Situated in the middle of Abilene on East South 11th, just off South Treadaway Blvd., Jay Stearns’ little barbecue joint has made a big name for itself by doing the little things right.
Stearns, who was born and raised in Abilene and graduated from Cooper High School in 1992, still cooks everything himself, from brisket to ribs to homemade sausage to turkey. It’s all done by his hands. So are the weekly specials he either comes up with on his own or takes from a cookbook, adding his twist to give it a different flair.
A former computer technician for Dell in Austin, Stearns and his wife, Diana, moved back to Abilene after 10 years in Central Texas. In that decade, they moved from Austin to Round Rock and finally to Georgetown seeking the small-town feel they both enjoyed while growing up in Abilene. But when Dell told him the company was transferring him to Lebanon, Tennessee, Stearns and his wife packed up and moved home. He went to work for his father (former AISD Board President John Stearns) at Quail Well Service while Diana got a job with a local financial service company.
After several years, during which he was building barbecue pits on the side, Stearns and his wife decided to combat the inconsistent oil business by catering out of a building next to their house. In 2016, they drove to San Antonio to look at a food truck that was for sale for $2,800. Stearns said that if it was something he could work with, he would look at buying it.
He came home without a trailer.
Instead, he bought a 16-foot flat trailer here in Abilene, built his box on it, and started his food truck. He would set up at a spot on South 1st, at local breweries, and other spots around town. Everything was still being cooked in the building by their home and carried to where the food truck was parked. His original plan was to keep his job with his father and allow his wife and her father to run the food truck. He soon realized, however, that if he wasn’t in the food truck every day it wasn’t going to work out.
“So I had a decision to make to go all in on the food deal or hang on with the oil field,” Stearns said. “I thought about how this was all I ever wanted to do, and that’s what I decided to do.”
It turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life.
After parking his food truck in different locales throughout the city for a couple of years, he found the plot of land on East South 11th his business currently calls home. The former Fantasy Salon – where women went to get their hair done for years – had closed, and the land and building were sitting unused. Stearns bought both and moved his truck onto the property, and that was now its permanent home. Health code regulations wouldn’t allow him to keep it there overnight, so he drove it home each night before driving it back each morning to serve customers.
Finally, Stearns decided to turn the building into his kitchen, put up a cover over some picnic tables, and open his version of a Texas barbecue joint. Today, hundreds of hungry barbecue lovers from Abilene and surrounding towns descend upon Jay’s BBQ Shack to sample some of the finest brisket, ribs, sausage, bacon burnt ends, and turkey that can be found anywhere.
Four years after ditching the food truck and opening their building, Stearns and his wife have one of the hottest restaurants in town. The joint is open Wednesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. each day, but customers don’t seem to mind. On the days when they are open, the line for Jay’s barbecue starts to form around 10:30 a.m. By 11 a.m., the line stretches from the windows back around the covered eating space, south toward the street, and then west along East South 11th.
That line used to intimidate Stearns, but now he calls it the best part of his day as he sees people line up to get a taste of the regular menu items, or something special he might have concocted. As busy as his place, Stearns said customers regularly ask if he’s going to expand or build another location in Abilene. He quickly dismisses both of those notions, saying his only thought of expansion is buying another shipping container where they can both do all of the meat prep. They might also add a window to make a chopped sandwich shack, so customers don’t have to wait in a long line to get what he says is the menu’s most popular item.
One cool late October day we sat down with Stearns over some meat – including his homemade chili relleno sausage – and sides and talked about everything from growing up in Abilene and the Abilene ISD to how his cooking style has changed over the years.
Q: What are some of your best memories of growing up in Abilene and going through the Abilene ISD?
Stearns: “I enjoyed my time in the Abilene ISD. I’ve always loved Abilene and the schools. It would be hard to pick a favorite teacher because I don’t ever remember having a bad one. I played football in the eighth grade, and that was enough for me. I played soccer as a freshman and then ran track at Cooper. But I had a growth plate injury when I was running track, so that was the end of my athletic career.”
Q: While you were living and working in Austin, did you ever think you would come back here?
Stearns: “I never thought about it because I was happy with what I was doing. The hours were great, and the money was good. We had a lot of friends and a nice house, and there’s everything in the world you’d want down there. We lived and worked in north Austin, and then Austin grew into that. Then we moved to Round Rock and then Georgetown and now it’s moving into Georgetown. We were trying to keep some of the small-town feel because that’s what we were used to, but you couldn’t get away from it. But it wasn’t a hard move coming back. There’s nothing wrong with Austin, but the small-town life is a little slower. My wife and I sat in traffic all the time in Austin, and that wasn’t what either one of us wanted to do.”
Q: You started this business with the food truck, and then you bought the building and set up shop here. How dramatically did that change your business profile and lifestyle?
