Backyard BBQs, Birria And New Beginnings With Big Don’s Smoked Meats
If there’s someone that’s mastered the art of authentic Texas barbeque in Perth it’s got to be Donovan Macdonald, who you may know as ‘Big Don’ of Big Don’s Smoked Meats (that’s him in the middle of the below photo) . From humble beginnings selling smoked brisket by the kilo on Instagram to amassing a cult following of well over 50,000 people, Big Don has become a local legend. After announcing the opening of three new venues between November and February, we chatted to the man himself about all things barbeque and what’s next for the future.
What first ignited your passion for Texas barbeque?
Well, I’ve been in Perth for about 15 years and I just started mucking around on the barbeque in the backyard around 2015 or so. I visited Old Faithful and went to Texas about a year later. That took me even further down the rabbit hole. I’ve been in Perth for so long that the trend of backyard barbeque and the next wave of it just happened to come along while I lived here. I just got really into it. I started selling brisket by the kilo on Instagram in 2017 just to pay for more brisket so I could keep practising. That was pretty much it, I never really had any intentions of it becoming anything.
So, the first thing you started barbecuing was brisket?
Yeah, absolutely. I was pretty much just trying to nail brisket. It’s the hardest thing to cook. It’s the thing most likely to let people down in Australian restaurants because nobody’s really cooking with wood outside for 12 hours and putting in that extra effort. It makes a difference in terms of the outcome. So, I just figured even if I only did it one day a month, or one day a week then I’m going to do it really proper and authentic.
People will decide for themselves. That’s sort of where it grew, with just sticking to being as authentic as I could.
Is that what lead to the underground barbeque events. Can you tell me a bit about those early days?
They just started in the backyard. You know, you’d get two or three people who’d come to collect [their brisket] one week and then a couple of weeks later you’d do it again and it’d be three or four. I still have customers today who were coming to events and picking up from the backyard who’ll tell me, ‘Oh man, I’ve been coming for five years,’ and I’m just like ‘Holy shit.’
It got busted by Vic Park back in 2018 or whatever it was. That’s when I bought a food truck and got it registered. Started being a bit more legit.
Do you think the process of trying to gain council approval for local backyard food events is getting in the way of growing our local food culture?
Yeah of course. There’s nothing wrong with having food safety and processes which are important, but the issue in Australia − and especially Perth − is that you have to deal with potentially 30 to 40 councils, and they all have different fees, different processes and they all interpret the Food Act differently. I’ve gone out of my way to try and find cheap ways to test my products. We went to bowls clubs. Bowls clubs are giant venues with good kitchens that are vacant all the time. So, we’d go in there and use those kitchens just so we could get our product out there.
What is it that attracts you to barbeque culture in general?
With barbeque, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if someone’s cooking over wood − especially meat − you’re going to go have a look. It just draws everybody over, even veggies and other things cooked over flames. We’re working on plenty of non-meat dishes too, but anything cooked over fire tastes better. I think people get around that.
You’re pretty busy these days. Have you started running on a 24-hour timer like Franklin’s in the US?
Not quite. We’ll never be open more than a couple of days a week, because if we tried to open five days we’d have a significant reduction in sales. We might do ‘more’ over five days, but the workload, the sales, the staffing requirements just wouldn’t be feasible. The goal has always been to be more like Snows BBQ in Lexington, Texas where they trade one day per week. It’s a big party atmosphere. You might have to line up for an hour or two, but you can have a camp chair, a beer in line with food and samples going by. If we opened five days a week like a normal shop it would probably get boring by week two. I can’t justify that.
The business model of authentic barbeque, with Australian prices and labour is not sustainable for as long as we cook, five days a week or even three days a week. So, one or two days is all we’ll ever do, and that’s why I’ve designed the business with a cheap fit out, a cheap warehouse, a cheap food truck, from a backyard, from a bowls club. I designed it so it’s cost effective and feasible to run.
You’ve made some big announcements recently. Most excitingly that you and the team will be opening three new venues around town between November and February. What can we expect from these venues?
Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. Vic Park will be the first place to open. It’s not going to be a barbeque shop, it’ll be a taco shop. That one’s been in the works for a while and it’ll be in a licensed tavern on Albany Highway, down in the heart of it. It’ll be an Al Pastor and Birria focused shop, with Al Pastor on a proper trompo. No one’s doing that in WA. Here they always grill it. If you asked someone in Mexico or California what they thought of that, they’d probably spit in your general direction. So, we’re going to go buy a trompo from Texas or California and import it.
[The eatery] is going to have smoked Birria, Al Pastor pork, and probably a menu of as little as eight to 10 items. Very small, but it’ll have a mezcal and tequila bar in a fully licensed venue. That one will be open five days a week − normal times − because we’re able to cook once or twice a week, and you don’t have to be there 24 hours a day. It’s more of an automated process.
Then in January, the barbeque restaurant will open and that’ll be the core business, which is Big Don’s in Bayswater, and that’s in the warehouse that we’ve been in for the past couple of years. Next door to that will be a brewery which’ll be a brand new brand. We’re going to be releasing a new beer every week, so we’ll have about 60 to 70 releases each year.
The only way this succeeds is with a good team. I’ve got a fair few full time and part time staff members now. I’ve never had a staff member quit on me in five years. [Staff] are easy to retain when you only face the customer for three or four hours per week. The other 35 hours are just prepping together and having a beer while you’re working. I’m never going to move away from that, back to a ‘normal’ model, it’ll just fall apart.
Before the three openings, you and the team are heading on a research trip to the US and Mexico. What spots are you looking forward to visiting?
We’re heading to Mexico City and Oaxaca which is on the east coast and the heartland of Mexican food. I’ve fallen in love with Mexican food, and I’m trying really hard to get real ingredients and pay homage to authenticity. I’ve also fallen in love with Mexican cuisine in Texas. Proper Tex-Mex is actually really good. Most of the Tex-Mex we think about has been bastardised.
Real Tex-Mex by Mexicans in Texas is fucking awesome. But this trip isn’t about the barbeque side, it’s about California, Mexico and sourcing equipment like tortilla machines and Al Pastor trompos.
Will you be making your own tortillas from scratch?
We’re currently making our own flour tortillas. We’ve been doing that for about a year, and we make all of our flour tortillas with brisket fat. It makes them really fluffy and delicious. I prefer flour [tortillas] with barbeque, with salsas and fatty meats. Corn tortillas are oilier, so we’ll use them for Birria, Al Pastor and we’ll make our own of those when we open our shop in Vic Park. By that stage we’ll be doing both flour and corn tortillas.
What advice do you wish you had heard back when you were starting all of this?
That’s a good question… The only way to build up to something big is to go really slow. No debt, low risk, small steps at each event and each gig moving into the next one. That’s probably easily the best advice, don’t overdo it. Don’t borrow money and stick to being authentic at all costs.
Keep up with all the latest from the Don via @bigdonsmeat on Instagram.
All Images: Big Don’s Smoked Meats.