The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo has wrapped up another successful year. Much of that success is fueled by all the amazing food that patrons can indulge in. And for more than 35 years, one of the most popular food destinations has been Harlon’s BBQ.
A staple and rodeo favorite since the late 1980s, Harlons has showcased their award-winning barbecue much to the delight of rodeo goers. Founders Harlon and Alfreddie Brooks turned over the reins to their daughter, Candace, who spoke with the Defender about her family’s legacy.
Defender: You guys have been around for a long time. How did the business start?
Candace Harlon: It started in 1977 with an idea for my father. He was coming home from a club one night drunk and stopped at a gas station at the corner of Martin Luther King and Selinsky. The clerk told my dad, ‘if someone wants to make a million dollars, they need to buy that property right across the street, which was an abandoned gas station.’ My dad went home that night, told my mom he wanted to buy it. She supported him and three months later they started Harlon’s Barbecue with the help of Margaret and Harland West, who were their partners in the beginning.
Defender: What has led to your longevity?
Harlon: The love that we have for our community and the love that we have for our barbecue. I’m the current owner now and I cook all this food and I have taught my employees how to cook it. I have taught them how to take that meat like a baby and nurture it and season it and put some love into it. I’ve also helped this community all my life. I graduated from Yates. I was a traitor. I went to Sterling for three years, but I graduated from Yates, but I love Sterling. So, I am a South Park girl, and that’s what I hire. I think that’s what keeps us going because we never forgot where we come from. South Park Dead End. That is us. And we love, love that neighborhood.
Defender: How did you all get on board with the Rodeo?
Harlon: Mr. Mike DeMarco. Back in the late 80s, he was a salesman for Glazer Foods and we were one of his biggest accounts. So, he got on board with the rodeo and brought us along with him. Now, he is the CEO over operations here at the rodeo. The rodeo is one of our biggest events. We sell out every night and we’ve been selling out for the past 20 years. We never can keep enough for ’em. People don’t realize we are retired now. We only do special events. We don’t do catering anymore. We don’t have any locations. All we do is five events a year. If you ever want our barbecue, you gotta find us five times a year. And this is the biggest show. It has been a very great thing for our family. And we just want y’all to keep my father in prayer because this is the first year he could not make this rodeo.
Defender: So what’s the best thing about your business?
Harlon: The best thing about our business is the people that work for us. We have longtime people. We’ve been in business 46 years. We have people that have been with us since that whole time. Families upon families, grandchildren of people that have started with us over 30 or 40 years ago. I think that’s what really makes our business special, because we’ve had families with us forever and they understand what we want from our customers. They understand that we want every customer to be treated great. They understand what we want, and of course, I think our food speaks for itself.
Defender: What’s the most challenging part of the business?
Harlon: Finding more employees to be like our other employees; loyal, committed, on time. I think that’s a struggle for a lot of businesses. The turnover that we have with a lot of employees. But other than that, we can’t complain. We’ve been very fortunate.
Defender: What is your advice to other entrepreneurs hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Harlon: It’s a hard business. It’s not easy if you want to be an entrepreneur. If you have a good job and if you got good benefits, stay there. I’m being honest, because once you get into it, and once people know you, it’s you who’s going to make it. But it’s hard getting it. And it’s not a joke. It will eat you alive. And if you don’t know how to have good customer service, have good product and longevity, good location, know how to work with people, you’re not gonna make it. And there’s nothing wrong with working a regular job. That’s what people think. There’s nothing wrong with that. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. If you have a good job and you’re smart, stay there. Work with that. Get them benefits and 401K or whatever. Work hard, grow and then do something on the side. But keep that other job.