It was 1998, downtown Austin on 6th Street. The night shift was coming to an end and Raf Robinson was taking out the trash with coworker Michael Tashnick, better known as Sticks. It was in the final lurch of the trash bags that the “trash juice” spilled all over Raf after which he exclaimed, “Dude, we need to open our own bar. And when we do, I am NEVER taking out the trash.”
Fast forward five years and Robinson was taking out the trash at his first bar, Firehouse.
“I loved the energy of Austin, the vibe. That was really what drew me to the city, there was no judgement,” Robinson explained as he recalled the Lizard guy and Leslie, our colorful local Austin activist. Robinson attended the University of Texas and continued to build his service industry empire after college. He opened up another bar called Barcelona, and later invested in a reggae themed coffee shop/bar called Irie Bean.
But it wasn’t until 2007 when Robinson went on a mission trip to Mexico where he experienced what he considers “the turning point of my life.”
It was there he built a house for a deserving family and realized how his small sacrifice of one week of his time impacted this family for the rest of their lives. “I realized my entire life had been built on creating my own empire. This was a different kind of joy I was experiencing, it was deep, it was true. My life has never been the same since.”
Fast forward to 2008 when Robinson made the decision to put the bar/nightlife industry behind and pour his energy in to the coffee business. It became his passion to be more people-focused with Irie Bean, and set out on a mission to create a space where people could be authentic, a judgement free place, a “third space”.
“As soon as we shifted our time and energy towards creating spaces of authentic community where people could love and support each other, we saw amazing things happen. The impact of our new focus was motivating and bringing life to others, especially during the difficult economic state of the country. We would receive letters from people expressing the impact the space and the interactions in the space had on them.”
In 2015, at age 36, Robinson suffered from an unexpected stroke. After several months of relentless testing in search of an answer, the doctors could only advise him to consider changing the way was allocating his time and energy. With two young children, a two-year-old and a six-month-old daughter, he and his wife made the difficult decision to let go of Irie Bean and take a sabbatical.
“It was an incredibly tough decision, but I needed to examine my heart. We did not put it online or advertise that it was for sale, in fact, we ended up selling it to some friends who had mentioned casually in conversation their hopes of starting a business.”
A few years earlier, a friend he met years back in Colorado reconnected with Robinson in hopes of starting a hip-hop themed BBQ joint in Austin. He wanted to showcase a side of BBQ that was different than the traditional Texan BBQ with the usual country music and standard side dishes. “The call from Mark was out of the blue. We had lost touch over the years, but I was all for this wild idea.” So, in 2014, Slab BBQ opened its first brick and mortar location on Research Boulevard.
“We were children of the hip-hop era, so we wanted to bring our own culture into what we were doing. Mark wanted to bring different BBQ tastes from the country while introducing new flavors to people. We were certainly the Black Sheep (no pun intended) of the BBQ world,” Robinson joked.
In developing Slab BBQ, Robinson incorporated the same approach he had with Irie Bean in creating a safe, judgement free space for people while opening them up to new horizons through BBQ.
“Our mission statement is simple: Keep it 100. Give it 100% all the time whether it be in customer experience or in quality of food.”
These past few weeks, Slab BBQ has received much attention from the recent push to support minority owned business as a result of racial injustice. “This wasn’t necessarily the attention we wanted, at least not for that reason. We would rather people come to Slab because of the customer service, the food, the integrity, our values,” Robinson expressed.
“But while we have this spotlight, we have to think about what it is we want to communicate to people. LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR. That is what we are trying to put out there. Once you meet and address the condition of the heart, injustice will start to unravel as people’s hearts are changing. Love your neighbor.”
In addition to continuing business throughout the country-wide shutdown, Robinson has poured his efforts into serving the refugee community of Austin. He had previously been serving the refugee community for eight years now in a variety of ways, perhaps most notably by starting a soccer program. But in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Robinson wanted to help the most vulnerable. “We are in the food business, if nothing else let’s feed people!”
Since the beginning of April, Robinson and his family have committed to feeding 100 refugee families every week. Volunteers are given meals and a delivery route which can provide up to six meals per household. They self-funded the cause for the first two months until word caught on and the sponsorships started pouring in. “We made the decision from the start to commit to this cause whether we had the financial means or not. And now that same commitment has inspired others to jump on board. It has been a lot like the parable of the loaves and two fishes from the Bible!”
This week, Robinson and his team have decided for the first time since opening in 2014, to close Slab BBQ this Monday and Tuesday. “We have been open seven days a week from the get go, but with the recent attention we have been receiving, we have been run ragged. You can just see it in the employees faces. They are showing up and giving 100%, but they are spent.”
Robinson hopes to inspire other restaurant owners to give their employees a much-needed mental health break as well. “If they are giving us all their time, they can not give time to their families, and their families need them more than ever during this time.”
He explained it as his own personal conviction and the conviction of his team the importance of placing value on health and family and still grind. But the grind does not have to be a full seven days a week.
“From now on, we are going to start closing one day a week to give ourselves and everybody that break, that sacred time. In the words of Dr. King, ‘We need leaders who are not in love with money, but who are in love with justice.’”
Anna Louise Judson is a San Antonio native, lover of food, travel and bright colors. She volunteers with Austin Shift Meal weekly.