No barbeque tour would be complete without a visit to Lockhart, Texas. And, no visit to Lockhart, Texas would be complete without a trip to Kreuz Market.
When we were finished, I saw The Legend Himself — Roy Perez — walk in and go to the back. I just had to go shake his hand.
We went to Kreuz (prounounced like “critz” in the German way) on a Wednesday afternoon — not the best or busiest day in BBQ world. I didn’t make an appointment and didn’t expect to do much other than eat some meat and take some pictures. We didn’t make an appointment and didn’t call in advance.
As it turned out, Roy took time to give me a full tour and talk to me for a long time about Kreuz Market, barbeque, food philosophy, life, Whataburger, and even a lesson on how to slice brisket. He gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the coolers and meat storage. Nothing was offlimits to us and our cameras. He was so welcoming and inviting — by far the best ambassador of Texas BBQ that we encountered. I’m sure he was busy and had other things to do that day, but he made time for us. Seemingly, nothing was more important.
From the Kreuz Market website:
In 1875 Jesse Swearingen opened Lockhart’s first meat market. The term “meat market” referred to what we would call today a grocery store with a butcher on hand offering fresh meat.
In 1900 Charles Kreuz Sr. borrowed $200 and bought the market from Jesse. $200 was a lot of money in rural Texas in 1900. Kreuz Market quickly became known as the best grocery store in the area. Shoppers flocked to what was described as a modern, “progressive” grocery store.
Charles came from a family of German immigrants that made their way to Central Texas in the 18th Century. The Kreuz clan smoked meats like they did in the old country—German meat-market style. He fused his German heritage with Texas raised cattle and pork smoked over native post oak wood.
Barbecue has humble beginnings. Butchers like Charles wanted to make use of an animal nose to tail with little waste. Smoking scrap cuttings and the less desirable parts was a way to monetize the whole animal. Plus, it tasted good.
BBQ meat was also a working man’s food. It was often eaten at lunch time by cowboys, rough necks, ranch hands, and farmers looking for a quick, high protein meal to fuel long days of hard work.
A 1930 newspaper article from the Lockhart Post Register that describes the early Kreuz experience:
“The Kreuz Market at any time of the day will serve smoking hot barbecue on a piece of oiled paper with a supply of crackers and the customer may in addition supply himself with onions, tomatoes, coffee, soda water, near beer or even pies and cakes. The meat and the cracker served on paper at the oven are taken by the purchaser to a table where a knife is chained and there the barbecue is cut and eaten. Table knives, forks or dishes are not furnished.” Lockhart Post Register, June 30, 1930
Charles’ sons sold Kreuz Market in 1948 to Edgar Schmidt. Edgar had been the Kreuz Market butcher since 1936. He knew how to smoke meat and he knew the grocery business.
Edgar made changes and transitioned the food market into a restaurant. He closed the grocery store section down entirely in the early 1960’s. From then on it functioned as a restaurant and was a market in name only. In 1984 Edgar retired and sold the business to his sons Rick and Don Schmidt.
In 1987 Roy Perez received a phone call that would change his life. The home builder from Lockhart, Texas took a call from his cousin who worked at Kreuz Market who said they needed workers. Roy immediately quit his home building gig and started smoking sausages for Kreuz owner Rick Schmidt. Roy fell in love with working the pits and was quickly promoted to manager within three months.
Edgar died in 1994 and left the Kreuz Market building to his daughter Nina Sells. His sons rented the building from their sister and continued to run the restaurant.
This division would set off a bitter family feud as the brothers argued with their sister about rent hikes and building improvements. After years of legal battles with his sister, the pair settled and Rick built a new, larger restaurant in 1999 on nearby Colorado Street in Lockhart. Rick’s sister Nina reopened in the old Kreuz building as “Smitty’s.”
This was a huge change in Lockhart. Kreuz had been open on Commerce Street for 99 years. It was a Lockhart landmark and tradition. Changing locations was a big risk.
Hundreds of Lockhart residents and dignitaries gathered in 1999 when Kreuz pit master Roy Perez dragged a metal bucket full of hot coals from the pits at the old location to the new one. This ceremonial event helped comfort customers that were unsure about such a radical change. The move proved successful. The newer building was able to serve more customers and the flavor of the meat stayed the same.
Rick retired in 2011 and sold the family business to his son Keith Schmidt, 5th generation owner.
Today Roy Perez remains the Kreuz Pit Master, armed with mutton chops and a meat cleaver. Since he started smoking meat 32 years ago, Roy’s reputation for working with smoke has spread and he has become a celebrity in the world of barbecue. The mere mention of his name conjures up images of pit smokers, butcher blocks, and large, sharp knives.
Every morning Roy arrives at Kreuz, grabs some post oak logs to get the fires burning, then checks the journal he’s been keeping since 1987 to decide how much meat he’ll smoke that day.
Next comes a little seasoning rub, then it’s time for brisket and shoulder clod to smoking, followed shortly by ribs and pork chops.
Some know that their brisket is ready when the buzzer dings, or when their thermometer tells them so. Roy knows when his barbecue is ready by sight, smell and feel. No gauges and no room for mistakes.
When you care about barbecue rankings, your most important batch of brisket happens when a food critic comes to town. For Roy, every day is as important because people come in every day from across Texas and the world.
Roy’s been called the “King of Texas barbecue” more than once, a title for which he hasn’t campaigned, nor accepted.