Smoke licks across the blackened top of the yellow school bus of Old School BBQ & Grill like it was a normal day for serving up barbecue. But inside owner Dan Parrott’s mind, he was fine-tuning the special menu for Bill White’s send-off party in Houston this weekend.
“They’re going to have their socks blown off,” he chuckles and says in his deep, slightly raspy Southern voice.
Parrott greets some customers out of the window from the driver’s seat before he steps out of the bus (aka “Big Mama”) and grabs his usual pack of Djarum cigarettes. Then he eases onto a bench before lighting one up.
“Andrea [White, Bill White’s wife,] heard about [Old School] after one of our staffers ate there until she said she couldn’t eat anymore,” explains Bill White spokeswoman Annalee Gulley. “She’s been wanting to get Dan to Houston ever since.”
Considering where Parrott, his son Danny and friend Trey Cook came from almost a year ago when they first opened near MLK and Airport boulevards in the freezing Austin winter, Bill White’s party for his closest friends and supporters is a massive stepping stone.
It was during those first few months, when he sometimes saw four customers a day, that Parrott said he met some of their first regulars, including three UT students who are joining Big Mama in Houston to help out at the party. White even delayed his return-home party for one week to accommodate Old School’s schedule.
Now Parrott says he gets disappointed calls when he’s off catering private parties and not as his usual location.
“[White’s party was rescheduled] partly because of the iconic nature of [Old School],” said Talib Abdullahi, a liberal arts junior and one of Old School’s fanatics who is going to Houston. “It takes a lot of time and preparation but it’s made in this shabby location. Another part is that people have come to know Dan’s humble entrepreneurship. He’s a very charismatic person who can connect with anyone.”
But before Parrott was serving up his “tasty brisket” and “killer mac and cheese,” as described by several Yelpers, he was deeply involved in the hospitality business for roughly 35 years — prior to when he says it became trendy. He studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before coming back to the states to work at 56 restaurants and do numerous consultations for start-up restaurants.
“People forgot to be hospitable somewhere along the line,” says Parrott while letting the smoke billow through his thick mustache and beard. “When I started, customers were used to mom’s cooking, and when you went out it was really something. Throwing away $120 worth of potato salad that I don’t like doesn’t make me a hero; it makes me old school.”
It’s that kind of attitude, as well as his generosity of providing a free meal or two to regulars, that’s made him notable to many students on campus. Parrott adds that Anthony Bourdain, a well-known Travel Channel host, chef and author, first discovered Old School in late June after many students told the celebrity to visit the yellow school bus food trailer after he took a walk around campus.
“There’s something that’s much more important to me than money: time.” says Parrott before he finally sets down the cigarette. “You can always make more money but time is something that you can’t replace. I could give a rat’s ass if they spend $30 or $40. We want to make [their time at Old School] valuable. That’s why we’re going to make this party extra special and bring some of our biggest fans along.”