Linking up: Barbecue dynasty comes together again
By Wesley Gardner
It started on Jan. 17, 1900.
That was year Charles Kreuz Sr. bought a meat market from Jesse Swearingen for a mere $200.
And with that, Kreuz Market — and a dynasty of barbecue in Lockhart — was born.
Fast forward nearly 120 years to the since-crowned Barbecue Capital of Texas and you’ll see a lot has changed. Kreuz Market isn’t Kreuz Market anymore, at least in a sense. It’s moved on a about a quarter mile down the highway to a bigger and newer building.
Standing where Kreuz Market used to be is Smitty’s Market. Same building. Same pit. Same family. They’ve added a pit and dining space, but most of the original setting is still firmly tucked in place.
And that same family has since ventured outside of Lockhart, as well. With Schmidt Family Barbecue in Bee Cave, the mantle of barbecue in the Schmidt family now spans three generations.
Between Nina Schmidt Sells, owner of Smitty’s Market, Keith Schmidt, owner of Kreuz Market, and Susie Schmidt Franks, who owns Schmidt Family Barbecue with her husband, Chad Franks, the blood for barbecue in this family runs as thick as the sauce they’ve each been so reluctant to serve.
But, like most families, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. There were fights, because that’s what families are often prone to do. There were disagreements. And in this case, the infighting happened to blow up on a national scale.
But ask any of the family members about the so-called “barbefeud” now, and they’ll tell you the same thing: family will always outweigh the more material aspects of life.
At the turn of the 20th century, Kreuz Sr. opened up Kreuz Market.
With poor refrigeration options and quality cuts of meat slowly beginning to rot, Kreuz decided that instead of tossing out the meat he hadn’t sold, he would ground the lesser cuts into sausage and cook the more prime choices over barbecue pits. Thus, a tradition was born.
Back then, the store acted as both a meat market and a local grocery store.
According to Sells, customers would first buy their barbecue and sausage — wrapped in butcher paper, of course — and head over to the grocery to pick up their bread and pickles and cheeses.
Many customers were so eager to get their hands on their brisket, they’d simply use the butcher paper as a plate – a tradition still kept alive at both Smitty’s and Kreuz Market today.
While the name “Kreuz Market” has been around for more than a century, the market didn’t come into the Schmidt family until 1948, when Edgar Schmidt — or Smitty, as he was known around town — purchased the business.
Smitty started to work at Kreuz Market in 1933, when he was 13 years old.
“He started working there for a high school job,” said Sells, Smitty’s daughter. “The Kreuz’s kind of took him under their wing. They liked him and appreciated his hard work.”
Sells said her father worked so hard and so continuously, it often felt like he wasn’t home when she was growing up.
“I remember him always getting up early and going to work, making sure everything was going to be OK,” said Sells. “We did take time for about 5-7 days when we’d go to Rockport in the summer.
“I really enjoyed it because that was the only time I knew my dad was going to be around all day. He was here at this market most of the time, watching it and making sure we were taken care of.”
In the 1960′s, Smitty closed the grocery side of the business but kept some of the more popular side items – the crackers, the bread, the pickles, the cheeses — for restaurant patrons.
In 1978, Smitty purchased the adjacent building and turned the bottom floor into a dining room, adding indoor plumbing, another pit and restrooms.
The first dining hall is still located on the second floor of the original building
“I’ve got ladies, I don’t care if they come in with a cane or in a wheelchair, they’re going to get up those stairs because that’s where they go to eat their barbecue,” Sells said, with a laugh.
Smitty would eventually sell the business to Sells’ two brothers, Rick and Don Schmidt, in 1984 after pouring more than 50 years of his life into the market.
Smitty died in 1994, leaving the Kreuz Market building to Sells.
Rick and Don continued to run the business while renting the property from their sister. Rick eventually purchased Don’s portion of the business in 1997, leaving him as the sole owner of the market.
He wanted to either lease the building long-term or purchase it, but Sells didn’t want to let go of her inheritance.
“That’s where the sizzling siblings and the family feud came in, and that went national,” said Sells.
With neither side willing to budge, Rick eventually opted to build a new, larger restaurant in 1999, just a quarter mile down the road, taking the Kreuz Market name with him.
In response, Sells opened “Smitty’s Market” in the building that had housed Kreuz for 99 years.
