It All Started with a Bad Piece of Brisket
I can still remember the first time I tried Richard Funk’s (my step-dad) brisket for the first time, on that day, I never could have imagined that people would say his brisket was their favorite menu item, much less that my family would have a restaurant, because that first brisket was horrible. I grew up in El Paso, Texas, so I was used to my steak rare, my brisket marinated in claude sauce, and more Mexican food than Richard could have ever imagined. Rich (I’m going to call him that from here on out because I’m just used to it) grew up all over the place. I’ve always enjoyed his early childhood stories of growing up in Sardinia, Italy, his adolescence in New York City, his teenage years in San Diego, California, and the endless laughs he’s given our family telling of his time serving in The United States Navy all around the globe. I’ve always admired how much he knows about food, I joke with him that he’s ruined just about every food I’ve ever enjoyed. I can’t find good Italian food anywhere other than our family’s kitchen, but the first time I tried that brisket, well it just wasn’t good. I didn’t realize the amount of passion he had discovered in cooking meat using fire, and I had no idea my mother, Suzanne Funk, had ignited that passion.
He Wasn’t Born in Texas, but He got Here as Fast as He Could
Let’s rewind a bit to one of my favorite stories that Rich tells. He was born in, and spent much of his youth, in Sardina, Italy. His mother is Italian and met his father while he was stationed in Italy with the US Coast Guard. Naturally, Rich’s first language was Italian. From a young age, his father instilled in him a sense of patriotism that he carries with him to this day. As a young boy in Italy he became fascinated with everything about the United States, and what’s more American than Texas? He loved westerns and cowboys from the moment he learned to walk. Fast forward to his time in the Navy, he still loved Texas, and he still loved westerns, but he didn’t own a pair of cowboy boots and was stationed in California. During a trip through Texas he passed through El Paso, and he says he fell in love. As a teenager who grew up in El Paso, I laughed when I heard this story. I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate the beauty and community of El Paso, but thankfully I have a step dad who showed me just how special this place is, and it all started with that horrible piece of brisket, I just didn’t know it at the time.
Suzanne and Rich met in December 2006 in none other than El Paso, Texas. Their love story was inevitable and before I knew it we were leaving El Paso and moving to Michigan. I was a devastated bratty teenager and during those years, I never let them forget it. I spent the vast majority of every single day reminding them just how much I wanted to move back home. Looking back now, I wish I could have appreciated all the memories we made in such a beautiful state. One of the memories was when my mom taught Rich how to grill a proper steak, and it didn’t involve propane or gas, just fire. The day she showed him how to use that chimney, there was no turning back. Eventually my constant nagging about moving back to El Paso led us back home, and we were bringing my brand new baby brother Marcello with us. That move took a toll on my family financially, but at 16, I didn’t have a clue.
During the early years of being back in El Paso, Rich was working full time as a Dental Supplies Technician and Salesman. Suzanne was a teacher but decided to stay at home and raise Marcello until he was school age. It was during this time that Rich made that first brisket. He was convinced that he could get the fat on the brisket to taste like butter, I ate a lot of brisket during those days and I spit out even more fat. It was five years of experimenting in our backyard, research, and cookouts. The determination Rich had to perfect his recipe was encouraged by the fulfillment he received in providing a place where our family and friends could come together and enjoy good food and good company.
It Does Taste like Butter!
Then one day, the fat tasted like butter, and I didn’t spit it out. It was 2014 and Rich’s determination had transformed into a dream. My mom Suzanne had always dreamt of furthering her education and teaching at University, by pursing her doctorate degree and teaching at the University. She was so close to being done, but put all of that on hold to not only support Rich’s dream, but make it a dream of her own. I’ve never met a woman with a bigger heart than my mom.
Suzanne and Rich took a barbecue road trip and explored all the greats across the BBQ Belt of Texas. When they returned they decided it was time to turn their dream into a reality. I would really like to end this story here filled with the joy and excitement of a dream come true, but it was not an easy road. In 2015, Suzanne had to go back into teaching full time in order to help support the family financially. As a full time mother and salesman, financially starting up a restaurant wasn’t feasible, so they decided to start with a food truck. The first half of 2015 was spent working on the food truck and purchasing their very first HUGE (well it felt huge) smoker in Dallas. When they brought that smoker home, I can’t even put into words how massive that smoker and our pride felt. Little did we know that 250 gallon tank was only one quarter of one of our smokers today.
