all their barbecue customers like Smokey Joe’s Bar-B-Que, Pecan Lodge, Spring Creek Barbeque, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, and the Rudy’s locations in the DFW area, but can’t yet bring on any new customers. Those established customers should count themselves lucky to get a steady supply of their most important fuel.

The explanation for the challenges at Arnold Bros. is a lack of labor, but it illustrates the fragility of a product’s supply line when there’s no developed supply chain.  Depending on the barbecue joint, pitmasters require one to forty cords of split and stacked wood per month. And unlike with briskets, black pepper, napkins, and nitrile gloves delivered to barbecue joints throughout the week, there is no regional or statewide supply chain for firewood.

In the best of times, food and restaurant product suppliers can take on new restaurants by ordering more product through their wholesale accounts, and maybe adding more trucks and delivery drivers. With current product and labor shortages, that ability is no longer guaranteed—and that’s with the benefit of a mature supply chain. Wood suppliers are often operated by small two-person crews that can’t add clients to their workload. When a company like Arnold Bros. can’t take on additional customers, it requires multiple entrepreneurs to fill the void. But it’s demanding work that requires specialized equipment, access to trees, and a whole lot of physical labor. These independent suppliers aren’t part of a larger system that can grow and contract based on demand, or cover each other’s gaps in service. That’s something ButlerWood in Seguin is trying to change.

Roy Butler and his sons Austin and Jake founded their firewood business, ButlerWood, in 2004. Roy came up with the idea to load the stacked wood into metal cages for easier transport. Instead of unloading the wood and stacking it at the barbecue joints, they use a forklift to unload the cages, then pick up the empty ones the next time they make a delivery. “We designed the business to supply large quantities of wood to companies in an efficient way,” Austin said. They use the cage system to deliver 130 cords of wood a week through their sister company J Butler Trucking to Goode Company Barbeque in Houston, most of the Rudy’s chain, and customers as far away as Wisconsin, Ohio, Washington, and Nevada.

ButlerWood currently harvests wood from its own two-hundred-acre plot. The company has a large wood yard in Seguin to stack and cure inventory naturally and is about to open another in Gonzales. By early next year, any type of customer can order firewood to be delivered directly to their home or business on the revamped website. “People are going to be ordering wood like they order razors to their house,” Austin predicted.

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

Israel “Pody” Campos doesn’t have a local wood yard to supply Pody’s BBQ in the West Texas town of Pecos. He used to smoke with a combination of woods like red oak, white oak, pecan, and even cherrywood, but he’s gone to all mesquite now. “Mesquite has always had that traditional barbecue taste to me,” he said. “It’s a West Texas staple.” Every six months, Baldo Aranda hauled mesquite from Comanche to Pody’s, about 330 miles. Sadly, Aranda recently died, but his wife, Tina, said she plans to continue operating the business.

Of all the barbecue joint owners I talked to, the only one who didn’t have a complaint about his wood supplier was John Brotherton. Since starting Brotherton’s Black Iron BBQ in Pflugerville in 2017, he has used Sierrah Wood in Leander for his post oak. “If there are any issues, he’s out the same day to fix it,” Brotherton said of Michael Wheeler, who owns Sierrah Wood. Brotherton shared a story about Wheeler dislocating his shoulder and still not letting Brotherton want for wood. “He would bring me two days’ worth of wood at a time until he was healthy enough to bring me a few cords,” Brotherton said.

That probably says as much about how lean these independent wood suppliers run their operations. Other than his wife, Lori, who was 35 weeks pregnant when we spoke and still helping him stack wood, Wheeler has no employees and doesn’t get many applications. “The job is just too hard I guess, especially in the summer,” he said.

It was another injury that first led Wheeler to the firewood business. He had spinal fusion surgery in 2014. The doctors couldn’t really pinpoint the cause, but, he said, “When I was trying to get my body back, everything sucked expect for swinging the ax for some reason.” He realizes how puzzling that statement sounds, but six months later he had eight cords of firewood stacked in his yard, and Lori thought they could find a better place for it. They advertised firewood for sale, and it was gone in two days. Wheeler found a supplier to buy wood wholesale and continued selling and delivering firewood, but relied on the big wood yards for already cut logs. That put limitations on the custom sizes he could offer to customers. He wanted to work with whole trees.

“We get access to ranchers who want their dead post oak gone,” Wheeler explained. He gets most of it from the Rockdale area, and it’s almost exclusively post oak. Post oak trees have a tendency to die before they fall over, resulting in what are referred to as dead standing trees. If Wheeler cuts a dead standing post oak tree today, he’ll let it sit two weeks before splitting it, then two more weeks for the wood to become seasoned enough for a firebox. A green tree takes six to nine months to properly season.

Wheeler currently supplies wood to Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Rockdale and Pustka Barbeque in Hutto, as well as Brotherton’s, for $450 a cord. He has capacity for more local customers, and big expansion plans as well. Wheeler can store just twenty cords of split wood, so it can’t sit long before he needs to make room for more. He’d like enough land to store one thousand cords. He also has property in the Fort Worth area and is planning to expand his business there next spring, but he’s still searching for someone to run it. When I asked Wheeler why it’s so hard to find the right person, he laughed and said, “Everybody wants to be the wood guy until they have to be the wood guy.”

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