In Kansas City, where barbecue is a way of life, it is understood that smoke has mystical properties. Smoke has the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. It can transform the least desirable cuts of meat into the most delectable. It can even transform a neighborhood corner gas station into one of the most popular restaurants on the planet.
This is the story of Jeff and Joy Stehney and their company, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. In many ways, it is a quite ordinary story. People start successful businesses every day, after all. But Jeff and Joy’s company is anything but ordinary. In 1990, Jeff and Joy attended a barbecue contest for the first time, at the invitation of a friend. “We had a great time,” Jeff says. “I loved everything about it. The smoke. The smell of it. The camaraderie. The competition. The passion. And, of course, the food. I was hooked. I knew then and there this was something I had to do.”
The Stehneys soon bought a competition-style smoker and, together with a few friends, formed a barbecue team. They called it Slaughterhouse Five. It wasn’t long before Slaughterhouse Five began winning contests. Lots of contests.
Over the course of the next several years the team took home trophies from some of the most prestigious barbecue competitions in the country, including the Lenexa Kansas State BBQ Championship, the American Royal Open and the American Royal Invitational. As their reputation for championship barbecue began to spread, folks began to ask Jeff and Joy if they would cater special events, wedding receptions, retirement parties, and such. “Pretty soon people began to tell us that we should open our own restaurant,” Joy recalls. “Of course, that was flattering, but we were both employed in the restaurant industry at the time, and we knew firsthand how much effort and risk would be involved in opening our own place. It wasn’t something we rushed into.”
Out on the competition circuit, Jeff and Joy had become friends with Joe Don Davidson, founder and owner of the Oklahoma Joe's Smoker Company. Under the heady influence of barbecue smoke, Jeff and Joe decided to go into the restaurant business together. Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue and Catering was created in mid-1995, and the first Oklahoma Joe’s restaurant opened in January 1996 in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Later that year, experience and commitment intersected with opportunity and serendipity at the corner of 47th Avenue and Mission Road in Kansas City, Kansas, where the owner of a little neighborhood gas station and convenience store, not far from the Stehneys' house, closed the little fried chicken counter he had been operating inside the store. “It seemed like a pretty good place for a barbecue joint,” Jeff says. “Inside a gas station. Plus, there was a liquor store next door, in the same building, which was kind of cool. But the main thing was that it was close to home. I knew we’d be putting in some long hours and being close to home would be a really good thing. We put together a proposal, made an offer, and all of a sudden we were not only in the barbecue business, but also in the gas station business.”
Then, in 1997, Joe Davidson sold his smoker company and moved to Texas. With no one to oversee the Oklahoma restaurant, it was closed and Jeff and Joy bought Joe's share of the Kansas City restaurant. The Stehneys have been the sole owners of Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que restaurants from that time forward.
Not long after Jeff and Joy opened their barbecue joint at the corner of 47th & Mission Road in Kansas City, Kansas, they were approached by a fellow by the name of Mike Zarrick who had an idea to pitch. “I recognized the guy,” recalls Jeff. “He was a regular customer. He told me how much he liked our restaurant, and said that he was about to launch his own sports talk radio program on a new station in town; 1510 AM. It was just a little start-up station, and the jocks actually had to buy their own time on the air and sell their own advertising. So, I decided to take a chance on the guy. What sold me was his absolute passion for our barbecue. I’d rather partner up with someone with passion and enthusiasm at a little station, than with some big conglomerate with all the Arbitron numbers and no passion.” About six months later Jeff had an idea. “I had created this new sandwich which featured sliced smoked brisket, smoked provolone cheese, a couple of onion rings, a bit of barbecue sauce, all on top of a Kaiser roll. So, I went to Zarrick and asked him to talk about the sandwich on the air, and to invite his listeners to try the sandwich in the restaurant and to submit names to the sandwich. It would be a contest, and the winner would get a prize and we’d use that name on the menu. “Well, Zarrick was getting pretty popular and he had begun calling himself ‘Z-Man’ on the air. So when people came in to try the sandwich as part of the contest, they would ask for ‘that Z-Man’ sandwich. Eventually, a winning name was chosen, but it never stuck. By the time the contest ended, everybody was calling the sandwich the Z-Man! We’ve been calling it that ever since.”
The subject of expanding the company comes up frequently. And for that Jeff has a quick and definitive answer. “Three barbecue restaurants and our shipping facility are enough for us. Our ambition has never been to be the biggest. Our goal has only ever been to be the best. I think we’ve achieved that. By keeping it small, we keep it real. We stay close to our customers and close to the product.
“I’m reminded of the importance of what we do here, and our role in Kansas City’s barbecue tradition, every morning when I arrive at the restaurant and smell that wonderful smoke coming out of our smokers. After all these years, it’s still magical.”
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