Although Austin area’s two The County Line barbecue restaurants serve 1 million ribs annually, the eatery started out with humble beginnings, said Don “Skeeter” Miller, co-founder and president of the restaurant’s managing group.
Miller, along with Randy and Rick Goss, Ed Norton and Bruce Walcutt, began the barbecue business in 1975 when the partners purchased the Cedar Crest Lodge at 6500 Bee Caves Road, Austin.
Both Goss brothers and Walcutt are deceased, but Norton runs the business with Miller from Austin.
The County Line’s first 17-acre site originally served as a stagecoach stop, Miller said.
“[Walcutt] used to live across the street from the [Cedar Crest Lodge],” he said. “It was a little speakeasy where his mother, a schoolteacher, told him and his brother John, ‘Whatever you do, there’s things that go on up there, and you can’t go up there.’”
As soon as his parents left, the brothers went over to the forbidden building, Miller said. When the group met to discuss bringing an upscale barbecue dining experience to the area, Walcutt mentioned the lodge as its site, he said.
On June 14, 1975, they opened TheCounty Line with $37,000 of personal funds and a bank loan for the remainder of the $63,000 investment, he said.
Walcutt exchanged Coke bottles for a deposit fee to have enough money for the restaurant, Miller said. The coleslaw was hand-chopped, and beer was poured from a gas pump, he said.
The turning point for the business came after a favorable review by Texas Monthly magazine during its first year of operations, Miller said.
“[Dinner orders] went from about 10 dinners a night to 700 dinners a night,” he said. “It was crazy.”
In 1977 the owners expanded the business to El Paso, naming the new eatery The State Line for its borders on Texas, Mexico and New Mexico.
The County Line on the Lake opened in 1980 as the business’ third location. The RR 2222 site was across the lake from Camp Tom Wooten that Walcutt attended as a boy scout.
“It was really a gem because it was on the water,” said Miller of the lake location. “It really fit our brand.”
In the 1980s, The County Line owners fell on hard times when they had leveraged out the business and banks were calling in their loans, he said.
None of the restaurants closed, but the officers decided to stop growing the business, pay off debt and vowed to become stronger again, he said.
Prior to 1995, The County Line sides included only coleslaw, potato salad and beans. However, the eatery adapted to changing times by adding salads, a light plate with fewer meats and more menu choices, he said.
After weathering the highs and lows of the industry, The County Line has eight establishments in two states—Texas and New Mexico.
The future holds more growth for the restaurant as owners consider adding smaller venues with live music, he said.
“We know where we fit and what is a good fit for us,” Miller said. “We’ve got a good team, and we’ve got a template to do it.”
Why Big Chief tablet menus?
The eatery is known for its menu design.[/caption]
The County Line co-owner Don “Skeeter” Miller said the restaurant’s use of Big Chief paper tablets as menus dates back to its 1975 start.
“We were opening, and we didn’t have a menu,” he said. “So Rocky Goss runs down to Rylanders, a pharmacy-type store, and he buys a bunch of these Big Chief tablets. He comes back and draws [the menu]. He wrote all of it out, and then he colored it.”
Rocky drew each menu, and the staff would sit around a table coloring in the menu art, Miller said. Guests, including Amado Pena and Walter Cronkite, received the entire tablet as a menu, allowing them to write notes in the extra blank pages for the next guest, he said.