Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ Sauce
Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ Sauce
Born of Smoke
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, Oklahoma 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, born of smoke in Kansas City, 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. Since it began competing in 1991, Slaughterhouse Five has won more than twenty-five Grand and Reserve Grand Championships. And in 1993, it was named the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s Team of the Year.
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.”
Jeff and Joy had both worked as sales representatives for restaurant food service vendors in the Kansas City area, and both had also worked for Kansas City area restaurants. This experience and knowledge, as well as their expertise in making world-class barbecue, prepared them well and eventually became the foundation for their success. “We knew we would have to be uncompromising in our commitment to quality,” Jeff says. Joy agrees. “There are no shortcuts in this business,” she says. “You have to earn it every day.”
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 Oklahoma Joe’s Kansas City restaurants from that time forward.
Oklahoma Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que has earned local, regional, national, and even international attention for the quality of its barbecue and the uniqueness of its original gas station location. It has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Denver Post, The Chicago Sun-Times, Vanity Fair, numerous airline magazines, local magazines, and The Kansas City Star.
Oklahoma Joe’s has also been featured on local and national television programs, including Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour” and “No Reservations”, the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food”, among many others.
In 2009, Anthony Bourdain named Oklahoma Joe’s as one of “Thirteen Places to Eat Before You Die” in an article for Men’s Health magazine.
Oklahoma Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que has been the Zagat #1 Rated barbecue restaurant in Kansas City every year since 2004. Zagat also named Joe’s famous sandwich, the Z-Man, the Best Sandwich in Kansas in its “50 States, 50 Sandwiches List”. In 2013, The Daily Meal website and USA Today both named Oklahoma Joe’s Kansas City’s ribs “America’s Best Ribs”.
Jeff and Joy opened a second restaurant, in Olathe, Kansas in March of 2005. In 2007, the company also opened The Kansas City BBQ Store, a retail barbecue supply store, nearby the Olathe restaurant. In summer 2012, a third restaurant was opened in Leawood, Kansas. “That’s it for us,” Jeff says, whenever the subject of expansion comes up. “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.”