Chow Town

Founder of Joe’s KC to be inducted into Barbecue Hall of Fame

The competition pitmaster whose ’cue led Anthony Bourdain to proclaim his restaurant one of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die” has received the ultimate bucket list honor.

Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que owner and Z-Man creator Jeff Stehney will be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame at a ceremony during the American Royal held at the Kansas Speedway over Labor Day weekend.

The Z-Man — a smoked brisket, two onion ring and provolone cheese dream between a bun that won a place on Thrillist’s “50 Sandwiches to Eat Before You Die” — has been a frequent guest on late-night talk shows.

Stehney started competing at barbecue competition with his wife, Joy, and the Slaughterhouse Five team in 1990. By 1996 he had opened his first restaurant, Oklahoma Joe’s. The restaurant underwent a name change in 2014 but never skipped a beat as one of the city’s most beloved barbecue institutions.

Joe’s KC empire includes four locations: Kansas City, Kan., Leawood, Olathe and the 180 Room, an upscale private dining room next to the Olathe restaurant. Stehney employs 300 people and rings up more than $25 million a year in revenues.

Barbecue Hall of Fame inductees are chosen for their significant contributions to the barbecue community and demonstration of achievement in barbecue excellence. The 2017 class includes “Famous Dave” Anderson of the Famous Dave’s chain and Memphis pitmaster/restaurateur Melissa Cookston, known as the “Winningest Woman in Barbecue.”

Past Kansas City inductees include the late Rich Davis, inventor of KC Masterpiece; Gary and Carolyn Wells, founders of the Kansas City Barbeque Society; Henry Perry, the first Kansas City businessman to sell barbecue (who died in 1940); sauce expert and cookbook author Ardie Davis, and competition pitmaster and “Baron of Barbecue” Paul Kirk.

Stehney’s team has continued to compete over the years, winning more than 30 Grand and Reserve Grand championships as he headed down what he refers to as “the different avenues of barbecue.”

Stehney also owns The Kansas City BBQ Store for books, sauces and seasonings, Cowtown Barbeque Products and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que Sauces & Seasonings.

Yes, you can buy their addictive french fry seasoning: Joe’s KC recently won The Star’s March Madness fry bracket. (The fries are coated with a barbecue rub made with salt, brown sugar, garlic, onion, paprika and dehydrated bone broth.)

Stehney is also owner of Cimarron Docs Bar-B-Q & Chili Co., producer of a sweet rib rub that is a favorite on the competitive circuit.

In 2016, Stehney opened a USDA-approved state-of-the-art mail-order operation, a move that has allowed him to ship barbecue nationwide.

Not content to rest on his burnt ends, Stehney is currently working on a Joe’s KC cookbook. The project, Stehney says, has brought him back to the competition circuit. His team plans to compete in 21 KCBS-sanctioned competitions this season.

“We reignited on the competition barbecue circuit because we were working on a cookbook,” Stehney says by phone while preparing his Ole Hickory CTO smoker for cooking at the Red White & Barbecue competition in Westmont, Ill., held over Memorial Day weekend. “We wanted to bookend the book by going out and competing on a regional and national scale again.”

Stehney has continued to compete at the American Royal each year, and he has spent more than $250,000 sponsoring barbecue contests.

“People may disagree who has the best BBQ,” Bourdain wrote about Joe’s KC for Men’s Health back in 2009. “Here, the brisket (particularly the burnt ends), pulled pork and ribs are all of the quality that meets the high standards of Kansas City natives. It’s the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best barbecue in the world.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood and on Instagram @jillwsilva.