Barbecue isn’t the only thing churning low and slow around these parts.
For Frank Schloegel III, 75, the grandson of a German immigrant, and Ollie Gates, 84, the grandson of former slaves, so too does business. And friendship.
Schloegel, the owner of the Southside Wood Co. and co-owner of Woodyard Bar-B-Que, and Gates, the barbecue baron in charge of the Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q franchise, have been doing business and slowly forging an unlikely friendship for more than half a century. Theirs is a relationship that has proven invaluable to the growth of both their barbecue-anchored empires and, quite literally, has fed Kansas City.
“I’m looking for Schloegel!”
As with many barbecue tales of yore in this town, it can sometimes be a bit tough to remember exact dates. “Kansas City BBQ in general, it is a history of people and it is best told one story at a time with a little myth and no exact dates,” reads the Woodyard website.
The sentiment holds true in the story of Schloegel and Gates. The two can’t nail down the exact month, or even the year, when they began their partnership, but for Schloegel, the big details of when he and his father, Frank Schloegel Jr., first met Ollie Gates are as fresh as a slab of ribs:
“I’ll never forget the day Ollie first came up here,” Schloegel says, sitting at a table at his restaurant in Kansas City, Kan. “I was just a kid, and Ollie pulled up in his big white Cadillac. He got out of the car, and I’ll never forget. He says: ‘I’m looking for Schloegel!’ ”
The consensus seems to be that this first meeting happened about 55 years ago, in the early 1960s. At the time it was Frank’s father, Frank Schloegel Jr., who was running the then Southside Fireplace Wood & Patio Co. on Merriam Lane in Kansas City, Kan.
The Schloegels had been operating Southside for about 50 years by the time Gates pulled up. The company was founded as Southside Coal and Wood Co. in 1914 by Schloegel’s grandfather, Frank Schloegel, a German immigrant. Then, the cash cow was coal. Southside would sell as many as 1,400 carloads annually. But by the time Schloegel Jr. took over in 1948, the use of coal was in drastic decline in the U.S., and the number of carloads dwindled to as few as 33.
“Dad was a survivor though,” Schloegel says. His dad switched the company’s focus to fireplace wood, patio supplies and any other knickknacks that could sustain the company. “He loved to sell stuff. Fireworks, Christmas trees, patio blocks, ice, you name it. We sold everything.”
Shifting the company’s focus to firewood inadvertently entered him into the business of barbecue. It was also around this time that outdoor home grilling and the concept of the personal, portable grill gained popularity in America. Hasty-Bake introduced the first charcoal oven in 1948. The Weber-Stephen grilling products company followed with its own version in 1952.
“Dad would sell Hasty-Bake ovens, and on Saturdays he’d have the doctors and lawyers over and he’d show them how to use his firewood to cook on them,” Schloegel says.
There was at the same time a little barbecue operation gaining steam across town.
Two years before Schloegel Jr. took control of Southside, George Gates purchased an existing barbecue stand, and the Gates & Sons empire was born. Almost immediately, with the help of pit master Arthur Pinkard, a disciple of Henry Perry, the “father of Kansas City Barbecue,” Gates, his wife, Arzelia, and children Winnifred, Gwendolyn and Ollie built a reputation alongside Arthur Bryant’s as the premier barbecue joint in town.
Unbeknownst, apparently, to Schloegel Jr. at the time.
“Well you got him, I’m Schloegel. But I’m going to tell you right now,” Frank Schloegel III remembers his father saying as he looked out at Gates. “You can’t afford my wood!”
Perhaps it was because it was the ’60s and his dad couldn’t imagine a black guy paying the going rate for a cord (128 cubic feet) of wood (the rate converts to about about $150-$200 per cord in today’s dollars). Or perhaps he just underestimated Ollie Gates.
After all, within 15 years of their first encounter, Gates & Sons would open four more locations. Their signature barbecue sauce, according to Kansas City Star articles at the time, would corner 15 percent of Kansas City’s sauce market (behind only Kraft at 38 percent). And the company would be making more than $2.5 million — too much to be recognized as a small business by the Small Business Association.
“Look here, man,” Schloegel remembers Gates saying. “I ain’t talking about the money. I got the money! I’m talking about the wood.”
