“But people steady coming in here till five o’clock. That time we closed up and eight o’clock we reopen. And people steady coming in. They were steady coming in. Sometimes we’d be in there till six o’clock in the morning.” – Waunda Mays
Waunda Mays, daughter of Dan Mays, has been working at Sam’s Barbecue in East Austin since her father purchased the restaurant in 1978. The restaurant, one of Austin’s oldest African American barbecue restaurants, has been around since the 1940s.The Mays family purchased the restaurant from Dan’s cousin Sam, the original proprietor of Sam’s. She was a school bus driver before beginning work at the family business. A fire destroyed Sam’s in 1992, but loyal customers led an effort to rebuild the neighborhood barbecue institution. Waunda’s not shy about disclosing the primary ingredients in her family’s barbecue: love. She reiterated that love is the most important part of Sam’s barbecue at every opportunity. Austin’s East side community seems to agree, as do many tourists and other Austinites. Patrons come from all around the world to sample Sam’s barbecue, including the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan and Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft. The brisket is Sam’s specialty, and the restaurant stays open until four o’clock in the morning.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Waunda Mays
Produced in association with the American Studies Department at The University of Texas at Austin and the Central Texas Barbecue Association.
Anna Martin: OK. Thank you so much for doing this with us. Start off—OK. We just kind of want to get established, so if you could just state your name, age, and why you’re a part of Sam’s Barbecue?
Andrew Busch: You don’t have to say the age if you don’t want to.
Waunda Mays: Waunda Fay Mays.
OK. And we just want to get a little history of the business. So how did Sam’s originate?
Well my cousin and them had it first from Sam. They—well the brothers started it, then my cousins took over, then my dad took over. That was in ’78. In ’78 they took over, in ’78.
OK, and what led the family to get into the barbecue business?
Well, my dad was driving a cab one day. So he stopped through here, and my cousin asked him if he wanted to get into it. I was driving a school bus at the time and so—next day I was in here. I was still driving a school bus and working up in here.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the business is run?
Family. Takes teamwork and family. Just family business and teamwork.
And why, why this small building on East Twelfth Street? Like what does that have to do with Sam’s and was there ever ideas of relocating or—
No. This a landmark right here, cause it’s been here a long time.
How old is the building specifically?
I think this was 1943 or something. It used to be a filling station, before it became a barbecue place.
What do you think are the key factors to Sam’s success?
Key factors to Sam’s success. Love. And good luck, good food. Good personality, definitely.
Do you think that the meat has a lot to do with it?
Yes. There’s love in there.
Is that your key ingredient?
Yep, that’s love. Got to have love. If there ain’t no love in there, no food’s right. Got to have that love in it.
That’s great. Have you ever needed to advertise?
Well, not really. Once I got in the business was already there, so we came on in, picked it up. It’s been pretty good so far. We’ve been there twenty-eight years. April thirteenth be twenty-nine, twenty-nine years.
Well, I don’t know about the end of the night cause I get off about seven in the evening time. So—my other sister, she works at night. That’s their department.
What time you guys typically get here in the morning?
I get here about eight-thirty in the morning. Eight-thirty, start everything, get ready.
OK, so you don’t pull the night shift?
Well I used to a long time ago. We used to stay open till five o’clock back then long time ago in the eighties, seventies and eighties. And half of the nineties we used to stay open till five in the morning. I used to work night shift. It was all right. But people steady coming in here till five o’clock. That time we closed up and eight o’clock we reopen. And people steady coming in. They were steady coming in. Sometimes we’d be in there till six o’clock in the morning. People steady coming in, going to work. That was a long shift, from seven till five in the morning. Long. I’d sleep all day [laughs]. Get time to go to work the next morning.
I was wondering if you could talk just about how just this corner, you go out here, about how this community has changed since you’ve been here, thirty years?
It’s changed a whole lot. Everything.
Everybody’s buying up. Everywhere a little land. Every empty spot they’re putting up houses, houses, houses. You’d be surprised. I went up to Tenth Street other day. All them big old houses, three lots, three houses, three houses on one big old lot. Three houses. Ain’t nothing but houses.
Yeah, yeah. That’s what my dad will tell you, but my dad ain’t here. My dad’s in the hospital, so you know. I know they used to—he’d tell us that we couldn’t go across 35—that we had to stay on this side of 35.
Oh really? How come?
I don’t know. You know, restrictions—that was a long time ago. I don’t know. We couldn’t go across 35, yeah.
OK, and we want to talk a little bit about the meat. Would you explain the process of food preparation?
Is it all secret?
You’re also one of the only barbecue restaurants in Austin to still serve mutton.
I didn’t know it.
Is it a pretty popular dish?
Oh mutton? Yeah, everybody likes mutton. It goes fast. Mutton’s good. Mutton’s good to eat.
How is the mutton served? Like is it—?
You can buy it by the pound, order, or mutton plate.
OK, how does it come? Does it come chopped?
No, mutton ribs. Yeah, mutton ribs, mutton ribs. They got different kind of mutton.
Could you tell us a little about your sauce and how that originated?
By Sam. He showed us how to do it and stuff like that. Then my momma, she makes sauce too. Yep.
Where do you see the future of Sam’s?
I can’t even tell you. I got to go day by day. Never know what happens. It’ll getpassed down to the other grandkids and stuff like that.
Is there a new generation of family members that are interested?
So if you just have a little bit more about how the neighborhood’s changed since you’ve been here and then just where you see it going.
Well, it’s changed a whole lot. Houses—some of the businesses here have been here a long time. They’re still here. But just like neighborhood, the houses and everything changed. Everybody’s moving in, going out, moving in, like that. I like the East side. I ain’t going nowhere from the east side. Anything you want over here on the East side. North and South and West, I can’t tell you.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.