Robbie Shoults Talks Texas BBQ And Being A Judge On Beat Bobby Flay - Exclusive Interview

Smoked turkey may be what put the Shoults family and Bear Creek Smokehouse on the map in the 1940s, but Robbie Shoults — the third generation to run the operation — hasn't stopped there. In its more than 80 years of operation, Bear Creek Smokehouse has expanded to feature holiday staples like smoked ham, cookout favorites like sausages, and fresh and succulent Texas-style barbecue that draws visitors from around the world to the company's Pit Room in Marshall, Texas.

But that's not Shoults' only claim to fame. His expertise has landed him a spot as a judge on "Beat Bobby Flay" not one, not two, but five times. That experience gives Shoults real insight into how it all goes down.

Robbie Shoults took some time out of his busy schedule — he's got a new restaurant opening in March of 2024 — to give us an exclusive interview talking about all things Texas barbecue and what it's really like in the ring at "Beat Bobby Flay."

The founding of Bear Creek Smokehouse

Hi Robbie! We're excited to talk to you about what you're up to and about Bobby Flay. Let's start with you, with Bear Creek Smokehouse and the family business. You have grandkids, right?

I do. The grandkids are the fifth generation actually. My mom is still alive, so on any given day, we may have four generations up here in the store.

How has it evolved since its founding?

My great-granddaddy bought the land at kind of the turn of the century ... They lived over in Hallsville. And my great-granddad told my granddad, he said, "I'll give that land to you if you'll go work it and clear it and start farming it." So he used to ride a horse about 15 miles a day over here to work the land until they were able to get a family house built out here. They were raising cotton and corn and they had hogs and cattle and just all kinds of things that they were doing to try to live off the land. And we're talking about the Depression era, and then World War II came into the picture, and they were just having a hard time making ends meet. So my granddad had an uncle out in West Texas who was an ag teacher, and he told my granddad, "You can put more pounds of gain on a turkey than you can hogs and cattle." In other words, the feed conversion was better. You get more pounds of finished product per pound of feed.

So in 1943, he and my grandma got their first batch of turkeys and raised them. They didn't know what they were doing. They had all kinds of farm animals, but turkeys were new and there was a learning curve there. And so they raised them out and they were ready for Thanksgiving that first year. This is kind of funny, they just had word of mouth — they didn't have internet or all that to advertise back then — so the county extension agricultural agent used to take orders and come out and pick up birds and deliver them back to town. And then they would have ladies bring their roasting pans out and say, "That one right there will fit in my pan." My granddad would catch it and send it home with them.

Evolution of a family business

That was before they started smoking turkeys?

Yes, that was early years. And then a couple of years later they started smoking and they just added on and added on. Every year they became more popular and before you know it, we were shipping turkeys all over the country. And so it's just kind of evolved year to year. It didn't happen overnight. Last year was our 80th anniversary, so it's been a great business.

Talk to me about having your kids involved. Now that you're the one stewarding the next generation, what's that like?

It's great being able to work with family. They grew up in the business, so they have a background knowledge of it. And Hunter ... He is the plant manager and he oversees the day-to-day operations of the plant. And we do a lot more than just smoking over there. Smoked meats, people are looking for those for the holidays. We have a lot of everyday customers, but hams and turkeys are pretty seasonal. So we do a lot of business with grocery stores all over the country. We sell them cured salt pork and it's used for seasoning beans and vegetables, all that kind of stuff. So we sell probably close to two million pounds of that product a year. It goes to places like Walmart and Publix over on the East Coast, Kroger, just really all over. So I know our distribution to Walmart is up to about 3,300 stores now. It's become a big deal for us, it helps keep the lights burning during the off-season when turkeys aren't selling.

Krista is running the new store in Marshall now ... and she still does some marketing. She still does some Facebook and that sort of thing. And then we have another daughter, Sadie, who is doing some Facebook for Bear Creek.

You also have a store and restaurant on-site. When did that come about?

I lost my dad in [November of] 2017 ... it was a tough time for everybody. And after the holiday, hustle and bustle, I was kind of like, "I need a project. This is not good." And Dad and I had talked about building a new store. I decided in the spring of 2018 that we were going to get started on it. And we built it and I'll tell you what, it has been a rodeo ever since.

