Miller’s Smokehouse – From the Beginning
This place is much more than a restaurant.
In 2001, Dirk Miller (my dad) started doing taxidermy as a night job to make ends meet. A few years later (2004), the taxidermy business, evolved into Bang & Bow Taxidermy and Deer Processing. This business was started with all the funds my family had at the time, plus a few credit cards and a whole lot of prayers. It was a rough few years, but dad didn’t let us kids know how rough things really were. The first year, my dad processed every deer himself; working around the clock to pay bills. Even though it was a beating, he kept pushing. Year after year, the deer processing and taxidermy business continued to grow.
Fast-forward to 2008 (my freshman year of college)
I approached my dad with a “little” idea. “Hey dad, let’s start a small restaurant in this front area during the off-season.” In my mind, this was a great way to utilize our sausage making equipment in the off-season, and my dad had always enjoyed cooking. Looking back, we failed to consider the fact that we had no experience operating restaurants and no money. We had a quick talk, he agreed with a simple, “Let’s do it!” Little did we know that we would be changing the trajectory of the entire family story with that quick conversation.
We chose the name Miller’s Smokehouse, and I took a trip to Sam’s Club with my life savings (earned valet parking cars) of $1,100 for some basic supplies. With the help of friends and family, we put together a tiny little restaurant, selling sausage wraps and pulled pork sandwiches. We were excited, full of dreams, and totally unaware of the uphill battle before us. For the longest time, we relied on friends who came and ate just to support us. We borrowed a small smoker from our friend, David Denman, and began smoking one brisket each day. If we sold out of brisket, it was an accomplishment. It seems like just yesterday we were high-fiving over a $100 day. We were broke, stressed and tired, but stubborn and driven enough to make this thing work. It had to work.
We eventually purchased a pit of our own (bartered for it), and it was big enough to cook two or three briskets at a time. This pit (named Flat Top) was used hard, and then retired to a life of cooking buttered potatoes. Our next pit, which we bartered out some taxidermy work for, was a pit we were so proud of named Highwall. We found Juicy on Craigslist and saved her out of a grown-up field behind Mungia’s BBQ in east Bell County. We built upright pits for sausage and chicken out of 55-gallon barrels. We bartered for our beloved Three Peters, a name given based on quantity of stacks. Next came New Pit, a behemoth pit we would have only dreamed of ever owning just a couple short years ago. This pit was built by the Belton FFA as a school project in exchange for us purchasing all of the materials and doing a small sponsorship for their project for the livestock show.
To many people, these pits are just big hunks of metal, but to us, they are a constant reminder of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Each pit was the result of hard work and financial sacrifice. Each has brought great joy to the family when we were finally able to purchase them. We were not blessed with a huge pile of money to start this business, and everything we have has come through many hours, sacrifices and timely blessings. We now have the privilege of burning fires in our five 1,000-gallon smokers, which are nestled nicely inside our current building. We believe that our days cooking outside in the alley between 206 and 208 Penelope Street will always make us appreciate the roof over our heads (especially when it rains!)
The Evolution of our Shop
The restaurant started in the tiny front area of the old processing shop (208 N. Penelope), and after 3 years, we expanded into the back area where the peer processing historically took place. There are still bolts in the bricks where the restaurant used to end. That fist expansion was exciting and scary. I will never forget the conversation I had with my dad back in December of 2011. We were looking at the numbers, and things were just not working out. We had gotten much busier but were having trouble paying the bills. I was just fresh out of grad school at Baylor (accounting), and we were finally digging deeper into the financials. After some tough conversations, and a good look in the mirror, we came up with a game plan. We had to fix our portions, modify our pricing, expand our hours, and add additional dining and kitchen space (all in what was being used as a deer processing shop). We had created a great barbecue hobby, but it was time to turn it into a business.
Friends and family; when you’re tired, broke and weary, they are the most important thing you have.