Gates recalls the moment slightly less vividly: “He was just someone that you could be consistent with,” he says. “When you get it from the farmers, they’re inconsistent. But Schloegel had a woodyard. That helped.”
Frank Schloegel III believes there was a little more to it: “At the time, a lot of those farmer guys in the wood business, they’re pretty much rednecks, to say the least. That was a big factor,” Schloegel says. “A lot of these guys, they didn’t like blacks.”
Schloegel remembers a white delivery man who was furious at the thought of taking orders from Gates, a black man: “No black’s gonna tell me what to do,” Schloegel remembers the man yelling. “Well,” Schloegel told him. “He owns the joint, so I guess he is gonna tell you what to do.”
That was the last time Schloegel used that delivery man.
He laughs at the memory today. Now, like then, most of Southside’s wood comes from farmers in the Ozarks and southern Missouri. “A lot of them back then were never exposed to any black people. Let alone one telling them what to do,” he says.
Schloegel said he never experienced any real pushback around town over his relationship with Gates. His father had already established a reputation for buying many of the bricks and patio blocks he sold for Southside from local black workers. He invited those workers over to the woodyard on occasion for a backyard barbecue after a long day’s work.
“There’s so much hate in the world, and it just doesn’t have to be that way,” Schloegel says. “This country has so much fear. All you’ve got to do is be around people, man. Hear them out, listen to them. We’re more alike than you think. Lighten up, man,” he says with a laugh.
Fifty years later, Gates & Sons has grown into an iconic barbecue juggernaut. They estimate they smoke thousands of pounds of meat weekly among their six restaurants, so they keep more than one supplier of wood. But still, Schloegel and Southside remain vital to their operation.
“Frank’s still the main one. As Gates grew, farmers couldn’t keep up with our demand,” Gates says.
“I needed someone like Frank.”
Schloegel estimates Southside has supplied wood to nearly 40 barbecue joints over the years.
“We don’t keep records, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve sold wood to every barbecue joint in Kansas City,” he says. Today he has around a dozen consistent barbecue clients and, with the recent popularity of wood-fired pizza, a few pizza places.
“Business comes and goes,” he says. “But Ollie’s always been there.”
Around 20 years ago, Schloegel himself began to dabble in the barbecue business, unofficially catering small events for friends and family. A rise in popularity (and a need to make Southside a little more money) led him to start Woodyard Bar-B-Que around 16 years ago, on the same Southside woodyard property where he first met Gates.
At first business at the big red shack storefront was rough, nearly causing Schloegel to shutter the operation. But about six years ago he partnered with his now co-owner, successful restaurateur Ciaran Molloy. With the help of some big-time shout-outs from popular food personalities and travel shows like Andrew Zimmerman, Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and Anthony Bourdain, Schloegel has experienced a tremendous turnaround that has both Woodyard and Southside Wood Co. flourishing.
The other day, Gates and Schloegel came together for a portrait next to a pile of wood behind the Gates flagship shop on Emmanuel Cleaver Boulevard. Their juxtaposition is stark.
Schloegel is shorter and always smiling, ready to tell a story and share some of his barbecue. If he ever wants to leave the wood and barbecue business, he’d have an easy time as the Lovable Grandpa in any movie that would require one.
Gates, on the other hand, is towering and generally more austere. He wears a long black trench coat and brimmed hat slightly favoring Gates’ iconic “Tuxedo Man.” He almost always appears pensive, no doubt the hallmark of anyone tasked with running virtually every aspect of a multimillion-dollar business.
But look closely enough, and even if only briefly, Gates’ demeanor seems to lighten a bit around Schloegel. He smiles. As the two walk back toward Gates’ restaurant — Gates has business to take care of; Schloegel is going to go tell some more stories back at Woodyard — Gates looks back and cautions me and the photographer.
“You make sure you do right by Frank, now. You got that?” he says.
Schloegel smiles and lets out a little laugh. He tells Gates he and his kids have got to stop by and have dinner (an event the two have been planning for nearly two decades now). Will dinner ever happen? Who knows? Gates is a hard guy to pin down. But Schloegel knows this. He knows his friend.
“I tell you that Ollie, he’s so tight and focused,” Schloegel says. “Such a good guy.”
“I just like being around him.”