Chef Chat: The Pit Masters Russell and Misty Roegels of Roegels Barbecue Co.
Change can be hard, but sometimes it's for the best. Over the past few decades, you may have noticed or even been to the Baker's Ribs location at 2223 South Voss between San Felipe and Westheimer. However, if you've gone by in the past few months, you may have also noticed the sign has changed to Roegels Barbecue Co.
Russell and Misty Roegels worked at Baker's Ribs for years, starting out as employees before buying that franchise location. Russell is the pit master, while Misty makes sure the front-of-house operations run smoothly. The name change marks not only the Roegelses leaving the franchise, but a change in how Russell approaches barbecue. He joins the group of Houston pit masters who have stepped up their game to produce smoked meats that are every bit as good as those found in lauded Central Texas.
In Part One of this Chef Chat, we'll hear how Russell got his start in cooking in Longview and how, he, Misty and their 13-month-old baby ended up in Houston at a time that wasn't exactly ideal. They'll also tell us about one particularly famous visitor who came by during their days as Baker's Ribs.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll talk about how Russell has changed and improved the barbecue, other pit masters he admires and some of the challenges of making longtime customers happy with the changes.
EOW: How did you become interested in cooking?
RR: I've always cooked from the time I was a kid. Not anything fancy, but it was me, my mom and my brother. My mom worked nights and she slept during the day, so we cooked.
As far as cooking barbecue, when I was 15 there was a guy down the road that had a barbecue place called Bodacious up in Longview. I was friends with his babysitter, and he did catering there. So I started doing catering jobs with him. I was 15 years old and not into cooking, but I went there and I poured tea on these catering jobs. When we got back, I got to clean them up.
I never worked in a kitchen. I did that after I got out of high school; I went in the military. I did the Air Force for five years. When I got out, I started to work in the restaurant. I was a cashier. They still wouldn't let me cook or anything, but I was like a sponge. I just started soaking up as much as I could.
One morning, the manager comes in and he had a good night the night before. He was extremely hung over. He was like, "I need to take a nap." I said, "I can do this." And he said, "Well, who taught you?" At the time I'd been there two years. "I've been watching you do this for two years, so I think I can probably handle it." He said, "Well, cut this brisket up right here." I went there and cut it up as best I could." He was like, "I'm going to take a nap. I'll be back in a little bit." That's really how I got started.
I stayed there for a little while, then I moved to another restaurant, which was also a Bodacious, and really just started learning how to cook barbecue on a daily basis there. I stayed there for five and a half years, then I switched to another Bodacious, in Kilgore. I stayed there for a month, and then that's when — at the time it was Baker's Ribs — here in Houston came up for sale. We moved down here and took it over.
Russell and Misty Roegels of Roegels Barbecue Co. in the pit area behind the restaurant.
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: What about you, [Misty]? How did you end up cooking?
MR: I really wasn't a part of restaurant or anything beforehand. We came down here and here he was like, "Do you want to work here?" and I said, "Well, sure." And I just started out.
EOW: You were just like, "Sure, I can do this."
EOW: So with the Baker's franchise location, that really was your entry into the restaurant world.
MR: Yes, it was.
RR: Well, besides when we first started dating, we were doing catering jobs with Bodacious together, but it wasn't a cooking deal. At that time she was born to eat. I moved up past that. I was serving barbecue.
MR: I was clean-up crew for him.
EOW: You were past the tea-pouring phase.
EOW: How long ago did you come to this location?
MR: July of 2001.
A tray of delights at Roegels Barbecue Co.: Turkey, sausage, pulled pork and ribs.
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: Earlier when we were talking, you said that the 20th anniversary [of the location as Baker's Ribs] was just this past November.
RR: Yeah, they opened in November of '94.
EOW: Twenty years. Tell about when you first came to Houston. How did you end up here?
MR: We were friends with Janie, who was Susie's sister, and Gary. Susie and Joe owned Baker's Ribs. They told us one night that Kelly was going to sell the store, and he asked me what I thought. [Russell] goes, "What do you think? What do you think?" He'd already been wanting to open up a barbecue restaurant anyway, either with Bodacious or on his own. This came open and I said, "Well, let's go." We just packed up and moved down here.
RR: We packed up two cars. At the time, we had a Mercury Sable and a two-door Ford Explorer, and we packed everything we owned — not everything; we still had a house up in East Texas. We packed up our clothes and a 13-month-old and rolled down south on 59. We came down here sight unseen. Now, we didn't buy it day one. I worked for the Baker's Ribs franchise for a little over a year. In that time, we wanted to make sure that everything was going to go because it had been closed for four months. So we wanted to make sure when the doors reopened — even though it had been here about six and a half years — make sure that things were going to go. At the time, we were still in college. We didn't have money, and we had a 13-month-old, so we were really broke.
So we worked for them. It took us about a year and a half, and we saved up the money that we needed and they financed us the rest. We just got pretty lucky getting into a business that way.
A brisket being sliced at Roegels Barbecue Co.
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: What was it like in Houston when you first got here?
MR: [Tropical storm] Allison had just happened, so we get here and people are still doing repairs on everything. There are no apartments available. My aunt and uncle lived in Deer Park in the La Porte area. They were like, "Come stay with us." They had extra space in their house and so we stayed with them.
For me it was very different. I had never really traveled outside the small town. I'd been to Houston or to Pasadena maybe once, so it was kind of a shock. I was like, "Wow, there's a lot of traffic." 610 was very intimidating. Everything was very intimidating.
RR: It took her four hours to get here from Deer Park one day. She took the scenic route.
EOW: I believe that.
RR: No, that wasn't during traffic time. That was just because she took the scenic route.
