Editor’s note: Made in Tarrant is an occasional Q&A series on small businesses started in Tarrant County. Submit your business here.
Who? Derrick Walker is the owner and pit master of Smoke-A-Holics BBQ.
When? Walker opened his barbecue business in 2016, first as a catering company before buying his first brick-and-mortar in 2018.
Where? 1417 Evans Ave., Fort Worth.
What? A barbecue joint that serves a variety of smoked meats, including prime brisket, and pork ribs, and sides like collard greens, cajun cream corn and more.
Derrick Walker is the owner and pit master of Smoke-A-Holics BBQ. He spoke with reporter Sandra Sadek on his journey to establishing his own barbecue joint.
Sadek: How did you decide to open your own barbecue restaurant?
Walker: I was bit by the barbecue bug early on, at like age 12. My grandad did a lot of cooking and had the first smoker on a trailer that I’ve ever seen. He used to do all of our family functions, reunions, birthdays – any large family gathering, my grandad did all the cooking for that. So he taught me early on fire management, all about briskets and trimming meats and cooking ribs and stuff like that. Like I said, it was infused in me early.
Cooking is kind of my background. I went to culinary school but I’ve worked in commercial kitchens ever since I was 18 years old. But all this time while I was doing fine dining and doing other things like that, barbecue was always on my mind and that’s just always where I ended up coming back to.
For the last probably 15 years, I worked for Baylor Scott and White. I did a lot of cooking for physicians. I was an executive chef but the last six, or seven years, I was the full-service director, so I was over the whole food service operation.
Sadek: You describe your joint at Texas barbecue with a soulful twist. Can you share a bit about your recipes and what makes your meats different from other places?
Walker: Most nationalities have their cuisine, whether it’s Asian, Tex-Mex, or Mexican. I grew up in the African-American culture. So I kind of brought some of the things that I grew up eating into the barbecue, mainly with my sides. You can get collard greens, we have cornbread. We have candied yams from time to time.
You may have fried cabbage on the menu — you know things that I grew up eating, things that are staples in African-American homes. We do like smoked and smothered. Sometimes I have chicken halves that I’ll smoke and then we’ll smother those in gravy.
Sadek: You were listed among the top 50 best barbecue restaurants in Texas Monthly in 2021. What was your reaction?
Walker: That was crazy. A lot of guys will tell you that’s not what they’re doing it for but if you’re cooking in the state of Texas – yes, it is. It was a goal of mine when we first set out and it was something that I always wanted to attain. When I did, it was surreal. I just remember that morning. … I knew the list was coming out that morning.
My wife and I were still in bed and my phone just started buzzing and buzzing and there were other pitmasters calling me, congratulating me. I was like ‘Congratulations on what?’ knowing that it was the list.
I literally just started bawling and I’m not one to cry. Anybody that knows me knows I don’t cry.
This was like a token letting me know that what I was doing has been right. It’s like the first year and a half in the restaurant, I was working 17 sometimes 18-hour days. It was nuts and just I was so exhausted and so many times I wanted to quit and when I made the list that just let me know that it was all worth it.
Sadek: What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Walker: I’ve always done it in some capacity so it’s really not that different. The only difference is when I worked for Baylor and I was budgeting and paying bills and ordering groceries, it wasn’t my money so it was easy to do.
Now, when I’m paying taxes and doing permits and buying groceries, spending $10,000 a week on food and hoping that it’s enough — it’s a different ballgame because if it doesn’t sell, it’s on you.
Not to mention that also you’re the carpenter, you’re the painter, you’re the electrician.
Sadek: What motivates you to get up every morning?
Walker: It’s the love of it all. If you don’t love it, you can’t do it. You won’t do it. If you don’t love this, it’s not going to be rewarding to you.
Sadek: What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?
Walker: Take your time to build your brand. People who think that they have a good product, family and friends tell them the product is good, they have a little money or their credit is great — they jump right into a brick and mortar and in two months it shuts down.
The thing is you have to take time to build that brand. We started in 2016. I started building my social media following first. I did a food truck. I did catering. I gave food away. I would go to church, I would go to other places that had large gatherings and I knew that they had meetings or I knew that they had conferences and I’d say ‘Hey whoever was in charge if they had a small staff. Can I bring you guys something over there?’ Just to show you what I do and I brought food. I went around and did the leg work. You have to do the leg work.
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @ssadek19.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.