Barbecue Meats El Paso
The road to success didn’t get any easier. Financially there were days when they thought they might have to pull the plug on the whole thing. Finding a place to park their food truck, in a time when there weren’t many food trucks in El Paso, was a struggle in itself. Despite all of the obstacles, there were blessings at the end of each difficulty. Family always stepped up to lend a hand financially, and it is truly with their help that Desert Oak is what it is today, they pulled us through so many dark times of those early days. The gracious heart of one of El Paso’s very own, Joe Calcaterra, owner of Cowtown Boots, allowed us to operate on his event property neighboring Cowtown Boots, and this is where Desert Oak Barbecue was introduced to El Paso.
Those early days are filled with some of my favorite memories. The endless heat and lack of a good air conditioner made for a less than ideal working environment during the summer, and the freezing winters cuddled up next to the brisket warmer were all worth the road ahead for Desert Oak. I left my full time job at the time to help meet the demands of their increasingly popular food truck. Rich and Suzanne were still working full time coupled with running and operating the food truck, this made for endless nights for Richard and long days for Suzanne.
Dreams Become Reality
In December 2015, Richard resigned from his full time job. Suzanne kept teaching full time while working part time at the food truck. Although it was difficult maintaining the food truck full time, with no real profit, Richard eagerly persisted in pursuing his dream of one day opening up a brick and mortar restaurant.
Desert Oak Barbecue continued to grow in popularity, day in and day out, through all the changes in weather El Paso had to offer, the lines kept growing. The financial hardships of opening and maintaining a restaurant were rough. It truly is a blessing to have had so much support from our family during this time.
Through countless days of blistering heat, hail and wind storms, and a little bit of El Paso snow, Desert Oak Barbecue outgrew the food truck.
In the summer of 2017, the much anticipated restaurant opened. Richard was working over 80 hours a week with a fierce determination to make the restaurant work, and it was taking a toll on him. In those early days, they were only able to hire 4 people, all family members, with no profit other than keeping the restaurant open. Through the grace of God and support of our family, we were able to survive that first year with no profit other than the smiles on our customers faces, and it was so worth it.
Suzanne stopped working in the summer of 2018 and began helping Rich full time. It was not until September 2018, that Rich and Suzanne were able to take home their first pay check. The challenges of owning and operating a restaurant are never ending, but we’re finally seeing the light at the end of this tunnel. Although we’re sure there will be many more tunnels in our future, we’re proud of just how far Desert Oak has come. 2019 has been full of moments that have shown just how much hard work pays off. I am so proud of my mom and Rich and how far they have come. It all started with a bad piece of brisket.
We've got some bigg[er] dreams
I ended this bio with, "Desert Oak continues to grow in popularity, but it’s still a small restaurant. Our family has some new dreams now, and we’re excited to bring you along on our journey of making them a reality. In the very near future we plan on opening a larger restaurant," I'm happy to report that those dreams came true, and in turn gave us some bigger ones. Fast forward and we have now been on Diners Drive-Ins and Dives, featured in Texas Monthly's Top 50 Barbecue Joints, and Stephen, my brother, and myself, followed in our families footsteps and threw in the towel on our old careers (Stephen's 20+ year career with the government, and mine as an ER nurse). We didn't know the world would be brought to a screeching halt with a pandemic at the time, but we're so grateful that we made that decision. Together, as a family, we've ignited much bigger dreams within one another for the future of Desert Oak. Thanks again to The Calcaterra family, we've come back to our roots and we're in the process of opening two brand new locations, one of them right next to where we first started, at Cowtown Boots, and once again, we feel like we're just getting started; no matter the growth, we will continue to provide a place, just like our back yard, where this dream first started, where family and friends can enjoy good food and good company. We promise there won’t be any bad brisket.
Director of Operations