CENTRAL TEXAS — No matter how you cut it, sauce it or dry rub it, all barbecue relies on a key ingredient: wood.
The pit is the heart of a barbecue restaurant, and it's only as good as the wood that feeds it. That wood keeps the proper heat and adds that smoky touch. Take that away and you've got no barbecue.
Wood shortages are piling up across the state, which presents a big problem for barbecue joints. Phillip Helberg, owner of Helberg Barbecue just outside Waco, says they’re still getting some, but at a steeper price.
"We hadn't necessarily had a problem getting wood. Now the cost of it and the quality of it is what we're seeing," said Helberg. "Cost is going up, quality is going down."
Downtown at Guess Family Barbecue, they've almost run out a couple of times. It's led them to consider putting a backup plan in place, just in case the next truck doesn't make it on time.
"We haven't completely run out, but we have had some, you know, stressful kind of situations where we're wondering if we are going to get it," said Kyle Arwine, pitmaster at Guess.
A lack of wood to go around in the Lone Star State isn't a brand new phenomenon. Low lumber supplies have been hard on the housing and construction industries. Barbecue restaurants order their wood in units called "cords", which are stacks of split wood that are 128 cubic feet in volume. Broken supply lines, a lack of labor, inflation - they're all to blame for the shortcomings. Helberg also chalks it up to increased demand with so many new barbecue restaurants opening.
"There's only so many, you know, these wood suppliers, they're dealing with the same problems we are," said Helberg. "Just trying to find, you know, people to help them."
But pitmasters know that you can't cut corners if you want to offer a truly exceptional product.
"The wood is definitely to make it 'Texas'. I think it's what gives it that right seasoning for what our Texans and other visitors are looking for."
Barbecuers are thankful that in these tough times, the community's love for a good plate of meat hasn't changed. That patronage has helped the local joints make up some of the extra wood costs. According to Helberg, January is usually the slowest month of the year for them, but lately the crowds have been good.