ABOVE: Dan Henderson (left) and son Daniel catch their breath after the lunch rush at the Lake Air Drive location of Uncle Dan’s Bar-B-Que. Photo by Rod Aydelotte.
Uncle Dan’s Bar-B-Que & Catering
1001 Lake Air Drive, Waco
231 N. Hewitt Drive, Hewitt
To walk into Uncle Dan’s Bar-B-Que & Catering is to stroll past a stellar chunk of Waco history: Baylor sports legends grin from classic photographs on the wall.
But you can’t linger long — a spicy, sweet, ultimately irresistible smell propels you forward, straight into the capable hands of the hardworking crew at Uncle Dan’s. Many of them have been happily ensconced here for years.
Owner Dan Henderson, 58, humbly acknowledges the loyalty of employees and customers at both his Waco and Hewitt locations. “We’ve been very fortunate, very blessed,” he says, moving nimbly through the Lake Air Drive restaurant with his trademark energy. He greets regular customers by name even as he ticks off a long list of employees who’ve been with him well over a decade and, in some cases, two. With both locations, Uncle Dan’s supports about 50 livelihoods at any given time.
The restaurant grows more and more packed as noon approaches. The line at the long wooden serving bar includes blue- and white-collar workers, retirees and college kids, young families and teenagers. Behind its glass panes, gleaming vats of potato salad and slaw share space with deviled eggs, drinks and generous slabs of cobbler and pie. The real star of the show, however, is the barbecue.
The plates passed over the counter to customers are heaped with giant Texas Taters, sliced barbecue beef brisket, tender barbecue rotisserie chicken and smoked turkey. “The flavor is incredible,” Henderson says proudly, while behind him an employee gives the thumbs-up to the rich flavor as well.
The Texas Taters are perfectly cooked, split and filled with everything from sour cream and cheese to meats and Uncle’s Dan’s famous hot or regular barbecue sauce. Henderson credits his wife of 31 years, Clara, with the idea. “She may not be the Texan in the family, but she thought them up,” he says, laughing as he recalls meeting Clara at one of the lowest points in his young life.
“My dad was ill,” Henderson says quietly, noting the year was 1980. Though born in Marlin, Henderson moved with his family to Bellmead in 1958 so his father could run a grocery there. Henderson began working at Smokehouse Burgers, then at Eighth Street and Speight Avenue near Baylor, at age 12 and stayed until he was 18.
“I went to Baylor for one semester,” he says, joking that one was all he could afford. In December1971, he moved to Dallas to work for Morton Foods, but by 1978, he was hankering to own his own business. He returned to Waco and became partners with his former boss, Buck Massey, at Smokehouse Burgers.
“I worked for him, and then with him,” Henderson says, speaking reverently of his former boss and mentor. “One side of the place was Smokehouse Burgers, and the other side became Uncle Dan’s.”
Henderson’s two nephews, who always called him “Uncle Dan,” were a big part of his life and dear to him, so he decided that had to be the restaurant’s name.
Though Henderson doesn’t say much about it, it’s clear that his father’s illness, which came when his own dreams were beginning to be realized, was a painful blow. Then one day, in the Tanglewood Restaurant downtown near I-35, Henderson met Clara McNulty, the restaurant’s manager.
Clara, a Sandusky, Ohio, native, had worked her way up through Tanglewood Farms, part of the Bob Evans empire, and opened the Waco restaurant on her own. In her, Henderson saw a partner for every aspect of his life. He married her in November 1980, six months after his father died.
“She has always been my life partner, my partner in everything,” Henderson says. Together they bought out Massey in 1988, and Smokehouse Burgers officially became Uncle Dan’s Bar-B-Que on Wooded Acres Drive, which was Smokehouse Burgers’ location since 1969. The couple added menu items including the Texas Tater, as well as daily fresh fruit and vegetable dishes; they also added off-premises catering and delivery that remains roaringly popular in greater Waco.
By 1990, the pair had noticed not only the explosive growth in Hewitt but the many customers who drove from Lorena, Robinson and Hewitt to get some Uncle Dan’s. They decided to open a second location at 231 N. Hewitt Drive and, 21 years later, it’s still going strong. In 1996, they saw an opportunity to scoot down the street to the current 1001 Lake Air Drive locale, adding a drive-through window that usually is stacked to the street with hungry customers at lunchtime.
Asked what motivates him to keep going in a notoriously tough business made even tougher by the current economy, Henderson mulls, but doesn’t have to think long.
“My wife is a great inspiration to me. My son, Daniel, is in the business with us now, and that’s a strong motivator. He has desire and drive and great ideas; I want to keep this going with him.” He expresses admiration for daughters Heather and Hillary and clearly adores being grandfather to Heather’s children. As for the future: “We might expand, possibly add a location in China Spring or Bellmead.”
“A lot of my friends are either dead or in a nursing home,” Henderson says with both humor and gravity. “I don’t want to die any sooner than I have to, and I don’t want to go to a nursing home if I can help it. I’ll just keep at it right here.”
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