Chow Town

Joe’s Kansas City launches mail-order barbecue, including Z-Man sandwiches

Credit Jimmy Kimmel’s Z-Man craving for coaxing Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que into the online shipping business.

When the late-night host’s show moved to an earlier time slot at the end of 2014, Kimmel used a promo spot to put in an order for the barbecue joint’s signature sandwich. (Kimmel’s brother-in-law and his family live here.)

But rather than reveling in the spotlight, the company hesitated as it began worrying about quality control and protecting the brand’s reputation: “We’d love to send you a Z-Man, but we’d need to come out and fry the onion rings and toast the kaiser roll ourselves,” Joe’s tweeted back.

But starting this week at sendjoeskcbbq.com, Kimmel, along with Average Joes across the country, can order their own Z-Man “kit”: a cardboard box shipped via UPS containing all the ingredients required to assemble eight sandwiches.

That’s 2 pounds frozen sliced beef brisket and eight slices of provolone cheese in vacuum-sealed packages, 16 onion rings, eight kaiser rolls and a plastic bottle of sauce. All items are packed in foam coolers on dry ice and gel packs, then swaddled in sheets of bubble wrap.

The accompanying user’s manual instructs the receiver to thaw the frozen meat in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours and reheat it in the packaging using a sous vide-style hot water bath for 10 minutes.

While the beef warms up, instructions direct to bake the onion rings, swipe the buns with butter and toast them. Finally, assemble the sandwich according to the diagram (with two rings per sandwich) and enjoy.

The onion rings are one of the only deviations from the in-house version: baked instead of deep-fried rings. “We did find really, really good bakeable onion rings,” says Doug Worgul, the company’s director of marketing.

The Z-Man kit is available with a choice of three meats. Customers can also order pork shoulders (aka pork butt), pork ribs, briskets, burnt ends, house-made sausage, whole chicken (in halves) and chicken, sliced turkey breast and Smokie Joe (a mixture of chopped smoked beef and pork).

So far, only two side dishes have made the cut: barbecue beans and dirty rice. Coleslaw and potato salad contain too much fat to allow them to freeze, and everything in the box must be frozen solid before it ships.

“We’re trying to offer the restaurant experience in your house,” Worgul says. “But we also know that most of those who receive and eat the product are not the hometown eater. It’s the only chance we have to show them what we are doing.”

Shipping across state lines requires access to a USDA-certified commercial kitchen. The Joe’s Kansas City shipping facility is in Olathe and took 15 months to build. The state-of-the-art plant is under the direction of David Schnarr, a former executive chef at J. Alexander’s Restaurant. The facility’s capacity is 240 pork butts, 90 briskets and 180 slabs of ribs per day.

While an employee in a white lab coat and hairnet tests the tenderness of rib slabs by gloved hand, modern technology offers an assist with wireless temperature monitors to track heating and cooling of food, electronic tracking systems for full product traceability, a 6-horsepower blast chiller to prepare items for shipping and piped ozone to sanitize work areas.

“Obviously there are costs associated with this style of facility,” says Ryan Barrows, director of operations. “There were basically zero synergies with the current restaurants.”

Barbecue shipping packages will be $49.99 to $199.99. If that seems pricey, consider how the cost of a single slab of ribs nearly doubles when you add a $10 charge for shipping materials and another $20 for delivery.

“From a consumer standpoint, $60 ribs is not a win,” Barrows says. “That’s not a game we want to get into because we don’t look like the good guys there, so packaging and bundling things for value is what we’re trying to do.”

Consumers are increasingly ordering perishable foods online to be delivered to their doorstep, thanks to the growth of popular in-home meal kits from Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and others, according to the NPD Group’s recent marketing research.

At the same time, all types of restaurants are partnering with delivery services such as Eat24, Grub Hub and Seamless, while UberEATS and Amazon Prime Now will increase restaurant delivery as they continue to roll out around the country.

While barbecue may prove to be more of a special occasion purchase than a what’s-for-dinner option, Darren Seifert, a food and beverage analyst for NPD, notes even “one-shop players” who could never afford the expense of a separate shipping facility can now get into the act.

“There’s a definite paradigm shift in what’s acceptable in the consumer’s eyes with food,” Barrows says. “Jack Stack’s been doing this for a lot of years. They did this before the Age of the Internet, before shipping was even popular or relevant or mainstream. Our timing is about perfect. We’ve watched them and some of the others for a while. We understand that there’s a market, and I like to think they’ve helped us set the table.”

Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue started online shipping in 2000, and the segment has grown every year since, making up 10 to 15 percent of the company’s annual revenues. “It’s a nice, solid complement to our core business of restaurants and catering,” says Ricky Paradise, senior vice president for retail operations.

Jack Stack has shipped its barbecue all over the world, including Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan and Dubai. Closer to home, California, Texas and New England order the most barbecue. Gourmet food mail order sites such as Foodydirect and Goldbely also offer Jack Stack packages.

“We started out like so many people and thought, ‘How hard could this be?’ Well, getting barbecue to a priest at the Vatican isn’t easy,” Paradise adds, “but what’s more flattering than that? We just figure it out.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the busiest time of year for barbecue purchases is the Christmas holiday season, and the gift is most often sent to someone who has dined at the restaurants in Kansas City and wants to reminisce about the experience, or share it with others.

Of course, not every Kansas City barbecue restaurant that has entered the shipping business has been successful, but Paradise says more mail order barbecue is a good thing.

“We’re excited for them,” he says of Joe’s foray into the market. “It’s flattering … I think they’ll be successful and I think they’ll do well.”

Los Angeles resident James Lilii stopped by the original Joe’s Kansas City restaurant for some ribs and burnt ends recently while in town for a Royals game and a few rounds of golf.

Lilii and his travel buddies Ken Casebier, John Huber and Jim Smith say they would gladly pay to have barbecue shipped their way.

“I’d order it for a party during the summer,” Lilii says.

Asked if they would stick with the famed Z-Man or order something else off the menu, Lilii says: “If we’re shipping it, we might as well get everything.”

Jill Wendholt Silva: 816-234-4395, @kcstarfood

Mail-order BBQ

Prices for mail-order barbecue packages from Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que range from $49.99 to $199.99.

Minimum thawing time is 24 hours. Some cuts, such as pork shoulder, may take 48 hours. The meat can last up to a week in the refrigerator or up to a year in the freezer.

“If you want ribs tomorrow, well, it’s already too late,” says Doug Worgul, the company’s director of marketing. “You need patience and you need to plan ahead.”

Reheating should be done on the stovetop, in the oven or, in the case of sides, in a slow cooker. No grill required, and microwaves are strictly discouraged as they ruin the quality of the meat.

Package highlights:

2 pounds sausage ($49.99): Two 1-pound packages of house-made sausage links, plus one bottle of barbecue sauce

Z-Man kit ($84.99): Available with brisket, chicken or pulled pork, enough for eight sandwiches

Slaughter House Five package ($109.99): 2 pounds pulled pork, 1 pound brisket, 1 pound sausage, 1 pound Smokie Joe, 1 pound turkey, 3 bottles barbecue sauce

The Contest in a Box ($199.99): 2 full slabs pork ribs, 1 pork shoulder (2 pounds cooked), 1 pound chopped burnt ends, 1 pound sliced brisket, 1 whole chicken (two halves) and 2 bottles of sauce. “We’re trying to walk customers through what you would get in a barbecue contest,” says Ryan Barrows, director of operations.

Add ribs ($34.99) to any package or kit (not available as a single la carte item)

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