“After [Rick] told me he was going to move out, we decided, well, this building was built for barbecue,” said Sells. “Smitty was in there for 50 years, working hard to keep that building up so the public could enjoy it, so we put his name on it.”
Sells said that, at the time, she wasn’t sure the market could survive without the Kreuz name.
“I wasn’t in communication with their side, but did I worry? Yes,” said Sells. “We had some lean years there getting started.
“Kreuz was already the big name. Smitty’s was not. We built that. I feel honored that we did, but it was rough.”
For Sells, success has come in the form of keeping up with just enough of the traditions that made the former meat market a staple in the city, while also keeping up with changing times.
The first change Smitty’s Market enacted was adding beans to the menu.
According to Sells, Smitty loved to get in the kitchen and cook, especially beans. One day, well before the transition from Kreuz Market, Smitty wrote down an old family recipe for his slow-cooked beans on a piece of pink butcher paper. After the shift to Smitty’s Market, Sells said she went home and found the old recipe on that same piece of paper and brought it to her cooks at the market. They’ve been serving beans ever since.
“Now we have cole slaw, mac and cheese and cream corn, because that’s what the public wanted, but there’s some things we’re going to keep as tradition,” said Sells. “We still don’t have plates, and we still don’t have forks.
“We’re going to keep that.”
According to Sells, when customers walk in, she said she wants them to feel like they’re walking into the past. She’s since acquired additional dining space for the building, with plans to eventually renovate the upstairs portion of the building her father bought in 1978.
“We want to satisfy people with a good meal and show what we have to offer – a trip back to the twenties to eat good barbecue that was cooked the way the cowboys did over an open pit fire,” she said.
And on the feud that rocked her family, Sells said sometimes, you have to endure a storm to see the light eventually shine through the clouds.
“It can really hurt, but you have to express your feelings, and if someone doesn’t agree with you, sometimes you just have to let the chips fall,” said Sells. “But after all the years and the hard work, looking back, I don’t know, maybe things happen for a reason.
“And here we are 20 years later. I love my family. I love Keith. I love Susie. I love my brother, Rick. I’m honored and I’m proud that I’m a member of this family and that I was able to do this.”
New building, same tradition
When Keith Schmidt moved back to Lockhart to help his father Rick run Kreuz Market, he initially assumed he’d be taking over for him within a few years.
Schmidt, who worked at Kreuz Market tying sausage as a kid, joined his father’s business in 1996, just before his Uncle Don sold his portion of the market to Rick.
Schmidt never planned on running his father’s business. He had a bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology and chemistry and a master’s degree in marine science. He worked in environmental labs for the Lower Colorado River Authority.
But, after a series of setbacks at the facilities of several of the labs he’d worked at, Schmidt said it almost appeared destined that he should return to the world of barbecue.
The plan, Schmidt said, was to slowly phase out his father’s involvement in the business, but the ensuing battle over the original building threw everything into disarray.
“By February of ’98, we knew were moving, so [my dad] wasn’t able to get out because he knew we were about to spend an enormous amount of money,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt, along with hundreds of Lockhart residents, was present as Kreuz pit master Roy Perez, who still works for Kreuz today, dragged a metal bucket full of hot coals from the pits at the old location to the new one.
According to Schmidt, the event, one of the more contentious and publicized aspects of the family quarrel, wasn’t really the feud everyone built it up to be.
“The media made it into a feud,” said Schmidt. “It wasn’t a feud.
“She didn’t want to sell or extend the lease. Boom. That was it. There was no feud, but boy, did it sell papers. We had a hell of a last two years over there.”
After the dust had settled and coals were in place, Schmidt knew they still had a business to run, and he knew he’d have to do it under the purview of his father.
“My father was not easy to work for, and I wasn’t really happy working with him,” said Schmidt. “I understand how much he did with all of this and what this place means, not just to him or us, but to lots of people.
“In his mind, he was going to do it the exact same way as [Smitty] did it: first key in the door and last key out.”
Schmidt said he would push new ideas along as much as he could, but his father was often reluctant to change. When they moved to the new building, they did, however, begin to offer sides, such as beans and German potatoes.
According to Schmidt, his father did eventually allow him to make more changes. When Schmidt bought the business from Rick in 2011, he implemented a more rounded out staff that he said took a lot of weight off his shoulders.
Perez has now officially been given keys to the building, something Schmidt said was long overdue. Schmidt has also since brought in Nick Stiler, who’s now his partner running the business.
