A group of women stand talking outside of a red building

From left, Chuck Charnichart, Haley Conlin, Alexis Tovías, and Norma Frances “Tootsie” Tomanetz outside Snow’s BBQ in Lexington. Photo by Cat Cardenas

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-November, two forces of barbecue collide in Lexington. In one corner stands 89-year-old Norma Frances “Tootsie” Tomanetz, the renowned pitmaster who’s made Snow’s BBQ a certified institution the world over. Across from her is Chuck Charnichart, 25, Haley Conlin, 31, and Alexis Tovías Morales, 25—a trio of relative newcomers straight out of barbecue’s new school. After learning the ropes at Franklin Barbecue in Austin and Goldee’s in Fort Worth, the three friends launched Barbs-B-Q in Lockhart in 2023. Where Tomanetz has perfected the classics, the women of Barbs are bringing something new to the picnic table: smoky staples forged in a South Texas style, such as molotov pork ribs that crackle with lime zest and “Green Spaghett,” a creamy poblano take on typical mac and cheese. Looking out on the barbecue landscape, it’s mostly a man’s world. So, while these two eateries might have different approaches, the women at the helm have come together to celebrate their respective successes, analyze an evolving industry, and simply revel in the perfect bite of brisket.

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Snow’s has been ranked as one of the top barbecue joints in Texas since 2008. How did you first break into this world, Tootsie?
Tootsie: I actually started back in 1966. My husband worked at a meat market in Giddings, and one day, they were shorthanded. So, Mr. Doyle, the owner, asked my husband if he thought I would come in and help [the pitmaster] Orange Holloway. I said, “I don’t really know anything about barbecue, but I’ll do the best I can.” Well, I was there a week, I was there a month. When I left, it was 10 years later, after Mr. Doyle bought a meat market in Lexington and asked me to operate it for him. From ’76 until ’96 we had barbecue every Saturday.

A woman wearing a blue apron stands in front of a large barbecue pit

Tootsie Tomanetz. Photo by Kenny Braun

At Barbs, the three of you met while working at different barbecue spots. But what first sparked your interest in the category?
Chuck: It’s funny how it’s almost accidental. For [Tootsie], it was like one day you just got a call, and now you’re in it. For me, I saw a Craigslist job post for Franklin. I didn’t know that it had recently been named No. 1 [by Texas Monthly in 2013]; I just thought the pay would be good. I was going to school and didn’t really plan to be in barbecue for long. But when I graduated, I decided that is what I wanted to do. I made a plan to work at several other barbecue restaurants to try to nail down the experience and figure out flavors. Since then, I’ve worked in Egypt, Norway, and places in Texas. When it was finally time to do the solo thing, I brought along my best friends and made it happen. Now we’re rolling through it fast and slowly growing, but it really comes down to the passion and the long hours. I think you almost have to have a loose nut in the head.
Tootsie: You have to be a little crazy.

Over the last 15 years, it seems like the rankings, lists, and awards have become a huge part of generating buzz. Have those accolades changed the barbecue ecosystem?
Chuck: I think everyone knows that making the top lists can drastically change your business, and it’s something to look forward to.
Tootsie: In 2008, Texas Monthly came by and picked up a brisket, which ended up placing No. 1. The next week, we were out of brisket before we got started. People would call in wanting 2 pounds, 3 pounds. We had to borrow pits from different people, and every pit cooked differently. People were in line at 4 a.m. that first Saturday. It seemed like by 9:30 in the morning, we were out of meat. After I was recognized, I think people thought: “If that old woman won, we can beat her.”
Haley: [Laughs] I don’t feel like people think they can beat you.
Chuck: Yeah, they think you’re unbeatable. When I was working at a barbecue place in Egypt, there was this young woman who worked there because she saw you on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, and it really inspired her. How does that feel?
Tootsie: This is just something that God has opened up for me to do. I’m very humbled by the fact that I have received so many awards. I’m working with a [Giddings High School] barbecue team in the hopes that maybe a little will rub off. It’s not that I walk around with my nose up in the air that I’m better, or that I’m the queen. I’m just glad that the man who first hired me saw me inducted into the Kansas City Barbecue Hall of Fame. He lived long enough to see that happen.

