While working in criminal justice in Harris County, Robin returned to his longtime love of welding with a side hustle making BBQ smokers as Gator Pit of Texas.
But not just any smokers.
Gator Pit has built smokers of all shapes and sizes -- including "30-foot cookers that weigh 12,000 pounds and can feed 2,000 people a day," says Robin, and one that looks like the Space Shuttle. "It goes from the basic backyard cooker to the company or individual that just wants something crazy."
"I've had designs I've done for 20, 30 years," says Robin. "Most of my customers pick the model that's closest to what they want, then they customize it. I don't have anything in stock, because no one really ever orders that stock model. They make it their own."
By the mid-1990s, Gator Pit became a full-time endeavor. "As it grew, I quit my day job and decided to focus everything I had into the Gator Pit business," says Robin.
Prices start around $2,000, but can soar into six-digit territory for the biggest smokers. "By the time you get to me, you've already gone through the Home Depot pit; you've gone through the Academy Sports and Outdoor barbecue pit; you've gone through the Walmart pit, and you're ready to step it up," says Robin. "I've heard people say, 'I've been researching you and following you for years, and I've finally saved up my money and I'm ready to order my Gator Pit.'"
The crew uses a CNC plasma table to cut metal, but they largely weld the smokers by hand in Gator Pit's 5,000-square-foot shop.
Robin says he personally selects components based on quality. "I handpick all my materials. What do you mean by handpick your own materials? I mean I literally go to the pipe yard, walk the pipe yard, and pick out the pieces of pipe I want to use for my pits. That's how picky I am on the quality."
Gator Pit relies on an outside vendor for stainless steel work, but otherwise handles almost all manufacturing internally with standardized processes. "We don't buy hinges, we make our own hinges," says Robin. "It goes back to quality. We even make our own trailers. Most of what goes out of my shop is made here in my shop."
He adds, "Most of this stuff is handmade. We don't use brakes. We don't use shears. We don't even have any of that equipment in our shop. I literally have MIG welding machines that are handheld. I've got two handheld plasma cutters, and I've got my CNC plasma table, which is a Lincoln Torchmate 4510, and hand tools, grinders."
"If you come to my shop, you'll see welders lined up. If they start a pit, they finish that pit. If a welder starts your pit and goes on vacation for a week, guess what? Nobody touches your pit until he gets back from vacation. I don't pull a welder off a job to finish where he left off, because you run into quality issues."
Gator Pit makes 300 to 500 smokers a year, and has an eight-month waiting list. Robin says sales are up in 2022, and forecasts annual revenue to eclipse $1.5 million. About 40 percent of sales goes to restaurants and food trucks.
Challenges: Supply chain. Components ranging from gas fittings to pellet hoppers to trailer axles have been difficult to source in recent time, and Gator Pit is carrying surpluses to ensure operations. "I've got parts, because I order them in bulk," says Robin. "Same thing with my pipe. I've got $50,000 in pipe stock. I'm not running out of pipe."
An increasingly crowded market is also challenging. "There are a lot of bit builders out there," says Robin. "I was one of the few custom ones back in the '90s. Back then, there were a handful of us. Now they're everywhere."
Opportunities: "The food truck industry is popping right now," says Robin. "I've got a couple of models that I designed specifically for food trucks. That's a big seller for me right now."
Exports represent another opportunity, he adds. "It's really popular and getting more popular overseas in other countries. We ship a lot to South Korea. I even ship to Hong Kong."
Needs: "My biggest need would be space right now," says Robin, citing a design for a 16,000-square-foot building he would like to build as Gator Pit's long-term home. "We're not looking at moving because we're kind of seeing where the economy is going. There's a risk factor in all of that."