The Road Ahead with Tom Micklethwait
Several weeks ago while sitting in front of my computer tapping keys and doing something no doubt highly productive, I got a text from Tom Micklethwait of Micklethwait Craft Meats alerting me to the fact that Dan's Hamburgers has table service for breakfast. Perhaps he instinctively knew I just needed a nudge. He'd invited me to drive to Houston with him that day to pick up a fancy sausage grinder he'd purchased. At first I said I would go, then a sense of responsibility fell over me as I imagined my to-do list, and I backed out. But the tapping of keys weighed against the open road couldn't compare that morning. Fifteen minutes later he was pulling up in front of my house.
There were two goals for the day: to pick-up a Hobart Buffalo Chopper purchased via Craiglist and to deliver a pair of the new Micklethwait Craft Meats trucker hats to Tom's aunt and uncle in The Woodlands. The Buffalo Chopper—which has nothing to do with chopping actual buffalo (though it could certainly be used for that if someone wanted to make to make buffalo sausages)—is a large meat grinder that results in an emulsified texture as opposed to the coarse grinder Tom's currently using. It won't replace the old one, but it will broaden the range of sausages he can produce. Think frankfurters or mortadella, for starters. With his usual resourcefulness, Tom bought the chopper used and will swap out a couple of parts before he puts it into use, but watch for new menu items to begin appearing in the not-so-distant future.
We had to meet the guy about the thing (the chopper, that is) at a specific time, so there wasn't much room to dawdle along the way. The bluebonnets were lush, and I pushed to pull over so I could take some cheesecake portraits of Tom surrounded by the flowers. Normally he is game for my suggested shenanigans, but no such luck this time. (The idea still is lurking in my head though, and you never know, maybe next year I'll get enough portraits to create a whole calendar full of Texas pitmasters posing cheekily among the bluebonnets. It could happen.)
If not bluebonnet portraits, there's always time for lunch, even if you are grabbing it to-go. As it turned out, City Meat Market in Giddings was in the right spot at the right time.
Hours later and on schedule, we arrived at the man's house, Tom inspected the chopper, and it was loaded up. He stood and admired his new toy for a while before we made the short drive over to The Woodlands. We now had a little time to kill before his aunt came home from work, so we popped into Trader Joe's for snacks (tip: their roasted plaintain chips paired with their peach salsa are pretty tasty). A short while later we were sitting on a cool, screened back patio while Tom updated his aunt on all the goings-on with his business (including what is was like to be on the Jimmy Kimmel Show) and all the changes to come. There are quite a few brewing.
You may have seen or heard about the second trailer Tom introduced at the SX South Bites food court. A converted, small horse trailer, this one will be used for catering, special events (such as the upcoming Red Dirt Festival this weekend), and it may begin appearing at one of the Austin-area farmer's markets as well (details are still being ironed out for that). Last week, I was able to lay my eyes on a third trailer that Tom has just purchased. Another horse trailer, this one is much larger, around the size of the original Micklethwait Craft Meats trailer on Rosewood. Work to transform it into a functional food trailer begins soon, and Tom is currently in the process of securing a second location in another area of town (exact location will be announced at a later date). While still falling under the umbrella category of "craft meats," this third trailer will have a meat-oriented, but non-barbecue, menu. (Yep, you read that right.)
After we left his aunt's house, we decided to drive diagonally across the entire city of Houston so we could go to Galveston. Because we could. That drive was practically as long as the drive from Austin to Houston, and on the way I quizzed Tom about the state of all the changes.
At the time, it was too early to say anything publicly, but two of Tom's former co-workers from Vespaio recently reached out to him and asked to join his team. Bobby Lovelett, who was the lead sous chef at Vespaio for three years, began working at Micklethwait Craft Meats last week. He'll be having a large influence over the menu that is developed for the third tailer, using meats that have been cured, smoked, or otherwise prepared by Tom. Giovanni Ortiz, a pastry chef, will begin on May 6. Giovanni will round out the already impressive kitchen staff, including William Ankeney, and that addition will allow for extended business hours. Tom plans to open on Tuesdays beginning in mid-May.
There have been a lot of ideas about the business and where to take it in Tom's head for a while. And there have been a lot of possible directions that things could go. Listening to Tom talk through the scenarios over the course of the last six months or so, this direction seems to me to be the right fit. The scale of the growth is manageable, the creative authority still lies with Tom, and the integrity of the business's character remains in tact.
That's not something we talk about much, that a business has a sense of identity or character (unless that sort of thing is your business), but a good one does. And Micklethwait Craft Meats has had a strong and distinctive identity since the beginning thanks to Tom invariably stamping his own personality onto his work, to painter Kenneth Holland's distinguishing style, and to the quality of the food that both bucks the so-called rules of barbecue while not eschewing them. These changes feel right, and they feel like a natural next step. I wrote in my profile of Tom last July:
That acorn, that little object from which the oak springs to life and which gives his barbecue its distinguishable flavor, is the perfect metaphor when it comes down to it. It's the essence of imagination, of birth and beginnings, of a guy who didn't follow the rulebook of what was expected of him but created his own path and his own style. It's the symbol of what has barely begun and what could be. It is in many ways a blank canvas.
Now nine months later, that little acorn has sprung to life, with leaves sprouting and stretching out in the sunlight. Between October and January, Tom told me, business doubled. Between January and March, it doubled again. Since March, it appears the pattern will continue. In Tom's case growth doesn't mean more of the same, a bigger barbecue joint, longer lines, and more pounds of meat sold. It means development and evolution.
Having gone as far east as we could go by car, we enjoyed a meal at Gaido's before heading back to Austin. We were both getting a little crazed by the end of it. I blatantly fell asleep at couple of points. Keeping Tom awake so he didn't crash and kill us both was a secondary priority to a moment here and there of beautiful, beautiful sleep. Luckily Tom is much more practiced and being sleep-deprived than I am. I was already aware of the fact that when extremely tired, sometimes Tom spontaneously gobbles like a turkey. That night in thinking up ways to engage him to keep him awake, I also learned that he can gobble the entire theme song to Star Wars. I'm telling you, the man is talented. He's fun too.
You not only have new sausages and a new trailer to look forward to, but I'm teaming up with Micklethwait Crafts Meats to present a summer movie series this year, with a special menu developed for each movie. Planning is in the early stages. Announcements will be made soon about additional partners and sponsors, dates, movies, and menus. Watch this space for more info and for a chance to win a free movie-night meal.