On an evening in late October, Tony Richardson sits inside a bowling alley in Queens, sipping on a craft beer as he unlaces his shoes and packs his things into a small bag. Richardson, the former Chiefs star and Pro Bowl running back, has bowled three games. He has a flight in the morning. But sitting a few feet away, his friend and bowling buddy sees the New York Jets ball slotted into his bowling bag.
“Where’s your Chiefs ball?” Josh Bowen asks.
“I ordered one!” Richardson answers. “I’m still waiting on it.”
The Gutter Bar, a small bowling alley in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan, may seem like an odd place to begin a story about Kansas City. But then again, this story might be more Kansas City than fountains, shuttlecocks and the Plaza Lights combined. Its components include a barbecue restaurant, the Chiefs and an unexpected friendship, and the proof is right here, two buddies spending another random night out, drinking beer and bowling, explaining how it all came to be.
Richardson, 45, is a former NFL running back who settled into this corner of Queens after his career ended in 2010. Bowen, 41, is an entrepreneur of sorts who left high school before graduating and landed in New York around the same time.
Richardson and Bowen were strangers. No reason to meet, really. Then, six years ago, Bowen opened John Brown Smokehouse, a Kansas City-style barbecue spot, here in Long Island City. A self-taught pitmaster, Bowen sought to capitalize on the scarcity of authentic barbecue in New York. In time, the joint has become a mecca for Kansas City expats and Chiefs fans, like those who will crowd into the bar on Sunday to watch their team face the New York Giants. Inside the restaurant, the walls are splashed with tributes to Bowen’s hometown — a Chiefs jersey, Royals memorabilia, a logo of Boulevard Brewing Co. The food is the stuff he grew up on.
And then one day, not long after the place opened, Richardson walked in the door.
“I met Josh,” Richardson says. “I started coming back. And the rest is history.”
So what does a New York barbecue king look like? Well, you might expect something different than Bowen, a friendly Lenexa native whose path wasn’t exactly linear.
In the early 1990s, Bowen left Shawnee Mission West High School to follow Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. A part-time musician, he spent much of his 20s and early 30s living in Lawrence and Austin, Texas, playing gigs and moving between jobs. In 2008, he followed a then-fiancée to New York, searching for work in a down economy. He eventually landed a job at Hill Country Barbecue, one of the few such joints in town.
Bowen had no formal barbecue experience or training. Yet his days in Kansas City and Austin had informed his tastes. He drew on influences, thinking about places such as Gates and Arthur Bryant’s and Zarda, a family favorite. Even now, he says, Joe’s KC is the best barbecue in the world.
“I guess I kind of just became obsessed with the physics of meat,” Bowen says.
By 2011, Bowen looked around New York and saw no barbecue spots that could offer what he could find in Kansas City. So he found a small nook in Long Island City, an old industrial neighborhood going through the usual story of New York gentrification. He opened up a 15-seat restaurant, and on the third or fourth day, a reviewer from the New York Times walked in. The timing, Bowen says, was perfect. The restaurant took off, becoming, at least for a moment, a trendy culinary spot.
“It’s funny,” Bowen says. “We’re the weird food in the neighborhood.”
After a year or so, John Brown Smokehouse moved to a bigger location, a place with a bar and back patio. The barbecue garnered awards and strong reviews among New York publications. But the extra square footage — offering room for televisions — provided the second big break.
Bowen had grown up a rabid Chiefs fan, and the Kansas City sports theme was natural inside a barbecue spot. But as the months turned into years, Kansas City natives kept showing up for games. On Sundays, the place became a hub for red shirts and Jamaal Charles jerseys. When the Royals went to the World Series in 2014 and 2015, John Brown was packed for weeks straight.
“The truth is, New York and Kansas City are very different places,” says Evan Sandhaus, a John Brown regular who grew up in Leawood and graduated from Blue Valley North in 1998. “You don’t feel the same way walking around New York like you do walking around Kansas City. And somehow John Brown bottles up the feeling of Kansas City and brings that to Queens, New York.”
There is also this: Walk in for the right game and you might find one of the best Chiefs in history behind the bar.
On a Wednesday evening in October, Richardson strolls in the front door and takes a seat at the bar. Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” is playing throughout the restaurant. A shrine to Kansas City sports, including a Richardson jersey, adorns the wall just behind him.
Wearing a Chiefs hat and a dark T-shirt, Richardson orders an IPA from the bartender, Patrick. Then he turns to say hi to another regular. Two hours earlier, Bowen had texted Richardson and asked about bowling. He was in.
By chance, Richardson’s place turned out to be just five to eight minutes away. That story itself is another good one. When Richardson left the Chiefs in 2005, he played two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, earning his third Pro Bowl invitation before finishing his career with the Jets. When he arrived in New York, he went searching for places to live. The Jets, Richardson says, took issue with their players living in Manhattan. So he took a chance on Queens, buying in a neighborhood in transition. Long Island City wasn’t much at the time. But the decision was a stroke of genius. Property values have spiked in the decade since. Richardson smiles at his fortune.
John Brown Smokehouse, one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood, has benefitted from the influx of residents.
But Richardson says he found something else in the neighborhood: a connection.
In the years after his career ended, Richardson blended into New York, taking yoga classes and riding his bike south to Williamsburg. Then there’s John Brown. Regarded as one of the Chiefs’ most reliable players in history — on and off the field — Richardson calls the smokehouse a place “where everyone knows your name.” He’s bonded with the regulars from back home, including Richard Christy, a Fort Scott native and contributor on The Howard Stern Show. He joined a fantasy football league with Sandhaus and other Chiefs fans and bowls on a team with Bowen.
To the people inside the bar, he’s just Tony.
“We’re all sitting around the table there, doing our fantasy draft,” says Sandhaus, the Leawood native. “And I’m turning to the other regulars: ‘Do I want this guy on my team?’ And Tony’s like: ‘Oh yeah, he lives near the stadium. He’s always well rested for practice. You want that guy on your team.’ “
There are other stories. Last year, Richardson was inducted into the Chiefs Ring of Honor during an early season game against the Jets. He invited Bowen to come back to Kansas City and be his guest at the ceremony. On the Sunday the Royals won the World Series in New York in 2015, he showed up to John Brown early, stepping behind the bar and serving Royals fans.
“He’s a gregarious fellow,” said Ford Bray, a Kansas City native who stopped at John Brown before going to Citi Field for Game 5. “It’s like: Whenever I’m homesick, I go to John Brown.”
On Sunday, John Brown Smokehouse plans to show the Chiefs game like always. The crowd, though, could be a little thinner. The Chiefs are in town for the first of two games at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. This weekend, they play the New York Giants. The next is Dec. 3 against the New York Jets. But that’s fine.
It’s been a good season, Bowen says. The Chiefs are winning, of course — well, mostly. Richardson invited former Chiefs star Dante Hall, who now lives in New Jersey, for the recent Monday Night Football game against Washington. Business remains good.
It’s an unlikely story here in Queens, barbecue and the Chiefs and all that. But as he prepared for another night of bowling with Richardson, Bowen offered a simple explanation:
“I started it because I wanted to get some Kansas City barbecue in New York,” Bowen says. “Six years ago, New York was still pretty barren with barbecue.”
Then the barbecue came. And yes, the Kansas City was sure to follow.