In the summer of 2011, Brent and Malinda Willits reached a franchise agreement with VooDoo BBQ & Grill to open five VooDoo locations in Austin, Texas, a town that already has a freewheeling, anything-goes spirit — not unlike VooDoo’s home city of New Orleans – and a place where people treasure and argue about barbecue. One reason why VooDoo’s a success in south Louisiana is the relative absence of barbecue competitors. We wondered why the Willitses wanted to bring a touch of VooDoo into an already barbecue-rich market, and why a couple with a background working in casinos – and in Brent’s case, piloting boats on the Mississippi River – would want to try their hand at running barbecue restaurants as a family business. Brent, 52, and Malinda, 42, will be opening their first Austin location in May, with Brent’s 32-year-old daughter Angela installed as manager.
Q. What’s your background?
Brent Willits: I’m from Iowa originally, and I grew up on the Mississippi River, so it was natural for me to end up working on riverboats, big river towboats. I dropped out of high school at 17 to go work as a deckhand on a tug, and I gradually worked my way up to pilot. I worked on the river for about 15 years. I got into the riverboat casino business in 1991, when they started putting casinos on riverboats. That’s how I met Malinda; she was working at a casino in Joliet, Illinois.
Malinda Willits: I was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Brent and I met at Harrah’s Joliet Casino, where he was director of marine operations and I was working in marketing. Then I became a craps dealer and later table and slot games supervisor. I left casinos in 2002 because we have an autistic child, and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom since then.
Q. How did you decide to purchase a VooDoo BBQ & Grill franchise?
MW: We weren’t looking for a barbecue franchise, we were looking for a franchise, and we’d been looking for one for about five years. We looked at all kinds of franchise concepts, mainly in food, creameries, things like that, and for all of them, you either had to do too high a volume (of sales) or we just didn’t see the cash flow.
BW: We happened to be on a trip to New Orleans, and we passed by the original location, the one right there on St. Charles (Avenue), and we decided to check it out – and we were amazed. Every product they have is, “Oh, my God, this is good.” Not only is the meat excellent, but the side dishes are phenomenal. We came back home, looked them up online and contacted them, looked at the numbers for the stores they have and liked what we saw. Then we went back to Louisiana and met the guys, Tony (Avila), Dino (Arvanetes), Chad (Tramuta), they’re just good guys. We really just think it’s something on the verge of breaking out. It’s newer, but we think there’s just so much upside because of where VooDoo is in its evolution. You look at the Facebook page, and the people who like VooDoo are raving fans. My accountant is down at the National Championship game in the Superdome, and he just sent me a text saying, “Hey, we stopped at a VooDoo in Baton Rouge on the way down, and it was great.”
Q. So what was it specifically about the food that blew you away?
MW: The main thing for me was, as soon as I tried all the sides – the corn pudding, the Gris Gris greens, the sweet potato soufflé – I looked at my husband and said, “Baby, we’re at home.” I said, “I’m at Grandma’s house.” I’m a Southern girl raised on greens with iced tea and cornbread, so this food just spoke to me. It’s not fast food, it’s quality food. I love barbecue, but sometimes when you walk into a barbecue restaurant, you just never know. Most barbecue places, even if the meat is fantastic, the sides are beans, cole slaw, some bread, and that’s it. You just get a little extra at VooDoo.
Q. Why do you think you’ll succeed in a market that, unlike Louisiana, already has lots of good barbecue options?
BW: Texans certainly know good barbecue, but this is going to be something different. This is going to be competition-style barbecue in a fast-casual environment, which people haven’t really experienced before, food this good served fast in an environment this fun. There’s no real national barbecue franchise out there, and I really think VooDoo is going to be a national brand. Another main reason is that it really appeals to women. Most barbecue joints are kind of “guys’ places,” and there’s not that much to appeal to women, but VooDoo is so clean and colorful, with the great side dishes and sandwiches and salads, that it appeals to everybody. Plus the New Orleans theme is just cool. So why Texas? People love good food, and when people in Texas taste this, they’re going to love it, too.
MW: I liked that it was a clean barbecue place. From a woman’s perspective, I think the food and surroundings will appeal to ladies.
BW: And people are busy these days. They want good food, and they want it fast. Fast-casual is the fastest-growing sector in the restaurant industry, and VooDoo is going to be a huge part of this. We’re making a significant investment in this … People haven’t figured out how to bring barbecue to the fast-casual sphere and keep the quality, and VooDoo’s figured out how to do it. We’ve tried all the other brands, and we weren’t married to any one of them, and we picked VooDoo.
Q. Why did you get Angela involved?
BW: We really wanted to create a business opportunity for my daughter and teach her how to fish rather than hand her a fish. We just thought it was the right thing to do rather than leave her some money. All we’re doing is giving her an opportunity. I told her, “Plan on working 75-hour weeks.” If she’s successful, we’ll be successful.
Q. Does barbecue make people happy?
MW: It makes me happy, especially when I get to choose what kind of sauce and what kind of meat I get. It just says “family.” You sell the meat by the slab, by the pound, by the chicken, so a bunch of people can gather around and share it. It’s for the whole family.
BW: It reminds you of home, football games, picnics. Everybody loves it. It’s comfort food.
VooDoo BBQ & Grill is a chain of barbecue restaurants based in south Louisiana that opened its first location in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day 2002. VooDoo serves competition-style barbecue beef, pork and chicken with unique side dishes, plus salads and sandwiches, in a clean, colorful fast casual environment. For more information, visit voodoobbq.com or voodoobbqfranchise.com, or contact: