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The Kings of Kansas City Barbecue

The storied history, legacy and evolution of KC 'cue

  • 12 min to read

Smack-dab in the middle of the very first edition of The Kansas City Star (then called The Kansas City Evening Star), published on Sept. 18, 1880, is a story with the prophetic headline “The Grand Barbecue.” According to the article, those early Kansas Citians were so elated at the completion of a long-delayed railroad connection that they held a parade, which culminated with a “grand old fashioned barbecue” attended by more than 3,000 citizens, and “celebrated in a manner and style peculiarly characteristic of Kansas City pluck and enterprise.”

Barbecue had long been a part of America’s civic culture. If you wanted to feed a large group of people, barbecuing whole animals was an efficient and delicious way to do so. On July 3, 1869, Kansas Citians celebrated the historic opening of the Hannibal Bridge – the first permanent railroad bridge to cross the Missouri River – with a parade and a barbecue. Accounts of the event describe how the public, having endured seemingly endless orations by long-winded politicians, “attacked the tables” once the speechifying was concluded. (The Hannibal Bridge, in fact, was the critical link among railroad lines that helped create a hub that led to the Kansas City stockyards in 1871.)

The sheer volume of livestock consumed at these celebrations can be surprising to those of us reading the history today. For example, in October 1876, now-defunct The Kansas City Times published the following notice encouraging readers to attend a large public barbecue:

"Fifteen beeves, one hundred and twenty sheep, twenty five hogs, and five car loads of turkeys and chickens have been provided for tomorrow's barbecue on the Exposition grounds. Everybody invited."

It’s no wonder barbecue took root in late-19th-century Kansas City culture. First, meat was inexpensive and plentiful thanks to the city’s stockyards. Second, although Missouri is not generally classified as a Southern state today and was a border state during the Civil War, it was also considered a part of the South, as maps from the period definitively show. With the ready supply of pork and beef close at hand and the prevalence of hardwood trees, the Southern tradition of barbecue found a home in Kansas City.

After the Civil War, many freed slaves left the defeated Confederacy. Kansas City was a logical destination: Located on the far northwestern edge of what was then considered the South, it had become a thriving river and rail hub with a flourishing meatpacking industry. There were jobs to be had and the promise of a new life. These new Kansas City residents brought with them their culinary traditions, and the city’s love of barbecue became, for many, a way to make a living or earn additional income. It was during this period that local barbecue culture began to change. The style of cooking that had primarily been associated with large civic celebrations slowly became a commercial enterprise, one that took root in the city’s 18th and Vine Jazz District. This area of Kansas City, just east of downtown, was a place full of jazz and barbecue and is considered one of the country’s most historically significant birthplaces of jazz.

In 1907, Henry Perry, a native of the Memphis area, arrived in Kansas City. He was in his early 30s and, since he was 15, had been earning his way in the world as a cook on riverboats steaming up and down the Mississippi River. He began plying his trade in an alley at the corner of Eighth and Banks streets, in Kansas City’s Garment District, selling barbecue from a stand. Such was the humble beginning of a barbecue legacy that continues to this day.

The Fathers of Kansas City Barbecue

Within five years of his arrival in Kansas City, Perry went from selling meat from his alley stand to operating a restaurant, moving what had been dubbed Perry’s Barbecue to 17th Street and Lydia Avenue, and then, in the 1920s, to 19th Street and Highland Avenue. Situated in the bustling 18th and Vine District, Perry served his ’cue from an old barn that previously housed trolley cars. This was during the height of Prohibition, the roaring Pendergast era when Kansas City was known as the Paris of the Plains. The neighborhood was hot with jazz and barbecue, a recipe that made the district thrive.

Perry’s sauce was considered “harsh and peppery,” a fiery concoction that was much more vinegar-forward and spicy than the style of sauce Kansas City is known for today. Perry pit-smoked his meats, which included pork ribs and beef along with wild game such as opossum and raccoon, directly over smoldering hickory and oak, and he served everything wrapped in sheets of newsprint.

At the time, the barbecue scene was growing, and there were many competitors entering the market with newfangled barbecue ovens, but Perry stuck with tradition in the face of so-called progress. He was quoted in an article in The Call, a Kansas City newspaper, as saying, “There is only one way to cook barbecue and that is the way I am doing it, over a wood fire, with a properly constructed oven and pit.” By 1932, when Perry was interviewed for the article, The Call wrote that there were “more than a thousand barbecue stands” in the city.

When Perry died in 1940, he owned three prosperous and popular barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. One of these, which was referred to as Perry’s #2, was managed by a Texas transplant named Charlie Bryant, whose younger brother, Arthur, came to work at the restaurant after college. When Perry died, he left Charlie the restaurant that he’d been managing. When Charlie retired in 1946, Arthur took over and reworked Perry’s sauce recipe to make it less fiery and more widely appealing.

In 1972, well-known journalist and food writer Calvin Trillin, a Kansas City native, wrote an article for Playboy extolling the virtues of Kansas City restaurants. He spoke with Arthur Bryant, who said Perry “used to enjoy watching his customers take their first bite of a sauce that he made too hot for any human being to eat without eight or 10 years of working up to it.”

Bryant also renamed the enterprise after himself. Arthur Bryant’s joint became a favorite of performers such as Count Basie (who reportedly spat on his ribs to keep his bandmates from eating them while he was performing), Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford as well as politicians, including former President Harry S. Truman, who frequented the “grease house” on a regular basis.

In Trillin’s widely read Playboy essay, in which he praised Kansas City burgers and barbecue, he wrote that “the best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City. Not all of them; only the top four or five.” He referenced Arthur Bryant’s specifically, calling the beloved spot only “the single best restaurant in the world.” Trillin went on to write extensively about Bryant’s burnt ends, the crispy, caramelized edges of smoked brisket that have since become Kansas City’s signature contribution to the national barbecue tradition, providing context for their origin and referring to them as “burned edges”:

"The main course at Bryant's, as far as I'm concerned, is something that is given away free – the burned edges of the brisket. The counterman just pushes them over to the side and anyone who wants them helps himself. I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I'm in some awful, overpriced restaurant in some strange town, trying to choke down some three-dollar hamburger that tastes like a burned sponge, a blank look comes over me: I have just realized that at that very moment, someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges for free."

Bryant’s popularity surged to new heights, becoming a destination for tourists and celebrities (and they started charging for those burnt ends). When Arthur Bryant died in 1982, the restaurant nearly went under, but was ultimately sold by Bryant’s niece, Doretha Bryant, to Bill Rauschelbach and Gary Berbiglia, who kept it running strong – and virtually unchanged. Today, Arthur’s tweaked version of Henry Perry’s sauce, a grainy, orange-hued, vinegar-based dip with tomato and hints of curry powder, paprika, chile and meat drippings, can still be had, along with the new Sweet Heat and Rich & Spicy varieties developed by Berbiglia, who sold his interest in the company to Rauschelbach in 2014.

As fate would have it, 1946 was a momentous year in Kansas City barbecue history. Not only was it when Arthur Bryant took over his brother’s joint, but it was also the year George Gates and his wife, Arzelia, bought Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q, a run-down little place at the corner of 19th and Vine streets in the same 18th and Vine Jazz District. Bryant’s was located nearby at 1727 Brooklyn Ave., just blocks away from Municipal Stadium, where Kansas City’s professional baseball and football teams – including the Kansas City Chiefs and the former Kansas City Athletics – played.

When visiting teams and sportscasters came to Kansas City, they were captivated by the aroma of smoking brisket, pork butts, ribs and sausage. They then returned home and reported on their sampling of Kansas City-style barbecue, and the city’s reputation began to spread. George’s son, Ollie Gates, current owner and chief executive officer of Gates & Son’s Bar-B-Q, credits those radio announcers with spreading the gospel of Kansas City ‘cue far and wide.

“When the wind was blowing just right, it would permeate the air with those aromas from the smoking pits,” Ollie says. “Once the announcers figured out where those odors were coming from, then we started carrying it up to the ballpark and letting them taste it. And so they took word of it back to wherever they were coming from – Minnesota or New York – and that’s what really started the idea of ‘Kansas City barbecue.’”

George Gates initially bought the restaurant for its liquor license, intending to turn it into a tavern. But Mrs. Gates was a devout Methodist and disapproved of whiskey, so the barbecue became the emphasis.

