When Ronnie Killen opened his much-anticipated Killen's Barbecue six months back, it seemed a natural extension of his eponymous steakhouse, which was already a huge success, and attracted diners from all over the Houston area to this Pearland outpost. Half a year into his venture, he's enjoying something of a golden moment. Killen and his restaurant have both won awards, and the lines of diners go out the door and around the building. For some, it might seem a little overwhelming. But Killen, with his strong ties to the Pearland area, tries to take it all in stride. Pleasing the critics and the media is great, he seems to believe, but pleasing his guests is crucial— he's most concerned with bringing his A game to venture every single day.
You've received a lot of accolades. What's that feel like?
Being named chef of the year, just like any other award or accolade, can be a double-edged sword. When people hear that, it's like putting a target on your back for others to judge, to see how good you are. It's funny, you work hard to be noticed and respected by your peers ... the goal is to be good and obviously I am glad to win, but it also generates greater awareness and makes me raise my expectations of both the barbecue and steakhouse because now I have to live up that title. But in my opinion we still have a long way to go. I still see so much room for improvement.
What's been the most surprising thing for you about the last six months?
I think the most surprising thing has been the people. We've had such a following. Barbecue itself tends to have a cult following, everyone has an opinion about it and when you do something different from their favorite style, you wind up take a lot crap for it. But our fans have been so great, and it's been really rewarding that they support what we're trying to do. And they've helped with word of mouth. But barbecue in Texas really is the most subjective thing there is.
And for you, this is an extension of your life.
It is. I remember my family sitting under tree at this picnic table in Gonzales and we'd be eating barbecue and potato salad and it was about being together. And I want to create that here. You know, doing barbecue isn't like doing a steak. If you mess up a steak and overcook it, you go get another steak, throw it on the grill and fix it. With brisket, you're talking 12 to 16 hours. So, if you mess it up— you really just get on shot, every day. I do take that seriously. And I want it to be better at doing this every day.
You've had lines out the door, so you must be doing something right. How's managing the crowds been for you?
The crowds have been great. People have been patient, mostly, and they really seem to understand that this isn't like other barbecue places, where maybe there are a lot of things pre-made and warming. We started early in the morning doing this work, and we cook, and when it's gone, it's gone. But we put in a ticket system, so people don't have to stand in line. They can sit; they can run over to the DMV over there and run an errand. And, on the weekend, we put out a keg of beer, so they can relax while they're waiting to order. It's a little like the way Southwest Airlines does their boarding passes. And it's worked.
What's been the most popular dish on the menu?
We sell more brisket than anything. But the beef ribs are really popular, too.
This is really home for you. How does being here, where your roots are, add to your success?
It's my roots, where I'm from, where I went to school. It's the opportunity that popped up at the right time. Would Killen's Barbecue be busier in Houston? Yes. But there's also a larger price to pay.
So, what's next for you and the business?
We're looking at opening for dinner. Right now, we have people who come here for lunch and they'll turn up at the steakhouse for dinner, which is great. But opening for dinner here means we need to think of how we do this for lunch. It's not like you snap a finger and there's barbecue. It's time. And it's all fresh, every day. One week, we had 7500 people and that's a lot to manage, so opening for dinner we have to make sure we can keep the consistency. I'm really proud of what we do, and I don't want to do something that's not good enough. I know when it's not. And I really try— all of us here do— to grow and get better all the time.