It’s 4 a.m. on a Wednesday and the smoke of live oak fills four 2,500-pound smokers at Hallelujah BBQ in South Central El Paso.
Inside them, hundreds of pounds of brisket, ribs, turkey and sausage perfectly seasoned with a signature rub will be slowly cooked at the perfect temperature to get to a perfect taste.
Inside, a remodeled historic building at 130 N. Cotton offers a dining room with an open concept and simplistic decor resembling a typical Texas BBQ restaurant that could very well have been around for decades. Wooden tables with fresh tulips in old-time apothecary bottles, mason jars with iced tea adorned with a crisp lemon wedge, and table tents with pictures and stories of recovery from the people serving guests welcome patrons supporting the eatery.
The men and women overseeing the place are all familiar with a transient lifestyle and drug addiction — they all are graduates of homelessness-related programs at the Rescue Mission of El Paso.
Blake Barrow, a former trial lawyer, gave up the courtroom in 1997 to fight for the homeless community of El Paso as chief executive director of the nonprofit organization. He opened Hallelujah in early April to continue that fight.
“I was sitting in my law office, practicing law doing trial work, thinking I was happy with it, had plenty of work, and making a lot of money,” he said. “God called and said it’s time for you to do something productive.”
The Rescue Mission of El Paso has been helping the transient community of El Paso since 1952. Barrow became executive director in 1997 at the shelter that offers residential services, a drug and alcohol relapse prevention program, biblical counseling, job search services, a facility that provides warm food, coffee, clothes, access to restrooms, showers and laundry machines and a vocational rehabilitation program.
The mission’s first vocational program was a furniture store created in 1986 at their previous location until it was bought out by the Texas Department of Transportation in 2014 for $13.5 million.
“So they bought us out, tore down all the buildings, destroyed the factory, and paid us for it, of course,” Barrow said. “Then I had the decision to make: Do I want to recreate a furniture factory, which, although woodworking is very therapeutic, the factory was not profitable; or do we want to take this as the opportunity to go do something else entirely?”
And something else they did.
Barrow used his passion for Central Texas BBQ and created a catering business in 2016 as a test run to eventually have a brick-and-mortar restaurant, which opened on April 5 as Hallelujah BBQ.
“The bottom line is, I love barbecue, we love to eat and I know how to do it,” he said. “The Central Texas style barbecue is the best in the world. It’s all about the rub. It’s the smoking process and getting the flavor of the beef to come out.”
Beyond that, Barrow uses his more than 40 years as a pitmaster to teach people a new trade and the responsibilities of working in the service industry.
“What it’s all about is the people,” Barrow said. “This is simply a way to provide job training for people who are homeless at the rescue mission.”
Candace Blanchard, a graduate of the El Paso County Behavior and Health Residential Treatment Center, has been involved with the Rescue Mission since 2019. She serves as the manager of the restaurant, where she oversees 13 employees.
“I worked my way here,” she said. “I actually was the one tearing off the roof when this place was in shambles. I did a lot of hard work. I learned how to drive a forklift, a bobcat and a backhoe. I’ve done a lot of the construction that I never did. I learned how to smoke and how to manage.”
Every aspect of the restaurant, including the heavy wood picnic-style benches, was done by those at the Rescue Mission who have been given a second chance at life.
“It’s amazing because, for a lot of us, we have backgrounds,” Blanchard said. “I was a goody-two-shoes until I got in trouble. I was 41 when I got in trouble for the first time. I had some charges that I didn’t think I would ever have a job, and definitely not one where I would be in charge. It’s been a blessing.”
Blanchard, a hands-on manager, continues to help those dealing with addiction while making a better life for herself.
“Three years ago, one of my friends was still in active addiction,” she said. “ I was taking her food, and she is now one of my employees. So leading by example is the best thing that I can do for them. It’s amazing to be able to provide for myself and my children now (rather) than having to rely on another person, like before.”
Another friendly face at the restaurant is Marcus Peoples. He used to reside at the shelter after being released from prison two years ago after serving time for drug-related and assault felonies.
“Candice was (at the shelter) one day, and she was looking for servers,” he said. “So I talked to her. She told me a day to be here, and I came, and I drug-tested, got my shirts, did my paperwork, and started the same day.”
Peoples aimed to have a car and his own place within two months of being released, a feat that can be difficult for those with felony convictions. He achieved those goals thanks to the mindset he followed to accomplish his plans and his employment at the restaurant.
“One of my main focuses was getting a job, and that was very hard,” he said. “Finding a job was hard because getting out of jail only having my ID and not having a social security card or birth certificate. It’s a little more challenging.”
Before getting in trouble with the law, Peoples studied to be a dental assistant, a job he said he couldn’t pursue due to his conviction.
“I’ve been sober for a while now,” he said. “I want to go back to school for high-performance mechanics. We’ll see how that works out within the next few months. I’m going to give it a little bit of time. I don’t want to jump back into life headfirst.”
Already on probation, a failed drug test landed Nicole Hernandez in prison and separated from her child. After her release, she went to rehab and a shelter for women, where she learned about Hallelujah BBQ.
“I was allowed to go get help,” she said. “People go there because they’re sentenced, and I learned from it. God willing, I don’t want to go back. When I was locked up, I lost a lot. I want to do better. I want a better life not only for myself but for my kids.”
Hernandez interviewed with Blanchard and was offered a job as a server.
“It’s been a really good journey for me,” Hernandez said. “If you’re looking for help, if you’re looking to start something better than your past … this the place to do it.”
Once program participants learn about food handling and safety techniques, they are ready to seek other employment.
“They’ve got to learn all the safety rules which is the most important thing and then just appropriate procedures for serving, for greeting customers,” Barrow said. “If they’re in the cleanup area, then they’ve got to know how to work all of the equipment. The most important level is food safety. Then beyond food safety, it’s about how we make the individual dishes that we have and some basic cooking skills.”
The restaurant has been open for less than a month and has received many positive reviews. However, some with prejudice against the homeless or recovering addicts have left bad reviews, which Barrow does not tolerate.
“There’s some guy in there that no doubt never even came into the restaurant but has this misconception that homeless people are all drug addicts,” he said. “He wrote a one-star review which gave me the opportunity to write a response to him and put him in his place.”
The restaurant operates from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday thru Sunday at 103 N. Cotton Street.
This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.