Steam escapes from the smoker as SLAB BBQ employee Rance Simpson takes out a piece of seasoned chicken and begins chopping it up with speed inside the small food truck. The SLAB employees are busy preparing dozens of sandwiches for the Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament, one of the many events the business has served.
SLAB BBQ, originally called Sugar Shack BBQ, has been a campus commodity since its opening on the corner of 24th and San Antonio streets. The business began in 2006 as an experiment out of founder Mark Avalos’ home kitchen. Since its inception, SLAB has changed its name and expanded its business, which anticipates the addition of a new restaurant location sometime this year.
“When I bought my house, the first thing I bought was a smoker, and I learned how to smoke on it and I got hooked,” Avalos said. “All the sauces I make are from scratch. It’s all trial and error that I’ve done from back in the day.”
Because the business had been known as Sugar Shack since 2008, Avalos was apprehensive toward rebranding, afraid that students would not recognize the new face of the food trailer. But, in 2013, the name was changed to SLAB BBQ, which stands for “slow, low and banging,” a description Avalos said correlates with the methods of making barbecue.
“I never actually went to the place when it was called the Sugar Shack, but I remember being surprised when I saw the SLAB trailer where the Sugar Shack was supposed to be,” computer science junior Aila Enos said. “It didn’t stop me from going there. I was on the hunt for some good barbecue close to campus.”
Besides being based out of a food truck, SLAB’s barbecue is different in a number of ways from the traditional Texas style staple. The meats are a fusion of Texas-, Memphis- and Carolina-style barbecue, and all the meat is served sandwich style rather than on a plate, after being smoked for 12 hours.
“When I started off in 2006, I wanted to not be like every other barbecue with plates,” Avalos said. “I wanted to focus on the sandwich and so that’s what I did. We low smoke all the meats, but we focus more on the sandwich and what we can create.”
With two trailers and a food truck capable of producing 1,500 pounds of smoked meat already in use, Avalos is looking to move into a restaurant before summer.
“The great thing about what we’re doing now in the order that we’re doing it is that we’re building a clientele with the truck and with the trailer,” Avalos said. “When we open up the doors to the restaurant, we already have a following. We, at least, have people who know us and will support us.”
Chip Gourley, Avalos’ business partner, is excited for the options a restaurant location will be able to give customers that are not currently available out of the truck and trailer.
“I’m really excited about moving into a restaurant because I feel like we can broaden the menu,” Gourley said. “You can pick your meat, pick your sauce, pick your side. Build your own barbecue. That was the dream.”
Since its beginnings on campus, the truck has catered events for people such as Norah Jones, Dell, The Ying Yang Twins, among others, and has also been featured on the Travel Channel, Food Network and eHow. Despite SLAB’s success, Avalos remains grateful to his original clients: students.
“I want the students to know that they built what we are now,” Avalos said. “It all started on campus.”