MR: I was lost. It was before we had GPS and everything and I was like, "Oh, I got this. I got this." Yeah, I didn't have it. Once we'd gotten the groove, and once we'd gotten our own place, things were better. Driving around and just getting the feel of everything, it was okay.
EOW: Once you got settled in here, when it was still Baker's Ribs, what were your titles initially?
RR: Before we bought the Baker's Ribs?
EOW: Yeah, before you bought it.
RR: I was the manager.
MR: I was the cashier.
A pork butt at Roegels Barbecue Co. in the process of being transformed into pulled pork.
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: Okay. How long did you work here as employees before you decided to buy it?
RR: It was 16 months. That was the deal, that we were going to buy it when we came down here, but we didn't have the money. They told us, "When you get enough money to buy all the food inventory that's in there and switched all the bills over, we'll finance you the rest," which was awesome for us. I'll always be grateful to Joe and Susie for that, because other than that, we wouldn't be here.
EOW: How long did you run it as Baker's Ribs?
RR: We officially became the owners on January 1, 2003, and we left the franchise officially December 11, 2014.
EOW: Do you have some cool or interesting stories from the time that it was Baker's Ribs?
RR: There's a lot of interesting stories. Whenever you're in a restaurant, it can be a comedy show sometimes. Some of our employees have been here 12 years, six years, eight years, and we're a small operation. So, that's three-quarters of our employees right there that are still here besides us. There's a lot of interesting stories, a little of interesting people come in. Being in Houston, you're in a melting pot, so you'll never know who's going to walk through the door.
EOW: Have you had some interesting visitors?
RR: Yeah, we've had famous visitors. We've had just a little bit of everything. I tell people that the funniest thing I can think of as far as a famous-wise visitor was when Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top came in here.
EOW: That was totally unexpected.
RR: It was funny. So, this guy calls in this order. He's like, "I need to place an order. It's for Mr. Gibbons." I'm from east Texas. I'm not thinking the guy from ZZ Top lives right here. I see this guy pull up in this little truck and get out. He's a little short guy with this big, long beard.
MR: He had a beanie on.
RR: Yeah. He got that little beanie thing going. You think when he rolls up he's supposed to be in a roadster because that's what he drives all the time. So he pulls in and I'm like, "Who is this dude?" He says, "I have an order to pick up for Mr. Gibbons." I'm sitting there and looking at this guy and I'm like, "Man!"
EOW: "You look just like—" (laughs)
RR: By the end, I'm convinced he's just a look-alike.
RR: So he comes out and then he comes back in and gets something else. Finally, I get the courage to ask him. I said, "Hey, how many times a day do people ask you for your autograph?" Because, like I said, there's no way that that's him. He's just an impersonator.
And he says, "Aw, about a million, but I don't mind." He reaches in his jacket and pulls out this little sticky pad-type thing — Post-it note deal — with him on the cover of Guitar World magazine. And he signs it for me and I still have that to this day. I'm just like, "You got to be kidding me."
EOW: That's wonderful.
MR: He gets down to the line to me and Russell's like, "You know who that is?" I was like, "I have no clue." He said, "It's Billy Gibbons." And I was like, "No way."
I immediately called my dad afterwards. I was like, "You are not going to believe who I just met." We gave one of the autographs to my dad. He's a barber and he put it up in his shop and everything. It's really cool.
RR: That was interesting. You get a melting pot; that's the most interesting story that I can think of. There's been a couple of other things.
Other than famous, we've got people who've been coming in here for 20 years since day one. Some people tell me, "I've been coming in here since before you were here." I tell them I appreciate it.
EOW: What made you decide that rather than remaining with the Baker's Ribs franchise, you wanted to strike out on your own?
RR: Barbecue's one of those deals that it takes a lot of time. There's a lot of pride involved in it for me to do it the way I want to do it. Whenever you put your name on something, it just means that much more to you.
Baker's Ribs was great. It gave us an opportunity that we wouldn't have had. Like I told you earlier, I'll be forever grateful for them for that, but eventually you want to make a name for yourself. You can't be king of the castle if you're living in somebody else's castle. We wanted to put our name on it. We wanted people to know that that, hey, that is Roegels Barbecue. That's not Baker's Ribs.
MR: I guess for the past year we'd been steadily talking about. "Do we want to stay? Do we want to leave?" We were just kind of back and forth about it.
EOW: I'm not familiar with the process of terminating that relationship and I'm not looking for really specific details, but how does one get out of a franchise situation?
RR: When you go into a franchise, you sign a contract, as with pretty much any business deal these days. The term of our contract was ten years. We did ten years plus almost two more. In that last two years, we wanted to do our own thing at that time. Like Misty said, about a year and a half-ish we'd been kicking around the idea. I knew that contract was up, but I never pursued trying to get a new one because I had in the back of my mind that I want to put my name on it. I want my name to be on my barbecue that I cook every day.
EOW: I'm going to have you pronounce your last name for me.
EOW: Ray-gels. I certainly mispronounced it when I came in. I think I pronounced it Row-guls.
RR: Row-guls, Roo-guls, Regals...What else?
EOW: So now you'll answer to anything.
RR: For the past 42 years, I've been answering to anything close to that. I told my kids, "Sorry, this is just the way it's going to be." If you get close we'll answer.
The two questions that we've got I would say most since we changed the name was, "How do you pronounce it? and "Why did all you all leave Baker's Ribs?" "What's with the name change?" "How do you pronounce that?" "Where does that come from?" because Lord knows you don't just throw a weird German last night up on the door for any reason. (laughter all around)
Be sure and come back for part two tomorrow as we finish talking about barbecue with the Roegelses.
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