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.
• • •
[inline_image id=”3″ align=”” crop=”full”]
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.”
• • •
[inline_image id=”4″ align=”r” crop=”tall”]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.”