The Goode Son

Houston's First Family of Barbecue has anointed an heir apparent to its expanding empire. And his name is Levi.

To decorate his project, he began collecting cowboy stuff, buying photos and boots and rodeo posters from flea markets and auctions. He crammed the family's little rented house floor-to-ceiling with his finds; Liz, Jana and Levi had to maneuver around them.

One summer afternoon, scouting for a location, Jim stopped at The Barbecue Barn, a big red place on Kirby. It was known, he says, for making people sick. He ordered a beer, and the proprietor asked what he was up to.

I'm thinking about getting into the barbecue business, he told her.

You want this one? she asked.

He bought it for $18,000 -- $6,000 up front, the rest in installments. He didn't realize that he'd still have to pay rent on the building, and buy the kitchen equipment; he hadn't thought about the food costs. He was that green.

On a Saturday he went to the barn and handed over the check. The business came complete with a couple of employees, women who sat around on milk crates, smoking cigarettes, reheating meat in the rare event that a customer appeared.

He said, Monday we're gonna change all this.

Sunday he stayed up all night cooking, a little unnerved by the commercial kitchen's giant tools. He doctored the bottled sauce already on hand and decided the Sysco potato salad in the refrigerator would have to do. He didn't change the sign yet, and he figured it was good that the old place had been awful; nobody expected much, and any change was bound to be an improvement. On Monday, his first day, the gross sales totaled $50.

The restaurant became his family's life. To help with the cooking, Jim recruited his enchilada-cooking uncle, Joe Goode, a retired Air Force sergeant living in San Antonio. Either Joe or Jim or both of them would stay all night at the barn, sleeping on a stainless-steel table with a shotgun for protection, setting a timer so they'd wake up in time to check the barbecue pit's temperature and add wood to the fire. Liz worked 14-hour days, arriving at the restaurant with Jana and Levi right after they woke up. Levi stayed there all day; Jana left for elementary school, then returned in the afternoon.

The kids entertained themselves with the materials at hand, melting drinking straws in the ash pit, constructing Swiss Army knives out of Band-Aids and plastic cutlery from the nap-paks. Bored, Jana memorized the flyer that her dad handed out in nearby office buildings. "This is a one-of-a-kind, family-owned, good place to eat," the menu declared. (To this day, she recites the sentence like a verse of scripture.)

That flyer reflected Jim's sense of style. Designed by one of his old art buddies -- Jim didn't have time -- it featured a black-and-white photo of Jim in a cowboy hat and suspenders, his face defined by a beard and sternness suitable for an Old Testament patriarch. The photo bears no hint of the '70s; it could have been yanked from an archive of Texana, a portrait of an 1890s cowboy cook still dusty from the trail.

Another photo on that flyer showed Joe, Jim, Liz and the kids standing with a truck in front of the barbecue barn. The human figures are tiny, dwarfed by the restaurant. They stare blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.


Jim worried constantly that the restaurant would fail. He thought he'd either "swim or drown," and he was determined to swim. He couldn't return to commercial art, and he didn't know what else he was fit to do, how else he could support his family.

An inch at a time, he dragged Goode Co. Barbeque up to his standards. Together, he and Joe developed its signature barbecue sauce, a complicated affair, tomatoey, hot, sweet and smoky. Slowly, they replaced Sysco-brand potato salad and beans and slaw with superior versions they concocted themselves. For pecan pie, they used Jim's mother's recipe. They continued to make sandwiches on the classic, squishy white bread so dear to hard-line traditionalists; but they also offered a superior alternative, thick slices dotted with bits of jalapeños and yellow cheese.

Jim's old art buddies began eating at Goode Co., and they brought their friends; Kirby office workers discovered the place, and families from West University started to drop by. Jim could estimate the day's take when he emptied the garbage bags -- the heavier the bag, the more money they'd made. By fall of '77 the daily gross hit $400.

Sometimes, late at night, Jim talked with the manager of the Burger King next door, and from him learned some of the basics of restaurant management. The Burger King manager showed Jim the chain's policy manual, and Jim was impressed. It was full of rules he hadn't known. Be consistent. Avoid nepotism. The customer is always right.

Consistency made sense to Jim: He wanted to be fair to customers and thought they had a right to receive what they expected. The other rules weren't so obvious.

For starters, he didn't think customers were always right. Once, one complained about Jim's chili: It didn't have beans. Jim pointed to the menu, which stated clearly that the chili was the Texan kind, all meat and spices -- no beans, no junk.

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