The original footprint of the store was about 10,000 square feet and we were actually trying to serve food out of here, do events and sell general merchandise — gifts and tabletop, all that stuff. And we rocked on there for about a year and a half and I told my wife, "We're killing ourselves with all this. We thought this would be more space than we ever needed for the rest of our lives. We need to add on." We added another about 6,600 square feet onto the back of the existing store. And when we did, we built a pit room where we have a big 20-foot pit and that's where we smoke all of our brisket and chicken and sausage and all that great stuff that we use in the restaurant up here at the store.

How Robbie Shoults got into the barbecue business

It sounds like the barbecue side of the business has taken off and I'm sure that keeps you guys busy in between holiday seasons.

Oh, yeah. It's pretty crazy. Saturday here there were no parking places and there were hardly any seats to be had inside. I get a little nervous when it gets like that because we want everybody's experience to be over the top and just more than what they thought it ever could be. When they come out here we want them to have a warm welcome by all of our employees and we try to create the best experience we can as far as customer service, the best food that we can provide, and all of the above.

What are some of the more popular items?

They keep coming back for the ribs and the brisket. I made the foolish statement one time to my brother-in-law when we were building [the store and event center] ... "Let's build a pit room back here and bring a big smoker in and let's start smoking stuff on the weekends and have a big barbecue every weekend. It won't make us or break us." And that was not a very smart thing to say because I'm going to tell you what, it sure helped make us. Because if you have a great barbecue, people will come from all over. This last Saturday, we had people as far away as Australia and Austria. We have a great atmosphere. We've got beautiful views. We have some beautiful big longhorns out front — one we can saddle up and you can actually get on his back. We have a Highland Cow out there, and of course, I'm in the beef business too, so I have a lot of cows and so it is just a great setting.

Robbie's insider tips for smoking at home

Speaking of beef, do you have any tips for making barbecue at home?

The biggest thing to me that I would tell anybody that's going to try to barbecue or smoke or whatever it is, please don't get in a hurry. Have the time dedicated to go low and slow and to stick with the product all the way through from start to finish. You can't rush barbecue.

What about the smoke? Can you over-smoke barbecue? How do you balance the smoke with the flavor?

We use a combination of post oak, hickory, and pecan, and I don't think there's any magic [ratio] or anything. Because sometimes I know we'll use more of one wood than we do the other.

I know [over-smoking] can be done. If your wood is too green, it could be a reason for maybe getting the smoke flavor too strong. Another thing, if people are having problems maybe over-smoking, is to pull the product out before it's completely done and wrap it in some paper, then put it back on. And that prevents any more smoke from penetrating and it'll get the benefit of the heat but not the smoke.

We all hope every bite of barbecue we eat is perfect, but that isn't always the case. How do you know if the barbecue is bad?

Well, if you've got your fork and your knife and you're trying to cut it and it cuts like boot leather, you probably know you're at a bad spot. If you rush barbecue, you can mess it up pretty quickly. Like I said, the key to it is to just take your time, enjoy yourself, and just have the time dedicated to it. And start with the best cuts of meat that you can find and you'll wind up with a better end product.

Smoked turkey is not a thing that you see in every barbecue region. What is it about smoked turkey that's special?

It's a lighter alternative. Brisket is probably the fattiest cut of meat there is. It's also probably the toughest cut of meat [to cook], but if you do it right, the combination of the fat-to-lean ratio can turn out really good. But you've got people that are just health conscious and I think turkey is just a great alternative to the brisket and ribs and those sort of things. It's become a staple at a lot of barbecue joints nowadays just because it's so popular. A lot of people love a turkey sandwich just because it's light and it's not quite as heavy as other barbecue.

Robbie's tenure as a five-time 'Beat Bobby Flay' judge

Let's talk about "Beat Bobby Flay." How did you get on the show in the first place?

There's a beautiful lady [on Food Network] on there by the name of Sunny Anderson, and she has a show on Saturday mornings, called "The Kitchen." Sunny and I know each other — she'd been down to Texas to our plant a couple of times. We were working on a little project and she asked me if I would be interested [in judging "Beat Bobby Flay"] and I said, "Sure, I'll come up and do that." I've been up five times and it's always a great experience. Bobby Flay is super competitive and is also probably the best cook on the earth, I would say. He's a great guy though. He's really nice. Out of the five episodes I've done, he's lost two of those episodes.

Tell me about being on set with Bobby Flay. What's it like while the episode is being made?

I have hung out with [Bobby] on one occasion after the show, he came and greeted me and my wife and Hunter and his wife behind the scenes, and he has a great personality. We joked around kidded and all that sort of stuff. But I'm going to tell you, when he's in front of that camera, he's serious, baby. He is trying to get his dish made. He does not like to be beat.

