Longhorn Barbeque Part 1

While there are many amazing facets to the Longhorn, the central and most unusual aspect is the story of five brothers who worked tightly as one unit for decades. Today the term “brother”  is thrown out between all races of guys in such a shallow greeting  that it pales the term to the point of transparency when compared to the bond and dedication of the Lehnertz brothers. These siblings dedicated themselves to their common goal to build a family hospitality business that has seldom been equaled in our area or any other.
    The “Fantastic Five”,as they were called, came from Munster, Texas, a German Catholic town 80 miles north of Dallas.  The first of the five to leave the  family of nine brothers and one sister was Gene,the oldest, who moved to Houston and opened his first place in 1946.
“The only barbecue places back then were colored joints and beer joints,” Don Lehnertz told me recently, explaining that his brother’s original Longhorn sold more beer than food. “They just gave them  the barbecue to keep them from getting too drunk,”
he said, adding that women were usually not allowed and the soldiers returning from WW2 with spare time and money were a big shot in the arm for the barbecue industry.
Gene was soon joined by brother Dave and they went through 3 places in Houston over the next 10 years. When another of the older brothers, Chic, discovered the Northwest, the Longhorn headed up to join him in 1956.
They picked up Don along the way and the 4 brothers  converted a downtown cafe on Second Avenue  into a barbecue family restaurant, doing most of the work themselves. They opened their doors to find an eager following.
“There was no one around doing pit barbecue and there were a lot of people from the South looking for it,” Don said, adding it was from the start a lot of hard work that they all did together.
“At the beginning we all lived together. I was the maid during the day doing laundry and cooking and then I went and washed dishes at night,” he said, explaining that none of them were married though Dave had two small children the brother’s all helped raise.
Two brothers worked the front of the 65-seat restaurant and two worked the kitchen six days a week, on Sunday they went out and cut wood for the wood-burning pit. It was not long before another brother, Claude, came up from Texas and rounded out the group to five.
“The reason we got into catering was because of the Rainier Brewing Company, which was not far from our place,” Don said,  “Gene liked to go down their and sample the free beer and he got to know them real well. They had a room where groups met and they would stick around and drink beer. Gene suggested they needed a little food and so we started to bring those groups food.”
“Gene was a visionary,” Don said, “at that time no one was doing catering. If a large group wanted to eat together they had to go to the big hotels like the Davenport or Ridpath.” He said, adding that Gene designed a portable, propane-heated steam tray that kept the food warm for hours. “That really took off and we started doing groups as large as 100 people,” he said, “No body was doing  anything like that.”
It took off so well ,in fact, that they moved in 1958 from downtown to Airway Heights where they opened a restaurant and bar and were able to build a production barbecue pit in the rear dedicated to all the new catering business. Before it was quite finished, Gene took them to a new level that would have the brothers struggling to keep up for years to come.
“Gene really had a lot of courage,” he said, ” Back then they had these hydro-plane races in Coeur D’ Alene. Gene went over and met with the planning committee and said, ‘By God we are going to cater this thing’,” Don said. When asked if he had the equipment, Gene assured them  that he and his crew would get the job done.”He didn’t have a crew,” Don said shaking his head, “It was just us brothers.”
So they went to work around the clock preparing for the event by barbecuing dozens of briskets of beef and building a portable pit and then they were off to the races. “It was really a make-shift deal,” he said, “But the people thought it was romantic with the open flames and the briskets we pulled off the pit with pitch forks and put on the slicer right out there in the open.They thought we planned all this atmosphere.” The health department was not impressed but the public and the committee were and they got the contract the following year.
“The health department said no way and that was our last bbq out in the dirt,” he said. So Gene came up with his next innovation that is now a staple of the industry: the concession trailer. “He found some guy that was making trailers for the forest service and got him to make our first chuck wagon. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. That second year at the Couer D’ Alene was just mayhem. We were throwing sandwiches out every window and door as fast as we could. We couldn’t begin to keep up.”
From there, one thing led to another. “We thought, ‘why don’t we do rodeos and car races’,” Don said. Soon Longhorn was doing company picnics for Kaiser and Deaconess and Sacred Heart and just about everyone else who had a lot of mouths to feed. But the key to their success was always the brothers’ teamwork.
“The reason it worked so well was because we all had our own areas and responsibilities and we respected that. We didn’t stick our nose into the other one’s area.” Don explained. He added that the original two brothers allowed the younger three to become partners one by one as they paid there dues and learned the business from the bottom up.
In 1972, the brother’s built a drive-in on Argonne, again doing much of the labor themselves. They soon moved the catering side of the business from Airway Heights to the Valley to help the struggling business. “The first two years were tough out there,” Don said, “but adding the catering really made the P & L’s look a lot more attractive.”
Perhaps the most impressive testimony to the brother’s dedication to their business and each other was their total lack of greed. “In the beginning just us younger brother’s got paid because we were on the payroll and the help always got paid,” Don said, “Gene and Dave made most of their spending money shooting pool in the bars downtown. They were very good.”
Don explained that he was in control of the purse strings and he ran a frugal ship. “For a long time all we took out was $150 a month per partner and then it went to $300,” Don said, adding that even by the time the four older brothers sold out to Claude and their cousin, Duke Fette, in 1983 the 5 brothers never burdened  their family enterprise with more than a $1200 monthly salary.
To be continued.

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