Through protests and pandemic, Black-owned SLAB BBQ finds voice in Austin community

SLAB co-owner Raf Robinson
SLAB BBQ & Beer co-owner Raf Robinson stands in front of a mural at the restaurant's Southwest Austin location in 2019. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

SLAB BBQ & Beer co-owner Raf Robinson stands in front of a mural at the restaurant's Southwest Austin location in 2019. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

Image description
The Donk is a 1-pound sandwich that includes every meat served at SLAB. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
SLAB offers barbecue sandwiches, sliders and sides. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
SLAB BBQ is a hip-hop themed barbecue restaurant and features a mural that reads, "It was all a dream," a Biggie Smalls lyric and a representation of co-owner Raf Robinson's feeling about achieving his dreams as a business owner. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
SLAB BBQ & Beer co-owner Raf Robinson said reopening the restaurant to dine-in service June 1 after being closed due to coronavirus restrictions required making the safety of staff and customers his top priority.

There was some initial stress pivoting to online ordering and delivery early on in the pandemic followed by weeks of preparations to reopen.

Robinson and co-owner Mark Avalos installed dividers between tables and shields at the register, and SLAB is now offering tableside service to limit how much patrons move around the restaurant. Robinson said the goal was to make the restaurant as safe as possible while continuing to support the community.

But when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody May 25, Robinson said as a Black business owner, it added a different level of stress and a different set of emotions to reopening.

“It's been very stressful to say the least, and [with the Black Lives Matter protests] this month, it has added to that stress,” he said. “It's been more of an emotional stress, myself being a Black man. There's been so much pain and hurt around the things we've seen and witnessed. Having all of those wounds reopened and having things so front and center has been really hard.”


One day after reopening, Robinson said SLAB observed Blackout Tuesday, canceling previously scheduled promotions online to show support for the movement. He said participating in Blackout Tuesday was the “bare minimum,” but it did provide a moment to reflect on the pain he felt and had seen throughout the community.

However, Robinson said he was still searching for the right way to give SLAB a voice and for the right message, one that showed support and was sensitive, empathetic and reflective. That weekend, while attending a peaceful, prayer-based protest downtown, he said he found that message.

“As a person of faith, I felt like that was where I needed to be so I can really try to get some guidance and to find my voice and find the healing that I needed before I opened my mouth,” he said. “So during that prayer protest on Saturday we knelt in front of the state Capitol, and we prayed, and I sobbed ... and I was able to experience some of the healing I needed.”

Robinson said an image of him kneeling at the protest appeared on the news the following day. Once he saw it, he realized that was the message he wanted to share.



“We posted that photo as hopefully an encouragement to people that we need healing; we need unity; we need change and we need to stand up. We felt that picture said a lot,” he said.

While SLAB—which has a location at the Y at Oak Hill in South Austin and on Research Boulevard in North Austin—is now open for dine-in service, through the pandemic SLAB has been serving members of the community in need. Robinson said once SLAB received Paycheck Protection Program assistance in early April to help support his staff, he and his team decided they would work to take care of the community.

After reaching out to local churches and groups, Robinson decided SLAB would serve 100 refugee families free meals each week.

“We immediately identified that they’re a very vulnerable group,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of volunteers who show up every week to deliver them meals.”

He said as long as his business is able to provide, he will continue to support the community just as the Austin area has continued to show him support over the years.

“I'm so thankful to live in a city where our community has rallied and really supported us, SLAB, in the last few weeks,” Robinson said. “It has sparked a new drive in us for a bigger cause, that we aren't just a restaurant slinging barbecue; we're people in our community who have a voice and a responsibility to be the light and to help usher in change.”
By Nicholas Cicale
Nick has been with Community Impact Newspaper since 2016, working with the Lake Travis-Westlake and Southwest Austin-Dripping Springs editions. He previously worked as a reporter in Minnesota and earned a degree from Florida State University.


MOST RECENT

Austin ISD trustees met Oct. 26, discussing in-person learning during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Twice as many Austin elementary students have returned to campus compared to first day of in-person instruction, district says

Austin ISD will open its campuses to accommodate all students who request in-person instruction beginning Nov. 2.

Capital Metro released new renderings Oct. 26 of its proposed Project Connect expansion, which voters will decide Nov. 3. This rendering shows a Blue Line light rail train at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Rendering courtesy Capital Metro)
In final week of early voting, here is what Austin residents should know about Project Connect

The proposition appears as a 237-word block of text near the end of the ballot but boils down to a simple question: Are voters for or against a significant expansion of local public transportation, paid for in part with property tax funds?

Photo of the facade of the Dripping Springs ISD administraton building
Dripping Springs ISD to discuss superintendent's potential resignation

An item on the board of trustee's Oct. 26 meeting agenda indicates consideration of a resignation agreement for Superintendent Todd Washburn.

Alex Wu (left) and Kevin Tran stand, social distanced, outside of Bao'd Up in Sunset Valley. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Bao'd Up owners hope to make the traditional Chinese steamed buns a household name in Austin

The local chain has four locations, including one in Sunset Valley. Owner Alex Wu said as the franchise continues to grow, he hopes in a few years he will no longer have to explain what bao is.

Scott Friedeck, owner of The Graphic Guitar Guys, started working with guitars in 2011. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Dripping Springs small business owner Scott Friedeck got his big break in the music industry from George Strait

Friedeck's business, The Graphic Guitar Guys, creates custom wraps for guitars for artists to sell as merchandise.

East West Manufacturing will retain 30 jobs and create an additional 30 new jobs for a total of 60 full-time jobs in Round Rock over five years, according to an economic incentive agreement signed Oct. 22. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Round Rock to add 60 jobs and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.

A screen shot of Elon Musk speaking into a microphone
Tesla CEO Elon Musk confirms 2021 opening for Travis County gigafactory

Musk said construction is moving apace at the new electric auto factory east of Austin.

The bakery is known for its Texas Sized Donut weighing 2 pounds and can trace its history back to 1926 when Reinhold R. Moehring opened the shop in downtown Round Rock. (Community Impact file photo courtesy Round Rock Donuts)
Round Rock Donuts coming to Cedar Park and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Austin area.

Oct. 23 is the last day Texas voters can apply for a vote-by-mail ballot. (Courtesy Pexels)
Tackling Texas' vote-by-mail system: Applying, delivering, tracking your ballot

Oct. 23 is the last day Texas voters can apply for a vote-by-mail ballot.

This fall, firefighters from Central Texas—including from the Austin, Oak Hill and North Hays County fire departments—have traveled to California to help with the state's ongoing fire season. (Courtesy Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System)
As wildfires burn in the western United States, South Austin neighborhoods, firefighters work to reduce local risks

This fall, firefighters—including from the Austin, Oak Hill and North Hays County fire departments—have traveled to California to help with the state's ongoing fire season.