ABOVE: Candace Brooks (Owner and operator of Harlon’s Bar-B-Que) and mother, Alfreddie Brooks (Co-Founder of Harlon’s Bar-B-Que)
When it comes to legendary leaders from Houston in the food service industry, you must mention one of the best to ever do it—Harlon’s Bar-B-Que.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is fitting that we highlight and celebrate two trailblazing women who are ‘her’story makers in their own right relative to their impact in the food service industry.
Most people have associated Harlon’s Bar-B-Que with Harlon Brooks, primarily because the business was named after him, and while he was the catalyst behind launching the business, the nucleus and backbone of the company was actually his better half—Ms. Alfreddie Brooks.
Harlon and Alfreddie were high school sweethearts from Nacogdoches, Texas, who got married and decided to move to the big city of Houston in search of newer opportunities and a chance at a better life for themselves and their two children—Marlon and Candace.
Harlon had worked several jobs and realized he wasn’t going to reach the top by depending on others. Alfreddie attended Texas Southern University (TSU) upon coming to Houston but did not graduate. She went on to work at Texaco and raise the couple’s two children.
One night as Harlon was headed home, he saw an abandoned gas station on the south side of Houston at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Selinsky Road, and excitedly came home and told Alfreddie that he believed the property was destined to be theirs.
As Harlon passionately shared his vision with Alfreddie, she told him that she was fully committed to helping him launch and build the conceptual idea of Harlon’s Bar-B-Que. The entrepreneurial couple felt they had perfected their signature Bar-B-Que, so they decided to purchase the property and launch a brick-and-mortar location for their new restaurant.
Alfreddie eventually retired from Texaco after several years and launched Harlon’s Bar-B-Que with her husband in 1977, while continuing to raise their two children.
Harlon’s Bar-B-Que was an instant success. Harlon’s Bar-B-Que provided a new, quality dining option for local residents. Moreover, the restaurant’s popularity quickly grew because the BBQ was downright finger-licking-good. With amazing down home food and oh-so-Southern customer service, Harlon’s Bar-B-Que experienced inevitable and continued growth.
Soon, the couple opened a second location on Martin Luther King Boulevard, which opened up the floodgates of expansion. In the late 1980s, Harlon’s Bar-B-Que expanded into the Houston Airport System, becoming one of the first African American businesses to secure contracts to be a vendor in the Houston Airport System. The couple then went on to open over 24 restaurants across the state of Texas, and a location in Las Vegas, Nevada, over a 20-year period.
As we are in the midst of rodeo season in Houston, it is also important to note that Harlon’s Bar-B-Que is the first Black-owned BBQ business to be featured as a food vendor at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo back in the late 1980s, thanks to Mike DeMarco, who was a salesman for Glazier Foods at the time, and now serves as Chief Show Operations Officer for the rodeo.
Harlon’s Bar-B-Que still has a strong presence at the rodeo and remains a dedicated staple at NRG Park. They have sold a lot of Bar-B-Que over the past 30+ years and help give scholarships to children in need. When they came on the scene in the late 1980s, there was not a single Black-owned business at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo since it started in 1932.
Harlon’s Bar-B-Que helped pave the way and has shown how far African Americans have come in this field. Harlon’s Bar-B-Que has also been featured at Wings over Houston since 1991 and they continue to participate in a host of Texas fairs across Texas.
Although Harlon and Alfreddie retired in the mid-2000s and scaled back their business operations significantly to just operate special events, the business is still vibrant and is now owned and operated by their daughter—Candace Brooks.
Candace states that her mom and dad are true trailblazers and insists that they have left an incredible legacy to pass down to her and the entire family, which is why she is committed to continuing to carry the torch. Candace has worked in all areas of the business since she was a young girl and has helped the business pivot and reach another level of success.
Continuing in the spirit of food service and entrepreneurship, the celebrated restaurant has blossomed into a diversified culinary operation. Brooks Family Foods was launched to offer the amazing taste of Harlon’s Bar-B-Que at home, where they feature healthy, all-natural packaged meats, sauces, and seasonings. The Harlon’s Bar-B-Que products can be purchased online and in most Texas grocery stores. Harlon’s Bar-B-Que has also been featured locally and nationally, as they have appeared on Good Morning America and Anderson Live, and other new outlets.
Candace vehemently states that while the name reads “Harlon’s Bar-B-Que,” it was her mother who was the nucleus of Harlon’s Bar-B-Que.
“My mother was the backbone, the teacher, the giver, and the thinker. She trained us all,” states Candace. “I wasn’t motivated to be in the business, I had no choice. I was FORCED. There was no other option. I lived with my parents, so I had to do what I was told. And guess what? Fast forward many years later, and I am now the owner of Harlon’s Bar-B-Que. Go figure!”
Candace, 49, was born and raised in Houston’s South Park and graduated from Jack Yates High School. She attended Texas Southern University where she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management in 1996. She never worked for anyone else but her parents since 1985, before taking over the business and running it herself based off lessons learned from her parents.
Candace said the best advice that her mom ever gave to her was to always remain humble and kind. She also states that the best advice that her grandmother, who recently passed away at the age of 90, gave to her mom, who is 77, was to be strong and to always be a giver.
Relative to the future of the business, Candace states that her ultimate goal as a second generation, family-owned business owner, is to keep her parents’ legacy alive and to be a company that always provides jobs to help those who really need and appreciate it.
“I am just thankful that I can stand on the shoulders of my parents and make what they have worked so hard for be a continuous story in Houston’s rich history,” Candace said.