Bull Pen Barbecue/Austin’s Barbecue — 1949-2000
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
One of my major failings as a Dallasite is that I don’t know Oak Cliff. Like at all. Every time I go over there, I get lost. I can’t remember my family ever going to Oak Cliff when I was a kid, except to visit the zoo. This explains why I had no idea how important a cultural landmark Austin’s Barbecue was when I posted a bunch of Oak Cliff ads the other day. That post has been shared hundreds and hundreds of times now and, inevitably, the only thing people mention — and rhapsodize about — is Austin’s Barbecue. …I had no idea!
The famed BBQ joint at the northeast corner of Illinois Avenue and Hampton Road opened in 1949 as B & G Barbecue but soon became known as Bull Pen Barbecue, run jointly by owners Bert Bowman and Austin Cook. In 1956 or 1957, another Bull Pen opened in Arlington. After Oak Cliff went dry (a dark day for many Oak Cliffites), Bowman — who firmly believed that BBQ and beer were a match made in heaven — left for Arlington and Cook stayed in Oak Cliff and changed the restaurant’s name to Austin’s Barbecue. (“Bull Pen Barbecue” was still appearing in ads as late as Oct. 1957 — the official name changeover seems to have happened in 1958.)
The following memory of starting the business was apparently written by Austin Cook in 1990:
Dear Family & Friends,
I will try to tell you a little more about my being in the restaurant business. We borrowed $10,000 and bought out some one and it was B and G Barbecue. You see I always spell out Barbecue because when I went in business they hadn’t started abbreviating it like it is today.
After we had been there awhile we changed the name to The Bull Pen. Our slogan was “Come in and Shoot the Bull with Austin and Bert.” We used that name until they voted beer out of Oak Cliff. That really set us back, but maybe it was the best thing for us. We put another place in Arlington and that place was going pretty good. My partner wanted to get rid of the place in Oak Cliff. I traded him my part of the one in Arlington for his part in the one in Oak Cliff. Everyone said I was crazy.
When we bought that first place it was way out in the country, but they were building a bunch of houses not too far away. There was an airport across the street from the place. They kept talking about building a shopping center where the airport was. I remember the first day we ran a hundred dollars, and I thought we would never make it.
We started making money and we paid that ten thousand dollars back and we drew fifty dollars a week just like I was making in the grocery store. We started out with a barbecue sandwich and a hamburger. Then we started adding different things until we had a menu. We started getting those workers in the houses, and the business took off. We had beer also to go with the barbecue. My mother wasn’t too happy about that, but Dad said if that was the way I wanted to make my living it would be all right. In about a year or two we had a customer make us up a menu and we put in Barbecue plates for one dollar and twenty five cents. When I left they we were getting $4.99 for them. After I left I think they went to over seven dollars.
They always told me that you weren’t a success until you were in debt a hundred thousand dollars, and I went to the bank and borrowed all they would let me have. Then I went to my landlord and sold him the idea that I wanted to improve his property, and he loaned me the balance I needed to remodel, and I built a restaurant that held a hundred and twenty-five. Many times I was almost broke and didn’t know what I was going to do, but something always happened and I came out of it.
Both the Bull Pen in Arlington and Austin’s in Oak Cliff were successful and long-lived. Austin Cook retired at the end of 1993, and the business was taken over by his stepson, John Zito who had already been working at the restaurant for several years. Austin’s Barbecue closed in July, 2000, and the building was demolished soon after, replaced with an Eckerd drug store (now a CVS). Bert Bowman (born Glynbert Lee Bowman) died in 1989 at the age of 66; Austin O. Cook died at in 2006 at 86. And now I kind of feel like I know them, and I’m really sorry I never sampled their sandwiches.
Below, a Bowman and Cook timeline (most pictures and clippings are larger when clicked).
Before Cook and Bowmen met — probably around 1947 — each had been dabbling in different businesses. In early 1947, Cook leased a Clover Farm Store building at 203 N. Ewing and opened the Libby & Cook grocery with partner Lendal C. Libby.
Bert Bowman worked there as a meat-cutter.
The grocery store was in business at least into 1949, the year that Bowman and Cook decided to ditch the groceries and start their own business at 2321 W. Illinois, in a part of Oak Cliff which was just starting to be developed. Their BBQ place was originally called B & G Barbecue, which — according to Cook’s letter above — was the name of the restaurant he and Bowman bought out. I guess they felt it was easier to keep the name for awhile.
The name “Bull Pen Barbecue” didn’t come until later. In fact, the first appearance of the Bull Pen name associated with this address doesn’t show up in the Dallas Morning News archives until a want-ad placed in the summer of 1952.
A probably related “Bull Pen No. 2” opened in South Dallas in 1953. It appears to have been very short-lived.
By the fall of 1957, Cook and Bowman had opened another Bull Pen — this one in Arlington, and this one a success.
And then Oak Cliff went dry, the worst thing that could happen to a restaurant that sold a lot of beer. Similar businesses which relied heavily on beer sales began to desert Oak Cliff. Bowman did not think their original drive-in could survive, but Cook disagreed. Bowman sold his half-interest in the Oak Cliff location to Cook, and Cook sold his half-interest in the Arlington location to Bowman. Cook changed the name of his now solely-owned restaurant to Austin’s Barbecue, and his success continued, despite the fact that he could no longer sell beer. He was doing well enough that, in 1961, he opened a second location, on Harry Hines across from Parkland Hospital (a location which lasted through 1964).
By 1963, Austin’s was a well-established teen hang-out and wisely placed ads in Oak Cliff high school annuals. Apparently everyone went there!
Date and source unknown, via Flickr
In 1964, Cook — known as “Big Daddy” — opened another restaurant, this one called Big Daddy’s Grill.
The restaurant was a bona fide Oak Cliff landmark, and Cook was an active participant in community business affairs. Below, a detail of a photo showing Cook as a member of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce.
Cook participated in a series of Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce campaigns and even included oddities like “Come eat Austin’s barbecue… and then visit Red Bird Industrial Park” in his ads. Make a day of it!
Color postcard at the top found on Pinterest, here.
Read Dallas Morning News stories about the closing of Austin’s in 2000, the subsequent auction of its contents, and obituaries of Austin Cook (1919-2006), Bert Bowman (1922-1989), and John Zito (1938-2003), here.
The Oak Cliff Advocate article “A Look Back at Austin’s Barbecue” by Gayla Brooks is here (with tons of memories from readers in the comments).
Not mentioned in this post is the connection of Officer J. D. Tippit (who moonlighted as a keeper of the peace at Austin’s) and other tangential/coincidental associations to the Kennedy assassination. It’s well documented elsewhere. Google is your friend.
Images are larger when clicked.
Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.