Hidden History: A taste of east Austin

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — East Austin is home to most of the city’s black population, but throughout the years, there has been a shift. The city is growing and the need for housing has taken over sections of the east side of town. 

For many in the area, much of what was once there is now but a memory.

“We had a whole lot of black businesses in the black community,” Brian Mays owner of Sam’s BBQ said. “They slowly cleared us all out.”

From black-owned restaurants, to neighborhood convenience stores the growth changes have caused black flight and gentrification. Perhaps no place epitomizes the struggle of when to stay and when to go quite like Sam’s BBQ on 12th Street. It has famously turned down millions from developers. But even Sam’s can’t say no forever.

“They’ve been trying to get me,” Mays said about the developers. 

Last summer, Mays announced he had been offered $3.5 million for the property. People came together in support of the longtime restaurant in fear that it would close. 

“East Austin has a history, rich history,” Mike Pendon a supporter of Sam’s said. “There’s a lot of people moving to Austin which is great, but they need to move here and find out what’s cool about Austin and this is like one of the things we need to preserve.” 

Then, last fall, Mays said he got a new offer: $5 million. But he isn’t budging — at least not yet. 

“If you’ve been in business 43 years in the community, you gotta love that community because they have supported you for 43 years, baby,” Mays said. “You can’t just give up on them. You can’t just walk out on them, why?”

The BBQ joint has been open for more than 60 years, with the Mays family taking over in 1976. It’s become a favorite for old and new customers making them feel right at home. 

“We’re family around here,” Laron Limuel said, who’s been visiting Sam’s since 1979. 

“It’s so grandma-and-grandpa’s-house style with the pictures on the wall,” Brandi Buford added.

 

From big-time stars to locals, Sam’s BBQ has been feeding the community. Everything from brisket, sausage and chicken, to ribs and even mutton are on the menu.  

“Mutton makes you slap your first cousin three times,” Mays said. 

The longtime staple offers a promise like no other: “You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef,” Mays said, showing his toothless mouth with a smile.  

And just a block away from Sam’s BBQ, Valeria Campbell and her husband Archie are learning about the area’s history nearly a year after parked their mobile barbecue trailer.

“18;25;20 I think east Austin is the best spot for us,” Valeria Campbell said, the co-owner of Archie’s BBQ. A business the owners are hoping will hit the spot. 

“Our motto is ‘Quality is no accident,'” she said.

The Burleson County native married into east Austin stating, “My husband grew up in east Austin. I didn’t. I am not from here. You got a lot of people who still live here and still remember when there used to be a theater here and clothing stores and grocery stores, they remember all that, and that’s a lot of rich history for east Austin on this side of town and I love it.”

There’s no denying the ever-changing landscape is a plus, however.

“Now that you can see the changes that are going on over the years; they’re getting the new high-rises, the new businesses in and the more businesses come in the more my business is going to flourish,” Campbell said. 

The change has led to a battle many in the area have struggled with, including those at Sam’s BBQ.

“Everything going up,” Mays said. “Your rent, property taxes.”

It’s a struggle that could eventually claim Sam’s BBQ because at the end of the day, everyone has a price — including Mays. 

“I think $10 million would make me move, really fast,” said Mays. “If I can get me and my brothers a million a piece — we out of here. We out of here.”  

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