Diane Fourton sits on the edge of the butterscotch leather couch in the family room of her home in the M Streets.
She tugs the bill of her baseball cap over her eyebrows, bows her head, and covers her face with both hands. Tears spill down the “More Cowbell” lettering on her dark-brown t-shirt. Her two dogs, a French bulldog named Mr. Boudreaux and a pug named Daisy, rush to the rescue, licking the tears from her chin. “I feel like they just kicked us in the gut,” she says. “We put our life savings into this space. Now, three years later, the new owners of the Farmers Market are going to gut it, and if we stay, we won’t see that money.”
Across the room, her husband, Justin, sits in a stylish oatmeal armchair. His deep-blue eyes are welling with tears. He shifts his lanky frame and nervously clears his throat. “Everybody in Shed 2 is upset, and they are afraid to talk because of what it will do for their business,” he says.
The Fourtons own Pecan Lodge, the little catering company that opened as a stall in Shed 2 of the Dallas Farmers Market and quickly emerged as one of the most famous barbecue stands in Texas. As the Fourtons sat crying in their home in late August, the sweet deal that kick-started the business—renting a 1,400-square-foot space, which was only open for lunch four days a week—was about to disappear. Their landlord, the city of Dallas, had sold the market a couple months prior to DF Market Holdings LLC, a private entity with plans to redevelop the market area. Now the Fourtons had to decide if they were ready for the headache and risk of becoming restaurateurs.
They didn’t rush to make a decision. The Fourtons went back and forth for months, crying, praying, and leaning on family, friends, and fellow restaurateurs. When they intimated that they might not agree to a deal with the Farmers Market, they were flooded with texts, calls, and emails from landlords all over North Texas. On June 20, Pecan Lodge tweeted: “Rec’d calls from mayors of 3 different cities offering us incentives. None were from City of Dallas. :-/”
This wasn’t just any old barbecue joint they were wooing. Just after Pecan Lodge Catering opened in March 2010, local barbecue guru Daniel Vaughn, now the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, wrote on his popular Full Custom Gospel BBQ website, “This might just be the finest brisket in the Dallas city limits.”
In 2012, D Magazine named Pecan Lodge one of the 10 best new restaurants in Dallas. Then Texas Monthly picked Pecan Lodge as the best barbecue newcomer in Texas. Southern Living magazine declared that they sold the South’s Best Butt. Then came Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and the No. 2 position in Texas Monthly’s 2014 “The 50 Best BBQ Joints ... in the World!”
“We got huge bumps when the magazines came out,” Justin says. “But the lines went to over an hour wait after the TV show.”
It used to take years—decades—of hard work for a barbecue joint to gain a loyal following. Social media and food TV changed that. Without knowing or even aiming for it, the Fourtons hit the stage at just the right time.
• • •
The birth of Pecan Lodge came with a bowl of homemade grilled-jalapeño, onion, and tomato salsa.
Diane Mason, a 33-year-old divorced mother of two, was working as a corporate trainer in finance change management for Bank of America in Charlotte, North Carolina. When a freak blizzard shut down the city on January 15, 2000, Diane strapped on a pair of bright-red galoshes and tromped through the snow to the Selwyn Avenue Pub.
Justin Fourton, a 24-year-old management consultant for Accenture, sat at the bar with some of his buddies. He watched her from across the room. Bolstered by a few Red Stripes, he worked up the courage to approach and tapped her on the shoulder. “I turned around, and all I saw was his belt buckle, because he was so tall,” Diane says. “I thought he was a basketball player. He was such a dork.” Justin’s opening line cemented her assessment: “I wonder if you can settle a bet between me and my buddy. Is that a wedding ring on your finger?” She and her friends shared a hearty laugh as Diane held up her hand adorned with a chunky, dark-blue mood ring.
A group of barflies headed outside, where Diane had organized a snowball fight. “I was impressed he played in the snow barehanded,” Diane says. Before they said goodnight, the 6-foot-7 Justin and 5-foot-3 Diane built a snow lady topped with a cowboy hat. They discovered they were both from the Dallas area and from families with deep devotions to cooking.