We quickly made the expansion of 2011 happen with the labor and support of friends and family. The expansion resulted in the relocation of the deer processing operation to 411 South Main in what was formerly the warehouse for Amilco Masonry & Fireplace Co. (owned by my dad and grandfather,) and has since been converted to the home of Penelope Coffee Company (est. 2018.)
By early 2012 we were open for dinner (until 6:00 PM), our pricing and portions had been fixed, and we didn’t have to lay off any of our employees. The days of dad telling customers, “Hey, if that doesn’t fill you up, put your plate back up here,” were over, but it’s quite possible that those early days of losing money were just our advertising expense. Miller’s Smokehouse was becoming a real business, but we always told each other that we wanted to treat our customers and employees like family. Very early on, we felt a calling that this business will succeed so that we could help others who can’t help themselves.
That fist expansion got us through about two years of business., We worked to improve our food, build a few new tables, and work through the operational hurdles experienced by first-time restraunteurs. People seemed to really like our food, and in 2012 we began to notice a few food critics and bloggers swinging by. It was strange to read about our business online. Dad and I would often talk to each other about how awesome it would be to make the Texas Monthly Top 50 List, which is considered among the highest achievements for a barbecue joint. I always thought we could do it, but knew that we needed to keep getting better, keep trying new things, and always be open minded to changing things. During this time, we started selling beer (just the basics), and Momma Miller started baking all of the desserts for the restaurant at night, while working a full-time job. She’s the hardest working mom I know.
Making the List
2013 was fast approaching, and I had a feeling we could make that list (was published every 5 years at that time.) Although dad was becoming fearful of further expansion, we talked it over, and once again took a leap of faith. We rented a bit more of the building, doubled our kitchen and dining capacity, and even built a small bar equipped with a closet-sized area for Momma Miller to bake her wonderful southern desserts. I told my dad, just watch, we’re going to make that list, and those seats will pay for themselves!
I will never forget the day we found out we were going to be on the list. When we found out, we all shared a little crying time. I had just quit my job as an auditor to take a more flexible position that would allow me to dedicate more time to lock arms with Dad (Friday-Sunday), instead of just Saturday-Sunday. Everything we had was invested in the restaurant, and finally something seemed to be working out.
Since that list came out in June of 2013, life has never been the same. We were able to buy the building next door (formerly BJ’s Flower Shop) for a prep kitchen, and bakery for Momma Miller. We even got to throw Momma Miller party in November 2013 to celebrate that she would be able to quit her full-time job to focus all of her efforts on the desserts at Miller’s! It is crazy to think that a single list can could change so many lives in an instant, but that list is a gamechanger when it comes to barbecue.
As business continued to grow at our old location, we began to realize that our 19’10” wide building was capping our growth. At the end of 2015, we purchased the property at 300 East Central Avenue from our friends, the Gunters. As a side note, they would eventually purchase our building at 206 North Penelope Street (former location of Momma Miller’s bakery), and lease it to our friend Patrick of Bold Republic Brewing Company.
2016 was a crazy year of change for the team at Miller’s. Shortly after getting our new property under contract, and just a few days before Christmas, we received notice that we had 12 short months to vacate 208 North Penelope. It all of 2016 to allow for the tenants to vacate the new building, demo, plan, and completely remodel an 1800s era building. We barely made it happen, but we were able to open on New Year’s Eve of 2016. We destroyed the budget (not in a good way), but the move was a such a positive component of our evolution.
We were not blessed money to open a restaurant, but we opened a small restaurant because we had a dream. Sleepless nights, faith, friends and family compensated for the money we didn’t have and continue to do so. If we ever lose respect for our blessings and where we come from, the restaurant is doomed to fail. Our customers don’t just come to Miller’s for good food, they come because we treat them like family and truly care about their experience. It is important that each and every customer and employee understands who we are and what we’re about. We aren’t stopping at making that Top 50 List, we want to be one of the top restaurants people think of when they are asked about where to eat in Texas.
This restaurant is our home, and in many ways, it’s all we have. So much of our life has been used to build this place, and we still get excited to see you walk through the doors.
-Dusty Miller, Co-founder