On a muggy Saturday morning in June, Jeff Stehney heads toward the turn-in tables at Knights of Columbus Smoke Off 4-Life held at Sacred Heart Church in Kansas City, Kan.
He walks briskly, carrying an unmarked white box inside an insulated tote to the table then hangs back, checking his wristwatch against the official time clock. Stehney doesn’t want to be the first drop-off. He idles nearby until other competitors arrive carrying their precious cargo for the judges.
The church competition is a small one. A few teams nod at Stehney or offer a cursory greeting, but most don’t appear to recognize the trim, tan, fast-talking, bespectacled guy as the brains behind Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que.
Joe’s KC was born in 1996 in a gas station in Westwood. Today the restaurant has three Kansas locations, 300 employees and annual revenues of more than $25 million. The restaurant has filled take-out orders for President Barack Obama and received its share of celebrity shout-outs, including “Saturday Night Live” alum Jason Sudeikis sharing his favorite barbecue on “The Late Show With Steven Colbert.”
The restaurant’s phenomenal success has spurred a new crop of competition pitmasters to open their own restaurants. Think Q39, Slap’s and Plowboys.
In the early days, the restaurant was named Oklahoma Joe’s after Joe Davidson, who had a smoker business in Oklahoma and started restaurants there and in Kansas City with Stehney and his wife, Joy.
Eventually the partners separated their businesses, and the restaurants were renamed Joe’s Kansas City in 2014.
Stehney still competes as Slaughterhouse Five, the team he and his wife created in 1990, named after the Kurt Vonnegut novel.
The competition trailer — which bears a Joe’s logo and sponsors names — features an Old Hickory smoker on the back deck. Inside, refrigerators keep the meat cool while Stehney and team members J.B. Brinkman and Larry Johnson escape the humidity in an air-conditioned mobile kitchen.
As Stehney listens to alt-country rock songs, he reaches for knives, rubs, injectors, basting brushes and tweezers from carefully organized drawers.
Stehney has always reserved time to cook at the biggest event of the year — The American Royal Barbecue Contest — but this year he has reserved 21 weekends for smaller barbecue competitions.
Stehney started his barbecue career as a competitor so he is spending time getting back to his roots and honing his skills.
It’s also been helpful to be back tending pits as he fine tunes recipes for “Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel) due out June 2018.
In a culture that reveres larger-than-life pitmasters, Stehney has managed to maintain a relatively low profile. Not that his contributions have gone unnoticed.
Over Labor Day weekend, Stehney will be inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame alongside Melissa Cookston, a Memphis-based restaurateur and one of the few professional female pitmasters, and Dave Anderson of Famous Dave’s barbecue chain.
But Stehney isn’t resting on his laurels.
In February 2018, Stehney will open a new Texas-style smoked meats-and-beer concept in the Power & Light District. County Line Ice House’s menu will feature smoked meats and some new items like baby back ribs, barbecue tacos, a smoky fried chicken tender salad and the Z-Man burger.
The new concept, a partnership with Kansas City’s own Back Napkin Restaurant Group (which also runs Rock Hill Grille and Westport Alehouse), will offer sit-down service, and it will be the only location serving Joe’s barbecue on Sunday.
Stehney is efficient and detail-oriented but he enjoys what he calls “the barbecue lifestyle,” one that includes hanging out with his buddies drinking beer.
The 8,500-square-foot County Line Ice House will provide a Texas-size excuse for him to socialize, and the restaurant is also a way to fine-tune the efficiency of his Joe’s KC restaurants. Stehney and crew are looking for ways to ensure nothing goes to waste.
While working in the Olathe restaurant test kitchen with his corporate chef Cary Taylor, Stehney points to a stainless-steel table where two employees are busy trimming briskets.
Making Joe’s popular Z-Man (brisket, two onion rings and smoked provolone cheese on a bun) requires lopping 2 to 3 ounces of meat off 1,200 briskets per week to ensure the smoke permeates all the way through the meat. Add to that tally the waste from trimming 7,500 slabs of ribs and 1,200 pork shoulders per week.
“That’s hundreds and hundreds of pounds of meat,” Stehney says, “so Cary’s first job was to come in and look at all the by-product Joe’s was generating.”
Several County Line Ice House menu items are designed to curb waste: The brisket trim can be ground into a jalapeno and cheddar sausage while leftover burnt ends and pork shoulder will be refashioned into barbacoa and carnitas tacos.
He’s also adding a baby back rib basket to the menu. Baby backs are roughly double the price of a St. Louis sparerib. But instead of buying full slabs, he’ll buy the three or four ribs discarded from either side of a full slab. By using an industry byproduct, he brings the cost in line with spareribs.
Stehney’s quest for cost-control and consistency is a reflection of what sets the best competition pitmasters apart from classically trained restaurant chefs.
“He’s driven and focused, and that was a big eye-opener for me when I started competing,” says Colby Garrelts, chef/owner of Bluestem and Rye. “Barbecue guys are meticulous. They follow the recipes to the ounce, the tablespoon, the weight. And they record it.”
Stehney and Garrelts are friends as well as business partners in Rye, which will open a second location on the Country Club Plaza this fall.
One day Colby stopped by the restaurant and, to his surprise, found Stehney in the kitchen testing brisket techniques. “You’d think that they’d have it down by now, but they’re constantly trying to perfect it,” he says.
Even when the Garreltses head over to the Stehney house for spaghetti and meatballs, you can be sure Stehney has perfected the recipe.
“I just make meatballs,” Garrelts says laughing.
As Stehney sips a beer and lounges in a folding chair in front of a flatbed truck at the Knights of Columbus contest, he is philosophical about the team’s chances.
“It’s gotten so hard to win,” he says. “I mean, I was a really good cook back when I started. And I’m a better cook now, but it’s gotten so specialized. There are guys out there who are going to cook 40 contests this year, and when they’re not cooking, they’re practicing more than me.”
But Stehney has nothing left to prove, because everybody already knows Joe’s.