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Matt Horn’s multitude of honors during his first year in business means he occasionally had to trade his signature apron for fancier duds. Credit: Horn Barbecue

Horn Barbecue
2534 Mandela Parkway (at 26th Street), Oakland

It’s not news that Oakland’s Horn Barbecue is thriving. Since it opened in the fall of 2020, multitudes of customers have lined up daily for Matt Horn’s succulent, smoked meats. Its success was confirmed by folks far outside Oakland, too, as just months after opening Horn was honored as a Michelin Guide “new discovery,” which includes a coveted slot in the influential company’s California guide. By its first summer in business, Horn Barbecue was described by the New York Times as “its very own unmistakable and unconfined style of California barbecue,” and just a few days after he spoke with Nosh for this story, he was named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2021. Even for these challenging times, it’s been a wild year.

Success, however, was not something that came easily for Horn or his restaurant. The opening of the restaurant was delayed again and again by permitting issues even before the pandemic, and an expected opening date during the COVID-19 shutdown was stymied at the last minute by issues with its smoker. The restaurant finally opened for business in October 2020, just a few weeks before a second surge in coronavirus cases closed outdoor dining back down.

Amid all this, Horn had to scale down his menu and his team to make the restaurant operations feasible while still maintaining his high barbecue standards. All the while, he had to deal with pandemic-era supply chain and purveyor issues, citing one instance where his usual supplier could not provide the proper wood for his smokers after it lost its staff.

“All the ups-and-downs [of the restaurant industry] have definitely made us unsure of what’s going to come next,” Horn said. “First we get a bit of good news and wonder, ‘OK, are we out of this thing?’ and then something else happens,” Horn said, referring to the ever-changing guidelines of safety during the ongoing pandemic. “We’re working with a skeleton crew right now, and they’re feeling that, but they’re hard-working and we love them, and we’re grateful for them.”

Horn has thought about increasing the hours of operation for Horn Barbecue, as well as introducing new items to its menu, but worries that the increased work might harm his staff’s well being. Horn says that he pays close attention to his own mental health, and also to his staff members’ morale, crediting a lot of the success of Horn Barbecue to fostering a safe, positive and productive workplace for his team.

The line for Horn Barbecue can stretch down for blocks. Credit: Joanna Della Penna

“Me and my wife, we talk about this all the time,” Horn said of his wellness concerns for his workers. “The most important thing to us is making sure that our staff, from a mental health standpoint, that they’re happy and have something to look forward to,” Horn said.

In recent months, Horn announced several new projects that were originally set to launch this past summer: Kowbird, a fried chicken sandwich restaurant; Matty’s Old Fashioned, a burger spot, and Dalia, a taco trailer. As with his flagship, these restaurants have also been delayed. Now Horn says that he hopes to open Kowbird late this year. With luck, Matty’s Old Fashioned and Dalia will follow some time in 2022.

One reason for the slowed-down timeline is the care Horn puts into every idea under the Horn Hospitality umbrella. He said that he only wants “to create concepts that would be close to my heart, and tell a story. I want to pour my heart into it with the same intention as I have with Horn Barbecue.”

Like Horn Barbecue, the spin-off restaurants are tied to a place of nostalgia. With Kowbird, an idea that launched as a pop-up over a year ago, Horn said that the goal is to relive and share the memory of his grandmother’s fried chicken, a staple Horn experienced as a child every Sunday after church. When its doors open at 1733 Peralta St. in West Oakland, expect a selection of chicken sandwiches, as well as wings, sides, pies and cakes.

Horn says that the burger shop, Matty’s Old Fashioned, was inspired by a trip back to his hometown of Fresno, where he took his son, Matt Jr. (Matty), to enjoy burgers and shakes at his favorite hometown soda fountain. When it opens in Old Oakland at 464 8th St. (next to craft beer bar The Trappist), Horn says it will serve up double-patty burgers made from his proprietary beef blend and topped with his “secret sauce.” Horn also hopes to use Matty’s as an example of zero-waste and sustainability practices, by finding ways to use smoked trimmings from his other business in his burgers.

Horn says that Dalia, the taco trailer, is a throwback to the days when Horn Barbecue was only a pop-up. Horn would commute from his home in Tracy to Oakland, and would sleep alongside the smokers as they produced meltingly tender brisket overnight. Upon waking, Horn would make himself a breakfast taco with newly-smoked brisket and a flour tortilla before serving the throngs of customers waiting in line for his barbecue. Horn’s plan is to park the Dalia trailer just outside Horn Barbecue to serve breakfast and lunch, starting some time next year.

Matt Horn slices and serves meat at the counter of Horn Barbecue. Credit: Sarah Han

According to Horn, his workers are in integral part of the development of these spin-off businesses. After he initially conceives of a restaurant idea, he presents the concept to staff members to gauge who might be interested in working with him on the new venture. The goal is as much about staffing the new business up as it is to support the career advancement and professional aspirations of his employees, allowing them to exercise their culinary creativity and learn the business side of running a restaurant.

“My thing, always, is ‘What can I do to help you out?’” Horn said of his employees. “I want them to continue to be able to grow, not just here at Horn Barbecue but in life. I had cooks that were told that they could never lead a kitchen because of their communication barrier. People like that, I want to be able to empower, and inspire.”

Given the challenges of the past year, as well as Horn’s thoughtful approach to building each new business, it’s not surprising that the timeline to opening his panoply of spin-offs has slowed down a bit. Meanwhile, Horn says he continues to be humbled each day a line forms outside his restaurant’s doors.

“That’s the beautiful thing about barbecue; barbecue being the great unifier, and bringing people together from all different walks of life,” Horn said. “It’s been a blessing to have customers who still come out and who still want to support us. That support is important in this difficult time.”

Horn Barbecue is currently open Thursday – Sunday from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. (or until sold out). For updates on Horn Barbecue and news on Matt Horn’s upcoming restaurants, follow Horn Barbecue on Instagram.

A platter of Texas-style meats from Oakland’s Horn Barbecue. Photo: Horn Barbecue