Save Your Saturdays for Sam’s
Community organizes to support iconic Austin barbecue shop
by Marisa Charpentier
Photographs by Holly Cowart
When I approach Sam’s Bar-B-Que on a Thursday afternoon, I feel like I’m walking back in time. New homes have cropped up in recent years around Poquito and 12th St. in East Austin, but Sam’s is from a different era. A faded Pepsi sign hangs above the entrance. The building’s white wooden siding is peeling. Air conditioning vents stick out from the windows. Inside, old photographs line the walls. They don’t look like much more than yellowed Polaroids, but when you look closely, the photos reveal a rich history. They feature some of the many famous customers who have come in to eat Sam’s sausages and brisket over the years. There’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, a close friend of the family’s, in one. Earl Campbell in another.
A smoky smell surrounds guests upon entering. Brian Mays, Sr., the owner, stands behind the counter with an apron on. It’s embroidered with the restaurant’s motto, a phrase that’s also painted across the front of the building: “You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.” The saying is one Mays knows to be true: when he smiles, his face bears a toothless grin.
Outside on the patio, two of Mays’ young grandchildren watch a show on an old television set. When customers come in, they rush to offer them water or silverware, hoping to earn a tip. Sam’s is family-run. It’s a place where the cooks joke with regulars and recipes have traveled down through generations. These days, though, the place is not as busy as it used to be. The area has become a prime spot for redevelopment, causing the neighborhood to change drastically. Over the years, the historically black community has lost many of its black-owned businesses. Mays’ is one of the few that remain. “That’s why I don’t want to sell,” Mays says. “If I sell, then everything’s gone. I’m the only one holding this street up.”
But in recent years, developers have given Mays bigger and bigger offers for his coveted property in the hopes of building new housing complexes. He’s turned down offers of $2.5 and $3 million. On June 7, he was offered the highest bid yet: $3.5 million. Even though property taxes have become increasingly exorbitant in Austin, he doesn’t want to sell, he says, because the community doesn’t want him to. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to support you,’” Mays says. “‘We don’t want you to sell. We’re going to stand behind you.’”
Sam’s Bar-B-Que has been an Austin gathering place for decades. It opened in 1957 by Sam Campbell, a close family friend of Mays’ father, Dan Mays, who took over the business in 1976 after Campbell died. Brian Mays then took over after his father’s reign. He still keeps the business in the family — which he has a lot of. Mays has 18 children and 43 grandchildren, not to mention a slew of siblings and nieces and nephews who have grown up working in the shop. Ashley Tucker-Mays, Mays’ niece who now works for a medical firm in Austin, says Sam’s was her first job. She remembers learning the family business as young as nine- years-old when she would peel potatoes in the kitchen and make barbecue sauce based on the recipe her aunts told her. “This is everything to me,” she says. “This is home. It’s what I’ve known my whole life.”
In its 60-year history, Sam’s family-centric atmosphere and home-style barbecue have drawn many notable figures to its booths. Stevie Ray Vaughan played guitar here before he was famous. It’s been a favorite of Marc Maron and Questlove. Mays himself has become a bit of a star, too. After producers heard the humorous and charismatic restaurant-owner talking one day in Sam’s, they decided to hire him as an actor. He starred in the 2013 film “Joe,” alongside Nicolas Cage, and in the 2014 film “Manglehorn.” He’s working on another movie now.
Still, he’s staying true to his roots, keeping Sam’s alive. And members of the community are recognizing that. After hearing about the offers Mays turned down to keep the business going, two Austinites, Erica Anthony-Benavides and Chivas Watson, created a Facebook event called “Save Sam’s Saturdays” to encourage people to come by the restaurant and show their support. The first one took place on June 16, which also happened to be the day of the city’s annual Juneteenth parade. After the parade many participants stopped by, as did customers new and old. Hundreds of people came to eat, and the line was out the door for hours. “Honestly, it hasn’t been this busy on a Saturday in years,” Tucker-Mays said.
Anthony-Benavides says the support was incredible to see. “It was community-driven and organic,” she says. “All we did was invite people.” She says she’s seen the neighborhood change so much over the years, so the event and future ones are a way to bring back recognition to the restaurant. “This is good for the community and for anybody who’s new and hasn’t been in Austin as long as some of us to see that it’s still operating.”
Tucker-Mays says the family hopes to renovate the building and employ more marketing and social media strategies to attract new customers going forward. For Mays, though, it’s not about the money. He wants to keep this piece of Austin history alive for his community. Although the neighborhood has evolved over the years and brought newcomers to the area, he hopes Sam’s is a place where people of all backgrounds will come together. “We’re going to start building unity,” he says. “If we work on unity, we’re going to be solid, baby.”