I love that you’re mentoring a new generation. Was there anyone who helped you come up in this space?
: I always wanted to learn how to cook at Franklin, and the answer was always “no”— even for the simplest meats. But it was always the women who were working the pit who would sneak me in and show me how to wrap turkeys or teach me how long to hold the temperature for each specific meat.
Haley: I had only worked front of house until I ended up at Micklethwait [Craft Meats in Austin], where I was also front of house until Lane [Milne] left to open Goldee’s. There was nobody who wanted to take his spot, because they had to come in at 6 a.m. I thought, “Oh, I can do it!” That was the only time I had ever gotten the opportunity to cook or cut or anything, and there really wasn’t any training.
Tootsie: You just had to grab the bull by the horns and go.
Haley: Literally! That was really the only way I probably would have been able to get into that. I feel like it was just the right place, right time.
Tootsie: As long as I worked in Giddings, I always had Orange right by me. He would start the pits at 4 a.m., and I’d come in at 7:30 doing whatever he hadn’t done yet. That’s one of those things with barbecue: You’ve got to catch a lot of those little chances to get the ball rolling. When we came up here, [my husband] hadn’t worked the pits because he was a fresh meat cutter. We were each other’s mentors. What we did wrong today, we had to do differently next Saturday. That’s why I say no two days are alike.

This industry has grown and changed rapidly in the last few decades, but it remains male-dominated. Did you face any challenges as female pitmasters?
Chuck: I think as a woman in barbecue, you have to prove yourself to others. A lot of times people don’t believe that we are even cooking at our own restaurants.
Tootsie: I will say this: I think the barbecue people are a very close-knit family. You go and eat somebody else’s barbecue, and theirs is just as good as mine. If they like the flavor they get, that’s all that matters.

A group of people cut a large ribbon in front of a building with a pink sign reading "Barbs B-Q"

Opening day at Barbs-B-Q in May 2023. Photo by Jay-Alan Baltierra

Snow’s is the perfect example of traditional Texas barbecue, and Barbs has a totally different take with Mexican flavors. How often are you trying other barbecue or experimenting with recipes?
Chuck: We love going to try the other barbecue spots, especially in small towns. You know as barbecue cooks that everyone puts so much love into it, and it’s very special just to live in Texas and have so much access to it.
Tootsie: It gives you inspiration to eat someone else’s cooking. Some people put a little chili powder, red pepper in their seasoning. That’s fine. It gives it a different flavor. If you like it, and it turns out good, what’s wrong? We just use salt and pepper. [Laughs]
Chuck: We use a lot of chile de arbol, chile guajillo, a bunch of chile spices on our rubs—and it gives it a very earthy flavor. I think that’s what’s going to be a little different as the years go on: Everyone’s expanding into niches.

None of you really planned to get into this business, so what’s kept you so dedicated to it? And what makes you excited about the years ahead?
Chuck: Even after so many years, people still doubt us. I don’t know if that has sucked me in more. I really was moved by how hard it was and wanted to open a space where we could allow others to learn, share, and not have to deal with all the silly little tricks that they put you through to make it.
Tootsie: One thing that I think has really changed in the barbecue business is that you have the old school, the new school, and everybody has a different taste. Everybody has something to show you.
Alexis: I feel like I’ve learned so much just sitting here with you.
Chuck: It’s such an honor, and I feel so much love and appreciation talking to you. I remember coming here in 2017; it’s probably one of the best days that I had with my friends. You probably don’t remember this, but you hugged me and it meant so much. You were one of the steppingstones for me to dive into all of this.
Tootsie: All of the good and the bad. It takes a lot of TLC, tender loving care.

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