In the early 1900s, if you weren’t smoking at home, you could get Chow Town barbecue from hundreds of street corner vendors.
Indoor restaurants sprouted in the early 1900s, eventually dominating the barbecue scene. Several decades later Chow Town was full-on famous for barbecue.
A new barbecue venue arrived in Chow Town in the 1980s: competition barbecue. The Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) emerged as a contest sanctioning organization with uniform rules and procedures that all contests could follow.
The infant KCBS cut its teeth on running barbecue contests that were fair, efficient and evened the playing field. At first, contestants were divided into Amateurs and Professionals. It made sense on paper but it didn’t work in practice. The line between amateur and professional was blurry and contentious.
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It was apparent that, just as in real life, you bring what you have to the game, do your best and let the bones fall where they may.
A growing number of successful contest teams have opened barbecue restaurants in Chow Town. Are they better than the others? Do trophies and ribbons guarantee superior barbecue? Are Oklahoma Joe’s, Smokin’ Guns, Plowboys, Jon Russell’s and Q39 superior to Jack Stack, Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, Johnny’s and LC’s?
Although there are differences in presentation, tenderness and taste from one restaurant to another, the contest pedigree of the founding pitmasters doesn’t automatically guarantee a top quality barbecue restaurant. It’s more about pitmaster skills and business savvy than a championship pedigree.
Running a barbecue restaurant requires skill sets that differ from winning barbecue contests — giving customers consistent, top quality meat; training staff to prep it and cook it your way and recruiting honest, competent, reliable staff.
That’s not to mention establishing basic business and operations procedures; sourcing equipment, food and supplies; complying with applicable laws, rules and regulations; designing an appealing front of the house and a safe, efficient back of the house and marketing and community relations.
Going pro is a huge leap.
The quality of ribs, brisket, pork and chicken varies from one restaurant to another. “Competition-style” is not a differentiating factor. Competitors’ styles vary as much as non-competitors’ styles. Some go heavy on salt; some go heavy on sugar; some go light on both. Signature flavors make the barbecue in each place different from others.
Hats off to every barbecue restaurant pitmaster in Chow Town, trophies or not. It’s a tough job, and we’re glad you’re doing it!
Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, His most recent release book is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”