A man named Arthur Pinkard, who learned the art of barbecue from none other than Henry Perry himself, was working at Ol’ Kentuck when it was purchased and stayed on to run the pits and teach George and Ollie Gates everything he knew. “When Dad bought the restaurant from a guy by the name of Johnny Thomas, [Pinkard] was a part of the fixtures that came with the restaurant,” Ollie says. “He was an integral part.”

Ollie was in high school when his father bought the restaurant, and he grew up working alongside him. “I was the head dishwasher, toilet-cleaner-upper, floor-mopper, basic cleaner, wood-carrier to the pits. That’s what I was,” he laughs. In 1956, after college and a stint in the U.S. Army, he began actively working for the family business, and its name was changed to Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q.

Today Gates serves ribs, beef, ham, chicken, sausage and mutton, and is internationally famous for its “Hi! May I help you?” customer service, which can be traced back to a noisy door spring.

“We had an old, screechy screen door in our first restaurant,” Ollie recalls. “That door would screech open, and I could hear when somebody was coming in. I’d jump up from the counter where I was sitting, reading comic books, and say hello to people. And then my dad fixed the door so it didn’t make any screechy sound. He snuck up on me and slapped me in the back of my head and said, ‘See there? You’re not aware.’ And so, from there on out, I watched the door, and as people came, I’d say hi to them. That’s where, ‘Hi! May I help you?’ came from.”

Just as famous as its hospitality is Gates & Son’s barbecue sauce, which has a tomato base enhanced with vinegar, of course, but also a secret blend of spices and other seasonings, “and some love,” Ollie says. The Original is the flavor that Ollie’s parents created, and it remains his favorite sauce to this day and the restaurant’s No. 1 sauce. “It’s indescribably delicious,” Ollie says. “It has a tomato base and you can’t taste the tomato. It has heat that’s not hot. It has a flavor that gives you a combination of spices that when you taste it, it’s appealing but not sweet.”

Ollie and three of his five children now preside over an empire of six barbecue restaurants (although the original location at 19th and Vine streets is no more). “[My children are] at that point now [where] it’s up to them to continue the business,” Ollie says. “Since they’ve got the tiger by the tail, they need to run with it [and] to continue to serve the community.”

Cultivating Dreams

Today, of course, Kansas City is home to the American Royal, a nonprofit that debuted in 1899 as the National Hereford Show. Featuring 541 registered head of Hereford cattle, the event was held in a tent in the Kansas City stockyards and attracted around 55,000 attendees in that first year. Dubbed the American Royal in 1902 as a nod to the British Royal Agricultural Fair, the annual event grew to include horses, hogs, sheep and goats. The organization’s annual rodeo debuted in 1949 (it took a hiatus between 1951 and 1965), and the barbecue competition followed in 1980.

The organization is very active in the Kansas City community, focused on scholarships, educational programs and community outreach. “We have an education mission,” says president and chief executive officer Lynn Parman. “We contribute over a million dollars a year in scholarships as well as supporting our agriculture education programs.” But it’s the barbecue competition that has made the American Royal internationally famous. “The first barbecue had 15 to 30 cooks, and they were required to cook a minimum of 10 pounds of barbecue meat,” she says. “They could cook beef, pork or lamb. Only one cut of meat per contestant could be submitted for judging. They were judged on a scale of one (not for me) to 10 (super excellent) and it was on appearance, taste, aroma and texture. In 1985, it had quickly grown to 70 contestants and required 72 judges to determine the winner.” Last year, the Royal hosted more than 560 teams from around the world, with 20 international teams from 11 different countries among the competitors.

“This is the world’s largest barbecue competition,” Parman continues. “This is their professional sport. If they receive recognition or placement in a category, it can make a significant impact on their dreams. Those dreams may be their barbecue catering business, the new restaurant they want to open or the barbecue sauce they want to launch. It gives them so much credibility to say that they’ve won something at the American Royal. It cultivates dreams. If they are judged to be one of the best, it’s transformational to that barbecue team.”

