Watch: Despite Immense Odds, BBQ Pitmaster Matt Horn’s Optimism is Undefeated

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Matt Horn outside his West Oakland restaurant, Horn Barbecue. (Cecilia Phillips)

On a crisp fall day at the end of October, Mandela Parkway in industrial West Oakland was buzzing with a very long line of people on a mission.

After four years of planning, Horn Barbecue was finally about to open its doors to the public as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Starting from the entrance, the line stretched down multiple blocks; walking it from end to end took almost five minutes.

The day was filled with a level of anticipation and energy not seen since the start of shelter in place. Some brought lawn chairs, blankets and books for their waits in line. All were masked and socially distant, but a sense of togetherness pervaded; these were Horn Barbecue devotees bonding over the essential love of food.

Early Attempts

Matt Horn’s journey to opening Horn Barbecue started during his childhood in Fresno, California, where he learned about barbecuing from family gatherings. After attending Valley Forge Military Academy, Horn moved to Los Angeles around 2006, where he latched on to the idea of opening a food truck—but didn’t quite know what to serve.

“I was putting the cart before the horse,” he says.

A family friend who had worked with barbecue inspired him to start learning how to smoke meats. He practiced in his grandparents’ backyard on an old smoker, describing those early attempts as “bad barbecue.”

“I had pursued so many different things passionately and it did not work out,” he remembers. And yet, he says, “We have to understand that what’s for us in life, is for us and nobody can take that away.”

Sometimes that determination meant not getting very much validation. “We were doing the farmer’s market, we would only maybe get 10 or 12, maybe 15 customers a day,” he says of his early pop-ups in L.A. “I told my wife that whether people come and buy the food, or if they don’t, I’m still going to cook it.”

From L.A., he looked to find a more permanent home for his endeavors, and he reached out to several breweries in the Bay Area. Just one got back to him, and so by default, West Oakland’s Ale Industries became Horn Barbecue’s pop-up home. But that’s where Matt Horn’s perseverance paid off.

The Ale Industries events became legendary, with the type of lines typically reserved for central-Texas style barbecue—in Texas. Here was a Californian responsible for three-hour waits for oak wood smoked meats, and people were singing high praises.

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The Long Awaited Day

The rising demand for Horn’s barbecue made it clear: it was time to open a brick-and-mortar location. In August 2019, he secured a legendary Oakland spot, the former site of Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, once also a destination with long waits.

The next steps, however, weren’t so easy. Horn’s dedication to his dream would be tested time and time again. Among other renovations, Horn had to build a clear glass enclosure inside the restaurant to house what would become California’s first indoor smoker.

“I was instructed the only way for me to be able to have my offset smoker was I would have to put it inside the restaurant,” he says. “The restaurant was already a small space, so I had to get creative.” He ended up building a massive 26-foot-wide hood indoors to accommodate the smoker.

Later, the county, city and fire department reversed course. “We were told that we were able to have smokers outside now, after all the work had been done,” he says, per usual, unfazed.

Horn Barbecue was slated for a September 2020 opening date, but constantly changing pandemic restrictions delayed plans for an entire month. On Oct. 24, the long-awaited day finally arrived.

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At 10:59am, Horn and his employees busied themselves with final preparations. “One minute!” he yelled to the brigade.

“One minute!” they yelled back in hearty unison.

The smell of the meats and smoke stoked the anticipation both inside and out. Just 30 seconds before the doors opened, Etta James’ “At Last” began wailing through the restaurant speakers as Horn welcomed in the mob of patient BBQ lovers.

His first customer—a barbecue fanatic—had arrived at 6am. “What can I get for you?” Horn asked, knife in hand. He was masked, but undoubtedly beaming.

One by one, he offered the crowd his favorites: pulled pork, brisket, sausage links, turkey breast, and beef and pork ribs. He and his staff cut each item in front of the customer to ensure they walked away with the juiciest, freshest servings. Meals were rounded out with the usual-barbecue-sides-suspects of collard greens, mac and cheese, beans, potato salad, and coleslaw. Horn’s wife and partner Nina’s own recipe for banana pudding provided a sweet finish. Guests were elated.

Pivoting in a Pandemic

For its first few weeks the hours-long lines persisted. Even in the middle of a pandemic, people were able to sit down and eat in Horn Barbecue’s new outdoor area. But when Governor Gavin Newsom instituted a purple-tier stay-at-home order for Oakland, Horn was forced to do just take-out.

Nobody said opening a restaurant would be easy, but on top of everything that led him to this moment, Horn has had to contend with a pandemic—and with dining rules that are constantly changing. "We’re having a hard time, but we’re going to stay focused,” he says.

“You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” he says. “At times it can be discouraging. But when you have somebody come through those doors and ... you have people try your food for the first time or you hear people saying, ‘Hey man, this is my fifth time. I was here last week.’ That’s what keeps you hopeful.”

Horn shares these experiences with most restaurant owners. Between the moments of humble gratitude are frustrations. He’s personally taking all staff members’ temperatures, constantly monitoring hand-washing, and trying to quell fears on both sides of the slicing counter.

At Horn Barbecue, the meat is sliced to order in front of the customer. (Cecilia Phillips)

“I have to be able to create an environment where people are safe,” he says, “but then also still be able to enjoy the craft that I love. I’m like, ‘Okay, how do I still find the play in the midst of this storm and all these ups and downs?’”

It’s his faith, determination and discipline that prevented Horn from giving up a long time ago. What sort of character traits a person would have to possess to try to open a second restaurant during a pandemic have yet to be decided upon. But whatever they are, he has them.

Superfans will remember that Horn had a secondary pop-up concept he began publicizing early in 2020 called Kowbird. The Southern-style fried chicken sandwich pop-up that Horn put on in his—ahem—spare time, was slated to open in “Oakland Assembly” (that constantly evolving and devolving food hall rumored to be opening in the summer of this year) in Jack London Square. Only time and vaccination efforts will tell when any type of indoor food market can realistically consider opening.

“If I can give anybody any advice in terms of right now with the pandemic,” he says, “keep moving forward because without momentum, you die.”

It seems Horn lives by his own advice: he’s hoping for an early 2021 opening for Kowbird in a yet-to-be-determined location. The wait for Horn Barbecue is over, but as it turns out, that was just the beginning.

Horn Barbecue is currently open Thursday–Sunday from 11am to sellout for to-go orders. Pre-ordering is now available through the restaurant’s Instagram.

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