What is the judging experience like?

The whole process is pretty cool because, while the two chefs who are competing against each other are cooking, the judges are in a completely separate area. We don't get to watch any of it. When the winning chef goes up head-to-head against Bobby, as soon as they get their dishes done, we go to what they call a tasting room and we taste all the dishes there and we make our comments on it and everything and the producer will make notes. And then before you know it, they call us out, we come out on set, and then we do our tasting again. We actually get to taste it twice, once behind the scenes and then once in front of the camera.

Your 'Beat Bobby Flay' judging questions, answered

Did you have an idea of which was Bobby's dish beforehand?

I've always thought I could guess, but I've been wrong before, so I just quit trying. But [Bobby] does style his dishes really well. Well put together and everything. So I have hunches sometimes, but there's never a dead giveaway. There are some other great chefs who have gone up against him. Kudos to them for even making it that far.

You've judged five very different dishes (cheesesteak, chicken phở, carne asada, Juicy Lucy, and barbecue chicken wings). Do you have a favorite?

You get to taste some stuff that you probably would never get to taste again, especially a boy from East Texas like me.

The chicken wings were really good. But I'm telling you, neither guy had enough time to get those chicken wings done completely where they pull off the bone. But I think one guy made some blueberry barbecue sauce or something, best I remember, and it was good. The carne asada was good too. Now, some of the others, Juicy Lucy, we don't have those in Texas. It was great.

The "Beat Bobby Flay" set is pretty unique. What is it like being in front of the cameras and the audience?

It is almost like a pit because the audience is elevated. There's a railing around and they're lined up around that, and so it's just down in that taste pit where the judges are and Bobby and whoever his opponent is are cooking. I'll tell you what, I've never seen so much kitchen equipment, but I always think the cameras outnumber the kitchen equipment because they're trying to get every angle they can on everybody and the food and everything. But it is just a great experience.

Once you have tasted the dish, how does judging work? How do you pick a winner?

When we're in that blind tasting room, it is the three judges and the producer, and she'll go through and ask us each different things, what we think about the dish, and she's taking notes on her computer. And so we pretty much in the tasting room have in mind who we're going to pick. And then when we get out there on set, [each judge] comments on it. And then if I said something in the tasting room that maybe I didn't think to say [on camera], the producer will come on and say, "Now, Robbie, what were you thinking about this aspect of it? What did you think about this flavor or whatever?" And then that just kind of jogs your memory and you can spit it out.

Usually everybody is pretty much on the same page [about who wins]. It is pretty cut and dried. I mean, when Bobby lost, he lost fair and square. The other cook just did a better job. But like I say, it is completely blind. Sometimes I would speculate, "this looks really fancy, and I know Bobby likes to use peppers a lot," and I'm thinking this may be his, and I've been wrong before.

Next for the Shoults family: The Marshall Mercantile

The Marshall Mercantile just opened this past fall. What are your plans for this new branch of Bear Creek Smokehouse?

The new branch of the business in one of the oldest buildings in Marshall, the Mercantile. It was a department store built in 1898, the first department store of its kind in the state of Texas. It's three stories, it's about 30,000 square feet. Midsummer, we bought a floral company that had been in business for 72 years and we moved it into this building. The Mercantile part of the building has gifts, gourmet foods, some clothing, that sort of thing. We collaborated with the Harrison County Museum and I've dedicated space to the museum — they have some exhibits in the back corner. When we have tourists come in on the weekends, they have the opportunity to look into Marshall's past and see what that was all about. We also have a restaurant coming soon. It'll have a Western flare to it if you can imagine that. It's going to be really ... I'm going to use the word bougie because I've raised four girls and I know [that term]. We're hoping to get it open sometime in mid-March.

The second floor is a mezzanine that overlooks the whole store, and we use it for rentals. If you have a group of let's say a hundred or less, you can use the mezzanine. The third floor is 8,400 square feet and we do weddings and big events up there. It's a big space. And Krista's doing a great job. I think in December we had nine rentals up there. We just opened up.

It's been good for downtown. We will want to try to bring tourists downtown and we hope that everybody thrives as a result of the revitalization process of downtown Marshall.

We'll keep an eye out for the opening and to see the menu! Thanks so much for your time.

Visit Bear Creek Smokehouse to learn more about their products, and The Marshall Mercantile for information about the store, restaurant, and event space.

This interview has been edited for clarity.