A new BBQ restaurant steps up to the pit in Lockhart
By Kristen Meriwether, Editor LPR
When Riley Salas was starting in the BBQ business 30 years ago, he worked at 1326 South Colorado Street. Back then it was Chisholm Trail BBQ, before they moved to their current location just across Highway 183.
He took lessons from Chisholm Trail’s founder, Floyd Wilhelm, learning how to work the pit, make the sides, and understand the business of BBQing in Lockhart.
After nearly a decade under Wilhelm’s wing, Salas struck out on his own, opening his own BBQ joints, first in Yoakum, then in Geronimo, and most recently in Niederwald. But that wood building on the East side of 183 never left his mind.
“I told myself, one day I’m going to come back and get this little building,” Salas told LPR in a March 15 interview.
In February 2021, he did just that, moving Riley’s Pit BBQ from Niederwald, and bringing another BBQ restaurant to Lockhart.
With four main powerhouse BBQ restaurants—Black’s, Smitty’s, Kreuz, and Chisholm Trail—Lockhart officially became known as the BBQ capital of Texas in 1999 by the Texas State House of Representatives. The State Senate followed with their own resolution in 2003.
Several “outsiders” have attempted to stake their BBQ claim in the city since then. No one has lasted. You can blame “BBQ politics,” a poor business model, or just plain bad BBQ. But moving in on the turf of the BBQ heavyweights in Lockhart is not something they take lightly.
Salas believes being a true local helps. He’s not a young buck from Austin, who visited Lockhart once and thought, “I can do that.” The local BBQ business has been in his work history since he graduated from Prairie Lea High School. When Salas was 18 he and his father delivered firewood to all the BBQ restaurants in Lockhart, Luling, and Seguin. It was, in fact, how he got his first BBQ job working for A.W. Reed in Luling.
Salas said he has continued to talk with the owners of each of his competitors throughout his career. He said the sons of Chisholm Trail’s founder Wilhelm have already been by to sample the BBQ from the “new kid in town.”
Still, people tell him he’s crazy. Particularly to open right across the street from Chisholm Trail, the last new BBQ joint in Lockhart (which was back in 1978 mind you) that’s still around.
Salas smiles when talking about some of the criticism he’s received about his location of choice. He points to another peculiar business location choice in Lockhart: O’Reilly Auto Parts and Auto Zone. The two stores sell identical parts, offer the exact same service, at the same prices, on lots literally right next to each other on 183.
Both, somehow, still survive.
BBQ politics or not, competition is part of the American way. Customers will ultimately decide whether or not Riley’s Pit BBQ will stay or go. It’s only been five weeks since their official opening, but so far Salas reports business has been good.
Their grand opening week hit a rough patch due to the February snow storm. But once supply lines ironed out the next week, it’s been much smoother. Salas said he’s ordering double the amount of meat each week since he first opened and continues to see an upward trend in sales week-over-week.
Salas gets to the restaurant at 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day, and begins the process of putting brisket, chicken, turkey, pork loin, sausage, and ribs on the pit. His staff prepares the sides from scratch every morning, and when it’s time to open at 11 a.m., you’ll find him serving up a smile with every slice.
“I love doing what I do. I think that’s the main thing,” Salas said. “If you don’t love doing what you do, it’s not going to work.”
He says he’s putting in 90 hour weeks, and while he didn’t give his age, his grey hairs and years in the industry can give you a vague idea. Fun or not, that workload won’t be sustainable forever.
A few days per week his sons, Jacob and Nathan, both enrolled at Lockhart High School, help their dad out at the restaurant. Salas says he hopes his boys will follow in his footsteps, but he’s not pressuring them.
“If they want to continue to the trade, that’s good, if they don’t they can go on their own and do what they like,” Salas said. “But if they want to stay here, they will have a business that they can run themselves.”
If the business is set to stay, as Salas hopes, he will need a clever marketing line. His competitors boast the “oldest…” “best…” or “original…” Salas said a friend of his joked that he should lay claim to being the “Best BBQ on the East Side of 183.” Does it matter that, so far, Riley’s is the only one? Given the growth trajectory of Lockhart, absolutely not.