Stearns: “When the Texas Monthly writer came here in 2018 before we got into the building, I told him he needed to come back because it would be 100 percent better. The way we were doing it was the best we could do it. He came back about six months ago, and he asked me how my life had changed, and it’s just so dramatic. When everything was at the house, I couldn’t get away from it. I’d be sitting in my chair thinking about what needed to be done to build the business. Now when I go home, I leave it here and don’t think about it. When you own a food truck, you’re open during lunch so you can’t cook during that time. I’d get up in the morning, load everything, head out a couple of hours early, set up, serve lunch, and then get home about 3 or 4 p.m., cook all night long, and do it all over again the next day.”
Q: You mentioned Texas Monthly, and everyone always refers to its “Top 50 Barbecue Joints in Texas” list and how important that has become in some people’s eyes. Does the possibility of one day being included on that list matter to you?
Stearns: “I guess it does on one hand and doesn’t on the other. It would be nice to be included. But I think Abilene is overlooked a little bit. The Texas Bucket List came out here and did a piece on us that aired on their show. And the host told us to be ready because the weekend after the show airs, we’re going to be busier than we’ve ever been. And he said it’ll carry over to the next weekend because all of the people who follow his show go to these places. So we were ready for it, and it was a good crowd, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. But I got to thinking that he’s going to these places that are within a one-hour drive from a big city. But we’re out here where it’s a 2-or 3-hour drive to get here for lunch, and then that long to get home, and I just don’t think people will do that for lunch.”
Q: You’re in a competitive market for this kind of food. What do you think makes your barbecue stand out from the other barbecue restaurants in town?
Stearns: “Honestly, nobody cooks our meat but me. We do everything the old way, and I don’t know of anybody else who does it that way. Everybody has hired pitmasters to cook their food, and to do so they had to buy pits that were easy to run for somebody that hasn’t done it the traditional way. We’re doing it the way, in my opinion, it should be done. The flavors I want, in my opinion, aren’t going to come from an automated smoker. Every day is different; one day it might be cool and breezy, and the next day might be hot, and that changes how everything cooks. That keeps it interesting, and that’s why we do a lot of specials because I don’t want to do the same thing every day. And if I’m the only one cooking the meat, I like to mix it up some.”
Q: Speaking of your specials and mixing things up, are those things you’ve tasted in other places and thought you’d put your spin on it, or something you’ve seen online you wanted to try, but with a different flavor profile?
Stearns: “It’s some of both of those. I’ve probably got 200 barbecue cookbooks, and I’ve looked through every page of every one of them and dog-eared several pages. On the weekends, I’ll think back to something I might have seen in one of them, and I’ll find it and try it out. The online stuff is trendy and kind of exciting, but I like things that are a little more challenging.”
Q: How did you get to the point where you started making your sausage?
Stearns: “We were buying sausage from Sklenarik’s Smoked Meats in Miles, and we were driving up there every other week and buying giant boxes of sausage, and it was really good. We were buying regular sausage, jalapeño sausage, and ghost pepper sausage. One time one of the boxes of ghost pepper wasn’t the same as it had been before. It was really dry and tough, and the casing wasn’t right, so we didn’t serve it. I thought that I’d need a backup plan and thought to myself, ‘It can’t be that hard to make sausage.’ So I bought a grinder and a casing stuffer, some books, and started making it not knowing anything about it. I kind of had to learn it on my own. I was serving it occasionally, but I wasn’t happy with it. Then a guy from Stephens Processing here in town came out and gave me some pointers, and that helped. The thing I could never get right, though, was the casing. It always came out chewy and rubbery and couldn’t get the snap on it. Then I saw where someone was letting their sausage cure for three days and then smoking it for four hours at about 150-175, so I tried that. The first time I did it, it was what I was looking for in sausage.”
Q: How has your cooking style changed over the years?
Stearns: “I changed a little piece of the brisket puzzle (a couple of days ago). It’s always been a salt and pepper mix on the brisket, along with a little bit of light brown sugar. We used to use oak and pecan for briskets, but we switched over to mesquite wood, and you can’t beat it. We use a dark chili powder that when it’s mixed with the mesquite wood gives it a little bit of a chocolatey smell, almost like a brownie. Between that chili powder, the light brown sugar, and the mesquite wood, the depth of flavor we’re getting on our brisket is more than I could ever get with the other. Recently I’ve started using what I call my ‘salt spray’ and right before I wrap them, I’ll hit them with that pretty good and give the brisket some saltiness and add some layers of flavor.”
Q: What’s the feeling every day you’re open when you see that line start forming before 11 a.m. knowing all of those people are here to eat what you’ve cooked?
Stearns: “It used to be scary because I wasn’t quite as confident in what I was serving as I am now. When we first started I just hoped it would be good that day. Now we’re very consistent with what we do, and that time right before we open is the best part of my day. I love seeing people try something new or just get the everyday brisket and sausage. There’s no other food in Abilene that will make people stand in line outside, no matter the weather, other than barbecue. I’ve done it in Austin, and that’s kind of expected, and it’s becoming somewhat expected at places here. You know, people will write reviews on us on social media and talk about the wait for the food, but most of the time they also write, ‘But it was worth it,’ and that’s all that matters.”