Chow Town

Rich Davis, founder of KC Masterpiece and barbecue legend, dies at age 89

Rich Davis never stopped inventing. In 2000, he stood next to a salad dressing that he was launching called Dress It Up.
Rich Davis never stopped inventing. In 2000, he stood next to a salad dressing that he was launching called Dress It Up. The Kansas City Star

Update: Rich Davis’ memorial service will be Nov. 21 at 1 p.m. at Church of the Resurrection, Wesley Chapel, in Leawood. The public is invited.

The inventor of KC Masterpiece sauce and a legend in the world of barbecue, Rich Davis, died Tuesday at his home in Leawood. He was 89.

In a tweet posted Wednesday, KC Masterpiece wrote: “The BBQ World lost one of its pioneers last night.”

Many years ago, when I was a new food editor trying to get my bearings, Davis invited me to dinner at his home. He was hosting his good friend, cookbook author Sheila Lukins of Silver Palate fame, who was in Kansas City to judge at the American Royal back in 1995.

Lukins was from New York and had a Dean & DeLuca palate long before the gourmet store had arrived in Kansas. Davis’ wife, Coleen, made a delicious chilled leek soup, and he asked chefs Debbie Gold and Michael Smith, then at the American Restaurant, to roast and deliver a suckling pig.

At the end of the evening, Davis thanked me profusely for accepting his invitation, but having been asked to share a meal with such a warm and welcoming host was truly my honor. I don’t recall who else was invited to the dinner, but he made me feel as if I were the only person in the room.

My experience wasn’t unique. On Facebook, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que posted: “It is with genuine sadness that we learned today of the passing of a true Kansas City legend. Rich Davis, the creator and entrepreneur behind KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce, died last night. He was an amazing intellect, a tireless and cheerful ambassador for Kansas City barbecue and one of the reasons Kansas City is The Barbecue Capitol of the World.”

Davis, a piano prodigy who decided to become a child psychiatrist, founded Masterpiece Products Inc. in 1978 to manufacture the barbecue sauces he had created. In the early days, he delivered the sauce to stores in his station wagon. By 1986, revenues surpassed $5 million, and Davis sold the company to the Kingsford Products Co., a division of the Clorox Co. He used some of the capital to enter the restaurant business with his sons, Charlie and Rich.

At the same time Masterpiece took off, Davis was marketing a condiment mashup called Muschup. Never heard of it? That’s because the mustard-ketchup never went anywhere. In taste tests, Davis’ K.C. Soul Style BBQ Sauce was getting better reviews. Before he brought it to market, he changed the name to KC Masterpiece and created a classy, understated logo to better stand out among his colorfully packaged competitors.

“He had a new product, but he wanted to make it look like it had been around forever,” recalled son Rich.

Today, KC Masterpiece is widely considered the archetype of the Kansas City-style tomato-based and molasses-sweetened sauces that have followed in its footsteps. In the process, Davis wound up creating a “premium” price point for the barbecue sauce category that previously had not existed.

Kansas City-based sauce expert and Chow Town blogger Ardie Davis (no relation) characterized KC Masterpiece in his 1999 “The Great BBQ Sauce Book” (Ten Speed Press): “In a century dominated by a few big brand names … it emerged as a giant among sauces, a household name, and a better-than-ketchup all-purpose condiment.”

Rich Davis told a Star reporter in 2004 that his ultimate success came from hard work, timing and luck.

“I just wouldn’t want people to get the idea that all you have to do is win a contest and then everything is easy,” said Davis, who won the very first American Royal Barbecue Competition. “Because that’s what’s called a delusion in my former business.”

The sauce, the No. 1 selling barbecue sauce in the U.S., is still sold in supermarkets nationwide.

Davis was named one of America’s Most Famous Barbecuers by Parade magazine, where Lukins served as food editor. He was frequently featured on national media, including the “Today” show, “Good Morning America” and “The Regis Philbin Show.” Smart and eloquent, he took every chance he got to promote the rich heritage of Kansas City barbecue in those appearances.

Rich Davis II said his dad was a sharp marketer, once hosting New York’s reigning food editors at a barbecue tasting on the East River. The invitation came in the form of just-cooked ribs wrapped in butcher paper inscribed with time, date and place.

“Everybody showed up,” said Davis II, who gave up a law practice to work with his father.

Then there was the time Davis got a KC Masterpiece sauce bottle placed in a scene of “Murphy’s Romance” featuring actors James Garner and Sally Field.

Davis was a member of the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame, and KC Masterpiece won the prestigious “Best Sauce on the Planet” award at the American Royal Barbecue Sauce Contest in 1980.

Carolyn Wells, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, mourns the loss of a mentor.

“He was someone I greatly respected,” she said. “He always helped before he was asked.”

Davis was also ahead of his time with big food ideas, Wells said. Before farm-to-table was a popular concept, he envisioned an agricultural theme park that would glorify the Midwest’s agricultural roots and educate people about where their food comes from.

“He was a forward-thinking person with a big heart,” Wells said.

Before becoming director of marketing of Joe’s Kansas City, Doug Worgul spent time interviewing Davis for a Star book titled “Grand Barbecue” published in 2001.

“He was the most gracious of individuals and a visionary with what Kansas City barbecue could mean to the community.”

KC Masterpiece’s first restaurant, in Overland Park, opened in 1987. Another on the Country Club Plaza later closed. There also were two operations in the St. Louis area at one time.

A classic Lee Judge cartoon depicts St. Peter welcoming Arthur Bryant into heaven, but not before he asks, “Did you bring the sauce?”

When it comes to Davis’ place in Kansas City barbecue history, Worgul insists: “St. Peter is surely asking the same question now.”