Take Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, which was born on the competitive barbecue circuit, an extension of Slaughterhouse Five, a team that has won dozens of Grand Championships around the country. Opened in 1996 as Oklahoma Joe’s by Jeff and Joy Stehney with now-former partner Joe Don Davidson of Oklahoma Joe’s Smoker Co., the restaurant very quickly started showing up on all the shortlists of best barbecue joints in Kansas City. Then it started showing up on all the short lists of best barbecue joints in America.

In 2009, Joe’s showed up on celebrity chef and best-selling author Anthony Bourdain’s list of “Thirteen Places to Eat before You Die.” In 2013, USA Today declared Joe’s ribs to be “America’s tastiest.” Joe’s signature sandwich, the Z-Man, has been named one of the 50 essential American sandwiches by Thrillist. Joe’s now has three locations in the Kansas City area (and renamed itself Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que in 2014) and is world-famous not only for its smoked meats but also for its long lines. Slaughterhouse Five competes at the American Royal and other contests to this day. The team was most recently crowned Grand Champion in 2016 at the Maryland State Championship and Grand Champion in 2016 and 2017 at the Kansas State Championship.

“You’ve got the Royals, you’ve got Sporting Kansas City, you’ve got the Chiefs and you’ve got barbecue,” Parman says. “People are proud to say they’re from Kansas City. They’re proud when people say, ‘You’ve got great barbecue.’ Barbecue has become iconic in Kansas City, and probably largely due to the American Royal and the teams, restaurants and catering businesses that were born as a result.”

Another game-changing restaurant born of the competitive barbecue circuit is Q39, which is owned and operated by Rob Magee, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Magee captained Munchin’ Hogs, a very successful competition-barbecue team that won, among other awards, 52 Grand Champion titles at dozens of contests across the country, all while serving as executive chef at the Hilton in Kansas City.

“I honed in on my rubs and sauces, which helped catapult me into one of the best teams in the nation,” Magee says. “We kept winning and winning. My first year was three contests, and we ended up doing 42 contests a year – 42 a year, and I still have the same wife. I figured if she can handle that, she can handle me opening a restaurant.”

Magee’s approach at Q39 melds traditional Kansas City barbecue with the current desire for scratch-made sauces and sides with chef-driven flavors. “The fun thing of what’s happening today is the spin-offs of the sandwiches and the entrées [beyond the competition-style plates],” he says. “We have a smoked fried chicken with chipotle-cilantro sauce. Instead of coming into a barbecue restaurant and getting a smoked half-chicken, which we do also serve, now you get something fun and whimsical. We just put on the menu smoked pork belly and sausage corn dogs with barbecue sauce and maple syrup. The cuisine of barbecue is getting elevated, and people in the city enjoy that because we take pride in our barbecue.” The restaurant has been so popular, in fact, that a second location opened in Overland Park, Kansas, in August.

During barbecue’s formative years in the early and mid-20th century, everything was made from scratch. People didn’t cook any other way. In the ’80s and ’90s, however, pre-made convenience foods entered the market and soon, slaw was being scooped out of a bucket instead of being chopped fresh in the kitchen. Thankfully, that’s falling out of favor. “The expectations of the customer today are different than what they were in the past,” Magee says. “They want better and better food, and they should, because they deserve it.”

At last count, there were at least 100 barbecue restaurants in the greater Kansas City area, and tomatoey-thick, spicy-sweet, molasses-spiked Kansas City barbecue sauce is the most popular and widely imitated style across the country. “I think Kansas City produces the best barbecue sauces in the nation,” Magee says. “I think we really understand what the words fruit and sweet and spicy mean, which can bundle up into good sauces that pair very well with all types of barbecue. Because of that, when you apply it to ribs, you taste the sauce, the rub and the meat.”

Near the end of that front-page article in the very first edition of The Kansas City Evening Star is a line that has succinctly summarized Kansas City’s attitude regarding barbecue for the past 137 years: “…a sumptuous feast of fat things is prepared for all that may come.”

Magee couldn’t agree more.

“Kansas City’s cuisine in the past five years has catapulted way up there,” he says. “We have great chefs doing great stuff here in Kansas City, and barbecue is on the same path as all the other restaurants. And I gotta tell ya, I’m proud to be part of it. Kansas City has the best barbecue in the nation.”

Editor’s Note: Doug Worgul, author of the novel, Thin Blue Smoke, contributed research and writing to this story. He is also director of marketing at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que.