See that? Chris Shepherd is standing alone there because EVERYONE IS IN THE FRANKLIN BARBECUE LINE.

Every year, Southern Smoke Festival founder Chris Shepherd tries to welcome folks when the event's front gates open. Last year, he was 30 seconds late to the gates and watched as the crowds blurred past him.

"There were legitimately people running past me," says Shepherd. "Running." He asked the attendees were they were going.

"FRANKLIN!" they shrieked at him.

"I was like 'Are you serious?' It's delicious, it is, and it's well warranted, but you just ran past some of the best food ever."

Southern Smoke, which is set for 4 p.m. Sunday, October 6 in back of Shepherd's Hay Merchant and Georgia James (VIP start time is 3 p.m.), is the one time each year that Aaron Franklin, pitmaster of Austin's world-famous Franklin Barbecue, is definitely going to be serving up brisket and other smoked meat in Houston. That means Houstonians who don't want to drive three hours for the experience of standing in line for hours get really excited to, well, stand in line for a few hours.

"It's a self-inflicted line. It doesn't have to be that," says Shepherd. "If everybody just bounced around, Franklin's line would be just as long as everybody else's. It would be 15 people long."

Look at all those people just taking photos and videos of Aaron Franklin cutting brisket. Look at them!

Possibly, but that's how it goes at Southern Smoke, Shepherd's annual celebration of smoked food. Get there when the gates open and hop in the Franklin line to get your food within an hour or so. Or walk around the festival sampling some really great items from chefs like American pizza master Chris Bianco, North Carolina-based star Ashley Christensen, Houston-bred-and-trained Chicagoan Sarah Grueneberg, and New Orleans seafood pro Ryan Prewitt. 

This year there's even more reason to try everything: A whole bunch of local chefs will be serving up their food throughout the entire festival. It used to be that Houston chefs would have an hour each to showcase themselves, but that practice ended after last year.

"I talked to Ryan Pera (of Agricole Hospitality) about it, and he said, 'No I'd like to do the entire thing,'" said Shepherd. "I said 'Really?' and he said, 'Yeah, I want us to do the full set.' So, I decided to add more local chefs and more local restaurants and give them their just due."

We're talking some of the best chefs in town, including Hugo Ortega (Hugo's), Justin Yu (Theodore Rex), Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi (Kata Robata), Jason Vaughan (Nancy's Hustle), Jonny Rhodes (Indigo) Felipe Riccio (Rosie Cannonball), Martin Stayer (Nobie's), Erin Smith and Patrick Feges (Feges BBQ), and Trong Nguyen (Crawfish & Noodles).

Joining them is one of the newest local chefs, Chris Cosentino, who'll be opening his downtown Italian restaurant Rosalie in a few days. Along with the food, there'll be music from Charley Crockett, the Tontons, Folk Family Revival, and DJ Seek. Funds go to the Southern Smoke Foundation, which gives to hospitality industry people in need, and to organizations representing the needs of people in the industry. For tickets and information, visit the Southern Smoke website.

There are plenty of reasons to wait a while before hopping into that Franklin Barbecue line. Or, just take it from Shepherd: "If you wanna stand in line for the first hour, go ahead, but you'll miss out on the roasted oysters over here and the beer can chicken over there."

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