Chow Town

Searching for healthy barbecue pays off for Shawnee native

RQ Barbecue

It’s been quite the journey for Shawnee native Ron Rupp.

He’s gone from running McDonald’s restaurants in the Far East to my hometown of Chicago and then, hopefully, to the first of many barbecue restaurants.

But not just any barbecue restaurant. No, Rupp was after “healthy barbecue.” Before you get those burnt ends and fries stuck in your throat trying to stifle a laugh, let me have Rupp explain.

“There’s no reason barbecue has to be loaded with bad things,” he said during a natural and delicious lunch at Magnolia’s. “I mean, why can’t you source healthier products? At rQ Barbecue we have fresh vegetables, no freezers or microwaves, no processed foods, none of our food contains MSG, and it’s all-natural sweetness.”

Rupp opened rQ Barbecue with his wife, JoAnn, two years ago. From the beginning, the goal was raising the barbecue bar from both a health and ambiance standpoint.

“We try whenever possible to source local meats and produce, free-range chicken, and all-natural turkey and pork,” he said. “We don’t use any artificial additives. All of our recipes are created daily with garden-fresh veggies, premium proteins, and fresh dairy products.”

Although the food is likely delicious — I’ve not had the opportunity to try anything but Rupp’s sauces, which are terrific — it hasn’t always been an easy sell.

Located in the southwest Chicago suburb of Shorewood, Rupp found his customers didn’t have much of a background or understanding of Kansas City barbecue, let alone “healthy” Kansas City barbecue. Having myself grown up in the Chicago suburbs at a time when barbecue was burgers and hot dogs on the grill and ribs were boiled, then finished in the oven for that “fall off the bone” consistency, I know of what he speaks.

“I knew it would be perceived as different at first, and people would be taken aback by change,” he said. “But, after tasting the food, I knew they’d enjoy it as much as old-school barbecue, but feel better about themselves.”

So it was a bit of a double whammy for Rupp — teaching folks about authentic barbecue and healthy barbecue at the same time. Some of the things we barbecue-obsessed Kansas Citians take for granted didn’t translate all that easily.

“For example, everyone here knows you can order a pound of brisket, two pounds of burnt ends, or whatever,” he said. “That’s was a concept our customers just didn’t get. So, in addition to meats by the pound, we offer meals. One size with sides feeds four, a larger meal, eight to 10, and so on. People get it and love it. The concept has really taken off.”

Another Rupp original that’s selling well are wraps. I can almost see the barbecue purists reading this and rolling their eyes, but Rupp said the wraps provide a healthier alternative to the traditional barbecue sandwiches and they’re selling like crazy. Rupp offers seven wraps, everything from pulled pork to chicken Caesar and salmon. I don’t know about you, but a smoked chicken Caesar wrap sounds pretty good to me.

As for Rupp himself, he is a longtime pit master and rub and sauce creator. In fact, he and his wife have more than 40 years of combined barbecue experience. Through the years, Ron was the man at the pit with homemade sauces and rubs, JoAnn with the passion for healthy cooking and fresh ingredients. It’s all come together at rQ Barbecue where Kansas City meets Chicago and barbecue meets healthy. Rupp says the future of healthy barbecue looks bright.

“The die-hard checkered table cloth guys struggled at first with the look and concept, but they too have turned the corner and are now coming in,” Rupp said.

To try rQ Barbecue for yourself, you can head out to Shorewood, or just head to the nearest Hen House and pick up a bottle of his rQ sauces. I’m partial to the Ivory, which is unbelievably good on chicken and pork, but you can make up your own mind, just like the customers are doing up in my hometown.

Dave Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.