Justin was born in Abilene but grew up in Carrollton. He learned how to handle a smoker at an early age. His close-knit family on his father’s side gathered each Labor Day weekend for dove hunts. At the end of the day, they would gravitate to the portable wood-burning smokers, cook, and drink beer. His maternal grandfather in East Texas taught him how to fish and use an offset pit. Diane grew up in Mesquite, but her mother’s parents were in Weatherford. She’d make the drive each Labor Day to participate in her family’s dove hunt.
A few weeks after the snow day, Diane invited Justin to a friend’s Super Bowl party. “He showed up with a bowl of homemade salsa, and that was it for me. We were inseparable after that.”
Eight months later, they moved to Denver, stopping in Abilene for Labor Day, where Diane would learn that Justin’s grandfather, George Minter Jr., was mayor from 1959 to 1961 and owned Minter’s Department Stores. Minter also had a 640-acre cattle ranch just outside of town. As a child, Justin had played around the white stucco casita, surrounded by towering pecan trees. The family referred to the house as Pecan Lodge. After his grandfather died in 1996, the property was sold. Justin mourned the loss of the ranch.
Diane and Justin’s life together flourished in Denver. Diane’s children, Austin and Baylee, lived with her former husband in Chicago, but they would spend summers and holidays in Colorado. In 2003, Diane and Justin, now both working for Accenture, briefly relocated to Hermosa Beach, California, and rented a house on the beach. They hosted lavish dinner parties, and their friends urged them to become caterers. Accenture covered their housing, and the couple socked away money. Two years later, they moved back to Dallas and bought a house on a treed lot behind the Episcopal School of Dallas. “The first thing we bought was a backyard barbecue pit,” Justin says. “I started making my own rubs and sauces for fun.” Two years later, they were married.
When Diane discovered she was pregnant, she and Justin traveled to Chicago to celebrate with Austin and Baylee. She miscarried that night. A week later, Justin’s cousin died of a drug overdose. They left Chicago to attend the funeral and got a call that Justin’s 57-year-old father, Happy, had died of a heart attack on a cruise ship in Alaska. “Our life was just an endless cluster of crap,” Diane says.
She got pregnant again in November 2007, and her son, Austin, moved from Chicago to Dallas to finish high school. He didn’t want to go to private school, so the Fourtons moved to a house in Frisco, just three weeks before Henry was born. “I was close to making partner, and traveling all of the time,” Justin says. “After all of the emotional stuff with my dad and wanting to be a father to my son, I started trying to figure out a way to stay in Dallas.”
Accenture started downsizing and, when Henry was 6 months old, Justin left the company. Soon after, Diane did, too. Catering still felt risky, but the Fourtons’ combined nine-month severance package gave them a cushion and the courage to take a chance. “We started casually letting our friends know that we were going to cater,” Diane says. “We were going to give it three months.”
In early February 2009, they bought a pit from a retired oil-field welder in San Angelo. They drove their green 1998 Range Rover to Abilene and met him in a Walmart parking lot to make the pick up. “We named the pit Lurlene after my great-uncle’s ex-wife,” Diane says, “because he used to say, ‘She ain’t much to look at, but she sure can cook.’ ”
The next month, Justin hooked Lurlene to the back of the car and headed to a Jiffy Lube on Preston Road in Frisco. Diane was in the back seat breast-feeding Henry. “I walked into the station and said, ‘We’ve got barbecue sandwiches, chips, and a drink for $6,’ ” Justin says. “I couldn’t believe it. I sold, like, 10.”
Then they hit a car wash and a row of car dealerships. Justin stood behind the car, making change from a fanny pack. After they sold out, they went home, threw briskets into Lurlene, and worked late into the night prepping for the next day.
Diane thought it would be easier to hit the densely populated office buildings in Frisco, especially those occupied by mortgage and title companies where the employees were so busy they didn’t have time to leave for lunch. The first time they headed to an office park, Justin threw some logs inside Lurlene and drove around Frisco followed by a trail of billowing smoke. “I know now I was an illegal food operation,” Justin says. “I can’t believe I drove around with a live fire behind my car and a baby in the back seat.”