“I think in a lot more dimensions than [my father] did,” said Schmidt, who now partners in several businesses in the downtown area, including The Social and Easy Tiger Yoga, in addition to a gym and yoga studio he runs with Stiler in San Marcos. “He just wanted to keep the ship going steady, and I’m like, yeah that’s fine, but we can add a lot to this ship to make it run better, and the captain can take off a couple days.”
The biggest change Kreuz Market has made to date? The addition of plastic forks and barbecue sauce. Schmidt said they tried to sneak them in, inconspicuously placing a utensil dispenser in the middle of the floor and bottles of sauce on the tables.
“People started noticing, coming up, holding bottles and asking, ‘what the hell is this?’” he said, laughing, maintaining that customers who still want to that old-time feel can order the exact same things Kreuz Market used to offer in its formative years.
“If you want what you got in 1960, fine,” said Schmidt. “Go up there they’ll put you a slice of beef, ring of sausage, plastic knife, bread and crackers.
“But if someone picky comes in, well, then we have chicken and turkey, green beans, baked potato casserole, mac and cheese. You can get whatever you want.”
According to Schmidt, changing with the times has been a necessary step in running an expanding business, but he maintained that some traditions would always remain the same.
“We still cook the same — salt, pepper and cayenne,” said Schmidt. “We have the same oven we used over there.
“We still hand tie our sausage. The root is still very much Kruez Market. We have no intentions of changing that. Here, the core would always stay true.”
Expanding the tradition
Susie Schmidt-Franks, daughter of Don Schmidt, grew up around barbecue. When you’re a part of the Schmidt family, it comes with the territory.
“I still remember when I was a kid, sitting on that bench right by the fire and hearing my parents say, ‘don’t go near the fire, don’t go near the fire,’” said Susie, who worked at Kreuz Market as a teenager cleaning tables.
According to Susie, who now works full-time for Dell Computer Company, the feud that led to the splitting of Kreuz and Smitty’s wasn’t something the cousins in the Schmidt family thought about very often.
“We weren’t super young, but our parents didn’t really bring us into it,” said Susie. “We knew there were some disagreements and there were some arguments, but for us, it wasn’t some big, huge issue.
“Families have disagreements all the time and things happen. Sometimes there are bigger issues than others. Ours just happened to make it in the news and Dan Rather happened to come and film it all.’”
According to Susie, it wasn’t until a family get-together with her husband Chad and her cousins Keith and John Fullilove, son of Sells and pitmaster at Smitty’s, that the idea for a new era of Schmidt barbecue began to surface.
“We had several sessions drinking beer down at Smitty’s talking about it, and we all kind of decided to get together and do Schmidt Family Barbecue as a family, and that’s how we came up with the name,” Susie said.
Schmidt, Fullilove, Susie and Chad opened the restaurant in 2013 in Bee Cave, just outside of Austin.
Although Susie carries the Schmidt name, she’ll be the first to tell you it’s her husband Chad who’s running the day-to-day operation at the store.
“This whole restaurant is Chad, from looking at all the briskets when they come through the door, talking to all the meat purveyors to the seasonings and what goes into them and how they’re trimmed,” said Susie.
According to Chad, the restaurant has had to make several changes from its Lockhart origins to survive in its new location.
“We have to kind of tailor toward the Austin customer base — you know, heavier black pepper versus the saltier meats down in Lockhart,” said Chad. “It was hard just serving off butcher paper.
“People like simplicity over here. What’s really helped our revenue is just keeping it simple. We added plates. One meat, Two meat, Three meat. Boom, boom, boom. Family packs. Boom.”
Chad added that while they’ve switched to a slower method of cooking their beef, the restaurant orders its sausage straight from Kreuz Market, keeping the hand-tied tradition alive.
Susie added that while change is necessary for growth, it’s still important to remember where you came from.
“For us, it’s really staying true to what’s important with barbecue and the staples of it,” she said. “I think that’s something we’ll always have.
“We’ll always try new things and try different things, but you’ll never see brisket go off our menu. You’ll never see sausage go off our menus. We always want to stay close to what we’re doing out here and what we do in Lockhart, because those are our roots.”
For Susie, she said her family’s struggles in the past serve as a reminder of what’s most important to her now.
“It was more of a sentimental thing for me,” she said. “It was more the emotional aspect of it.
“Our parents had a tough time and went through a lot. For us, it was a way to say, no matter what happens, family comes first, and it truly has been a family coming together.”