Bandit’s BBQ opening brick-and-mortar restaurant on Avenue D
By BRITTANY FHOLER
Bandit’s BBQ and Catering is holding a soft opening for its new brick-and mortar restaurant on Avenue D on Saturday, July 3.
Ralph Zarker and Ed McDonald are the men responsible for the delicious brisket, pulled pork, sausage and ribs as well as homemade sides. Zarker has operated Bandit’s BBQ and Catering out of the food truck trailer that parks in the HomeBase parking lot every Thursday through Saturday, from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., since 2017. Prior to the food truck, Zarker had taken over the former location of Aaron’s Smokehouse in 2013, previously located on Avenue D, until they were forced to close in March 2017.
Zarker’s interest in barbeque started way back when he was fresh out of high school, he said.
“When I got out of high school, I just kind of got interested in just the way it was cooked with smoke and the long temperature or the low temperature and the long cook time,” Zarker said. “I just started doing it out of high school as just off and on, and then I decided to go into the military and got doing that, and every place I was stationed, it seemed I would volunteer to cook for the unit for different functions so I did it off and on through the military.”
Zarker retired after 20 years in the military and began working on Fort Hood as a contractor before switching to GDS. Shortly after this, Zarker said that he was faced with a decision to find a new job during cutbacks, so he looked into purchasing Aaron’s Smoke House and started his barbeque career.
Zarker said that the decision to move back to a brick-and-mortar restaurant came about due to the immense growth that Bandit’s BBQ has seen over the last year.
“It’s gotten to the point where we’re running out of room, so we need more space, and I was looking for spots and this one [on Avenue D] happened to be open,” Zarker said. “With COVID and all the new strains, I don’t want to have a big dining room that I can’t fill because they’ve got to be six feet apart and wear masks, so we found this building. It had a bigger kitchen and more storage space.”
Zarker said that COVID plus the shortages on meat and the backlog of work for tradespeople has impeded the process in opening the restaurant. Despite needing some more things done, Zarker said that opening up now is necessary, hence the soft opening day.
The menu at Bandit’s will stay the same, with customer favorites like smoked brisket, sausage, ribs, pulled pork remaining, as well as the classic sides of potato salad, coleslaw, pinto beans and smoked macaroni and cheese. Sides like green beans and collard greens that were available at Aaron’s Smokehouse will make a return eventually.
Zarker said that all menu items are homemade by himself and McDonald, who was hired to help out as the business continued to grow.
“When we got the trailer, it was just getting to be too much just for me to do, and, you know if I ever go down, I don’t have a backup, so I needed a backup,” Zarker said. He added that McDonald is somebody with good skills and a passion for barbecue and cooking.
“I didn’t know when we did the food truck exactly how fast it would go or how much it would grow, but we have some amazing loyal customers,” Zarker said. “A lot of the customers that we had down there at Aaron’s even now, they’ll come up to the food truck and say, ‘Well, I’ve been wanting to stop here. I drive by it all the time,’ and they’ll recognize us. ‘Hey, you were at Aaron’s,’ and they really recognize my wife [Trish], she used to work the front counter.”
Bandit’s BBQ has also seen lots of new customers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zarker said that when the gas lines went out in Copperas Cove, forcing many restaurants to close, Bandit’s BBQ was able to remain open. The same thing happened when restaurants had to close their dining rooms and close or switch to carry-out - Bandit’s was allowed to remain open because they did not have a dining space and were outdoors.
“While, you know, it might have been bad for a lot of people, it wasn’t actually because it brought in new customers, but we have gained a really loyal customer base out of Copperas Cove,” Zarker said. Other customers come from Lampasas and even Temple, he added.
At their location at HomeBase, Bandit’s BBQ was missing a seating area for their customers, which the new location on Avenue D will rectify. There is limited seating indoors and a few tables outdoors, as well as a drive-thru window. Bandit’s BBQ will also offer a pick-up/take-out option.
With the new restaurant space, Bandit’s BBQ and Catering will expand their operating hours to Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Bandit’s BBQ and Catering new address is 314 Avenue D. For more information or for catering, Bandit’s BBQ has a Facebook page and a website: www.banditsbbqccove.com. They also have a new phone number: 254-518-2079.