They enlarged the menu. Justin came up with brisket tacos, and Diane imagined a stuffed sweet potato. Friends came over to sample their experiments. When someone asked Diane what she was going to call her potato creation, she said, “I don’t know. It’s just a nasty-looking hot mess.”
The mortgage and title companies were profitable customers. Within a month, the Fourtons had requests for group lunches, holiday parties, and corporate functions. Once again, the menu expanded to include cornbread salad, cilantro pimento cheese, and coconut cream pie. “Orders would come in for 200, and we’d cook all night,” Diane says. “I’d stuff jalapeños with Henry strapped in a sling across my chest.” Friends would show up to help them transport the food.
By August, just six months after their first stop at Jiffy Lube, there weren’t enough hours in the day to keep up with the business, and barely enough space. On a run to the Dallas Farmers Market for produce, they wandered through Shed 2, which, at that time, was almost empty. The city of Dallas had plans to redevelop the space into a specialty food building, and they were advertising for vendors. The Fourtons fell in love with the vision of a group of independent small food companies selling side by side and with the convenience of being steps away from fresh produce. The next day, they called for details and were discouraged to learn they had to pay for their own finish-out, which they couldn’t afford. The representative encouraged them to make an offer anyway. Sensing the city was desperate, Justin lowballed. It was accepted.
They hired a contractor in December 2009 and used their savings to build a kitchen and an area to store their catering supplies. They pooled family recipes with those they’d picked up living in other cities and created a Southern comfort-food menu, with barbecue almost as a side item. Petite but pugnacious, Diane was fearless when it came to getting her way with the workers. Justin started calling her Boss Lady.
In early March 2010, they hung a Pecan Lodge Catering sign over the counter. “Even though we were a catering company, we were required to serve something to customers during lunch on Thursdays through Sundays,” Diane says. “We had no clue what we were doing. We didn’t consider ourselves a restaurant. So we just put up a chalkboard with the stuff we thought might get us some catering business.” They offered brisket tacos, barbecue sandwiches, and the Hot Mess.
“The first year we opened I didn’t think we were going to make it,” Justin says. “It was me and Diane and one employee we paid in food for a few weeks until we had some money. We’d sell maybe half a brisket on Friday.” (For comparison, one Saturday in April, they sold 40 briskets by noon.) Customers raved about the barbecue. Word spread like bacon fat on an open flame. “Sometimes I’d look out and see 20 people in line,” Diane says, “and I would just freak out.”
A year into business, city health inspectors required the Fourtons to build an enclosure around Lurlene, which was taking up a parking space outside the kitchen door. “We had to stop selling barbecue just as we got our momentum,” Justin says.
Building the enclosure took two months and $8,000, which they borrowed from family. “At one point, we had $100 in the bank,” Diane says. “When it came time to announce we were going to have barbecue again, I was debating whether to spend $80 on a banner that said ‘BBQ Is Back.’ ”
She ordered the banner and, in June 2011, barbecue was indeed back. Bloggers blogged, tweeters tweeted, and the Pecan Lodge cult was born. Twenty people in line was a slow day.
• • •
Standing in line at Pecan Lodge became a rite of passage for barbecue freaks. Justin surveyed his customers and discovered some 35 percent drove two hours or more for brisket. People took days off of work to soak up the experience.
“When we first opened, there were a lot of suits in the crowd,” Justin says. “Now we have people coming from other states and countries.” Recently, a Yelper wrote, “The wait is terrible, you can easily wait over 1.5 hours or so if you don’t show up right when it opens and you run the risk of them selling out of food. That being said, for some reason I still endure this wait over 15+ times!”
Shed 2 was rocking. Other vendors were making money off the people waiting for barbecue. On March 23, 2012, the city killed some of the buzz when it announced it was seeking bids from investors to take over the market.
The Fourtons didn’t have time to worry. The frenzy reached a fever pitch in June 2012 when the episode of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives featuring Pecan Lodge aired on the Food Network. The lines snaked out the door.
A month later, WFAA Channel 8’s David Schechter reported live from Shed 2. “The Farmers Market has been in turmoil for years,” he said. “But now, despite itself, the market is drawing crowds so big you’d think they were giving away the food for free.”
Despite the hundreds of people who showed up every day, the Fourtons started thinking about a long-term exit strategy. “We could see the writing on the wall,” Justin says.
