R.I.P. Calvin “Boots” Payne III, Cousin’s Bar-B-Q patriarch

Posted Sunday, Jun. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
Memorial service 2 p.m. Sunday, University Christian Church, 2720 University Drive, Fort Worth.

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In 1983, Boots and Beverly Payne, Fort Worth natives who met at Paschal High School and got married during their senior year, opened a barbecue joint at 6262 McCart Ave. in southwest Fort Worth.

Boots — his real name was Calvin, but most people called him Boots or Bootsie — didn’t want to call the place Payne’s, so he called it Cousin’s Pit Barbecue, naming it after a fancy restaurant in Ruidoso, N.M. “‘Cousin’s’ just sounds friendly,” Bootsie told the Star-Telegram in 1991, “and we’re friendly.”

It also sounds like family, and Cousin’s is a family affair — the Paynes’ son, Cliff, and daughter, Corby, helped open the first Cousin’s, and their three other children were also involved. Even friends of the children, and people who married into the family, became part of the business.

The Paynes treated customers like family, too, making the loss of Bootsie — who died Wednesday night at age 78 after suffering a fall —particularly far-reaching.

“He was just the epitome of family,” says one of Mr. Payne’s sons, Jeff Payne, who is president of the Cousin’s operation. “It starts out as a crazy idea, but then you bring your wife, because you can’t run it yourself, kids are born and you need help busing tables. It’s like a ranch or a farm, that genesis of a family learning a trade and putting food on the table.”

But then, Cousin’s was far-reaching itself. According to the ’91 Star-Telegram story, it trucked along modestly for its first few years — until 1990, when President George H.W. and Barbara Bush chowed down on Cousin’s chicken, brisket and ribs while they watched Super Bowl XXIV on TV, earning Cousin’s some national recognition.

And then some international recognition: EuroDisney selected Cousin’s to provide sauce and seasoning for Franco-American barbecue when it opened in mid-1992, and flew Mr. Payne to teach the chefs about Texas barbecue.

“The biggest thing was that he treated everybody the same,” Jeff Payne said. “It didn’t matter if you were [Fort Worth billionaire investor] Richard Rainwater or the president or a guy that just walked off the street with dirt on his shoes. There wasn’t any in between. Bootsie treated everybody the same.”

Beginning in 1999, Cousin’s started to expand, with a second location on Bryant Irvin Road in southwest Fort Worth. Cousin’s has six locations, including two at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Many of the locations are family-run, and those that aren’t are managed by longtime Cousin’s employees. But it’s the original Cousin’s that made Texas Monthly’s recently published 2013 Top 50 Barbecue Joints list — and the previous list, in 2008, as well.

Mr. Payne enjoyed the accolades, but he knew there was more to running his business.

“My dad said to my oldest brother, Cliff, who’s our pitmaster, ‘Contests are important and all that, but nothing’s more important than the customer who’s standing right in front of you,’” Jeff Payne said.

Mr. Payne, who was born and raised in Fort Worth, earned his nickname in infancy, when an older sister made “Bootsie” out of caboose, because Calvin was the youngest in his family. Aside from teachers, just about everyone called him Bootsie rather than Calvin.

He became friendly with the Jetton family, and began traveling with Walter Jetton, a Fort Worth barbecue king who catered for President Lyndon Johnson at the White House and at LBJ Ranch. Mr. Payne fell in love with the business because of his travels with Jetton.

Barbecue restaurants start their days early, smoking meats for hours before they open. Even late in life, Mr. Payne enjoyed that part of the business.

“Bootsie wanted to get up every day, even though he’s been somewhat retired,” Jeff Payne said. “He just wanted to get here as quick as he could. And there never was a day in his life that he didn’t want to come to work. He had a work ethic that was extraordinary, and he wanted to be there to greet the first person that he knew.”

Besides Jeff Payne, Mr. Payne is survived by his wife of 59 years, Beverly; sons Cliff, Mark and Craig; daughter Corby; brothers Roger Payne and Wally Payne; sisters Betty Watson and Susan Sprinkle; 14 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

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