Iconic Underwood’s Barbecue reopens to the community and Texas travelers

Texans know a thing or two about picking up our boots straps. Current events being what they are, we’ve had some time to think back to some of the greatness that came from challenges that have previously faced our community.

One of those is our beloved town eatery – also dubbed as a Texas Treasure by Texas Monthly –  Underwood’s Bar-B-Q. You might have heard about the hot, fresh, light-as-air, homemade buttery rolls that Underwood’s is famous for. Or their equally delicious ribs, beef steak and fried chicken. While the cafeteria looks unassuming enough, it is a town favorite, drawing people from all over the state.

Are these the greatest rolls on Earth? The light-as-air homemade rolls at Underwood’s Cafeteria are truly worth the drive from wherever you are right now. Made fresh in Brownwood since 1946!⁠

The iconic ‘cue joint on Commerce Street earned some praise from Texas Highways for supporting our Brownwood community during COVID. The family-run restaurant adapted to the drive-thru service that they started in 1975 in addition to offering curbside pickup.

Paul Underwood, co-owner of the restaurant, used the resources that the team had for good. He added food to a struggling family’s order, issued an IOU for a regular’s order when they were facing a financial squeeze, and maintained the community tradition of the dining room in the parking lot where customers dined on curb-side orders in their pickup truck beds.

With recent CDC recommendations, the hospitality of the family-inspired dining room is back in business. Though they did not open at the 25 percent capacity, they are now open to Brownwoodians and Underwood’s lovers from across the state at 50 percent capacity (and with ample hand-sanitizer.)

Why did they take their commitment to the community so seriously? Well, Underwood’s was born in the 1930’s Depression.

Born of necessity, bred by passion and grit

During the depression, M.E. Underwood was a struggling butcher in Brady, Texas. With less demand for meat, he began to cook barbecue on the side to make ends meet for his growing family. Originally, he sold his ‘cue door-to-door. This endeavor was successful enough that by the early 40’s, Underwood was able to build a small, roadside, white-frame shack.

Little did he know, it would become the first of a family-run chain of barbecue joints in rural central Texas. When WWII ended, the Underwoods relocated to Brownwood, Texas. There M.E. and one of his sons, Morris, built a barbecue stand on West Commerce Street.

By 1948, the Underwoods had enough capital to expand. Morris, and his older brother Jimmy, began opening stands across West Texas. In 1949 in Lubbock, Texas, the predecessor of our beloved Underwood’s Cafeteria was built out with a dining room expansion. Morris set up a cafeteria line with an expanded menu.

The menu inspiration? Mama, of course! Mama Underwood was an old-fashioned lady who insisted on scratch-cooking for her Dad and their eight sons. Served family-style and fresh, the Underwood’s menu in Lubbock gained popularity. Eventually, Jimmy opened a cafeteria-style dining room in Abilene, further fueling Underwood’s reputation for great food in a family atmosphere.

The start of a family barbecue empire

By 1951, M.E.’s eldest son, Millard, joined his dad to bring an Underwood’s cafeteria-style dining room closer to home. They chose a small cinder block building near Brownwood’s iconic tall cowboy. The two youngest sons, Ronnie and Leonard, pitched in to peel potatoes and bus tables in the dining room.

And the Underwood family didn’t stop there. All the sons took up the family business, most after stints in the military. The brothers expanded to Witchita Falls, Amarillo, Odessa, Fort Worth, Arlington, Dallas, and Abilene. The Underwood brand grew to more than 30 locations at their peak, as well as a frozen food plant in Lubbock that supplied barbecue to grocery stores in California and the Southwest.

After graduating from Texas A&M, upon his Army discharge in 1964, Leonard returned to Brownwood to take his place in the family business. Under his direction, the old cinder block building that housed the original dining room was expanded and remodeled. And, boy, did business thrive. After five years, Leonard purchased the lot next door and built a new cafeteria.

Though Underwood’s was a small empire, eventually the roads led back to the place where it feels like home, Brownwood, Texas.

Bringing the family business home to Brownwood

One by one, the aging the brothers retired, closing locations as they enjoyed their golden years.  Leonard’s sons, Paul and Leo had expanded the business to Waco. But, when their father was approaching retirement, they sold and moved back home to Brownwood to run the crown jewel that has earned a coveted spot on the Texas Bucket List.

What’s next? Underwood’s is hoping to re-hire the 10 staff that had to be laid off in COVID adaptations. They are hoping to be back to full capacity when it is safe to do so, but promise to keep serving the “best eatin’ in town.” Not keen to dine in? Underwood’s to-go is the perfect packed lunch to enjoy at own of Brownwood’s great outdoor parks, swimming holes and or on the fishing boat!