The city released a statement in February 2013 revealing it had found a buyer. City Council passed the plan to privatize the market, and on June 18, 2013, the city announced the sale. The transaction set off emotional responses from the permanent retail businesses in Shed 2, as DF Market Holdings unveiled sophisticated drawings and plans. Many existing tenants, like the Fourtons, had invested their life savings into their businesses. When they heard Shed 2 was going to be gutted, they realized their investments would be hauled off by dump trucks.
The Fourtons turned back into management consultants, this time trying to solve their own financial problems. They met with DF Market Holdings, city officials, and other suitors—representatives from Carrollton, Arlington, Sachse, and a slew of Dallas neighborhoods. For months, the couple consulted friends, family, and fellow restaurateurs, but they could not pull the trigger on a deal. It was frustrating for all parties. “I love them, but they can be stubborn to a fault,” says one restaurateur. “They ask for advice and then don’t listen when you give it.” Others believe the Fourtons are in over their heads.
“We have to move forward. It’s mentally wearing us out,” Diane said in late August. “My anxiety is off the charts. I can’t sleep. I am paralyzed with fear.”
• • •
Clarification came in the form of developer Scott Rohrman, who is trying to revitalize Deep Ellum with his company 42 Real Estate. He currently has 37 properies—27 buildings and 10 parking lots. The goal is to attract restaurants, art galleries, music venues, and small businesses. So when Rohrman sold the Fourtons on a 4,850-square-foot spot at 2702 Main Street, it was like winning the restaurant real estate lottery.
The new Pecan Lodge will be a treat for the faithful folks who once waited in line. Instead of standing, customers can sit in the 70-seat dining room or order a beer or glass of wine on the landscaped patio. Justin has a screened-in smokehouse large enough to hold Lurlene, Virgil (named after Justin’s father), and Rick (named after Diane’s father). With all smokers working, he can triple barbecue production.
This time around, the Fourtons aren’t worried about the food quality. They’ve got that down. It’s everything else. The original Pecan Lodge was never designed to be a restaurant, and the Fourtons have struggled to build in Deep Ellum what they accidentally created at the Farmers Market.
They have made sacrifices to appease Rohrman. No more closing when the meat runs out. Now they have to run a full-service restaurant that serves lunch six days a week and dinner on Friday and Saturday. That means adding staff and investing in plates, cutlery, tables, and chairs. To reduce the cost of building out their first restaurant, they decided not to hire a designer.
“Once again, we didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing,” Diane says. “We’re just kinda winging it. Justin and I fought for three weeks trying to choose the right colors to re-create the vibe of the old place.”
The Fourtons haven’t just re-created the vibe of the old place— they’ve filled the project with passions from their past. During construction, they hitched up Lurlene and drove to Abilene. Justin wanted to visit his grandfather’s ranch and set foot on the porch of the original Pecan Lodge.
On March 2, they headed west on Interstate 20 in a fierce ice storm. Five hours later, they were parked at the gate of the ranch. Justin was overcome with emotion, and tears ran down his face. His heart sank when he learned the casita had been torn down, but he was happy to see the red tin cattle barns still standing. In one of the barns, the Fourtons discovered an original hand-painted sign from his grandfather’s cattle business. “This is going in the restaurant,” Justin said, as he wiped tears from his face. “I can’t believe this is still here. There was a reason we made this trip.”
The next morning, they headed back to search for the remains of the casita. They left Lurlene at the gate and drove over the stubbly landscape. When the road stopped, they got out and walked until they found a large patch of ground covered by gravel and surrounded by a few pecan trees. Diane discovered a brick with Abilene embossed across the top and squealed, “This is going in the restaurant!” There were hugs and more tears and stories about growing up at Pecan Lodge. “Maybe one day we will be successful enough to buy it back and move back,” Justin said.
For now, though, all eyes are on Deep Ellum. As May began, the Fourtons scrambled to put the finishing touches on the restaurant. Fans and skeptics alike are eager to see if the mystique and charm of the old space will travel.
“We don’t have a crystal ball,” Justin says. “We’re all gonna have to guess as we go along and adjust as it happens.”