Behind the Smoke

Jason Dailey

If you’re a long-time regular at Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue—meaning that you ate pulled pork sandwiches and burnt ends in the original restaurant-in-a-gas-station before Saturday lunch lines snaked halfway around the building and before the Olathe location that’s consistently mobbed by barbecue aficionados opened—you might know the proprietors.

But newcomers to the OJ’s phenomenon wouldn’t recognize Jeff and Joy Stehney. Though Joy occasionally works the line at the Olathe store and Jeff is frequently hands-on in the kitchen at the 47th Avenue commissary, the couple’s on-site visibility has changed from the early days.

Savvy entrepreneurs, the Stehneys have built a foundation of enthusiastic employees who ensure that the customer service is on the same level as the barbecue that’s been touted the world over as crazy-good.

Since August 16, 1996, when the 47th Avenue flagship store served its first barbecue, the Stehneys have quietly built a brand that exemplifies quality, innovation and a dash of quirkiness. It is pretty novel to eat really good food in a place that pumps gas, after all.

What hasn’t been subtle about Oklahoma Joe’s meteoric rise to the top of the barbecue chain is the response that its interpretation of KC ‘cue has received from anyone who appreciates the art of smoked meat, a well-conceived sauce—rich, zesty, tangy—and the perfect fries to accompany a rib-sticking meal.

And the plan has always been—always—for Oklahoma Joe’s to be a business, not a way of life for the couple. The Stehneys enjoy it too much for it to become a burden.

Smokin’ good

In a city where barbecue is often regarded as sacred as grandma’s Sunday pot roast and where sauces are as heatedly debated as some political issues, Oklahoma Joe’s is a bit of a media darling. It’s been elevated to the lofty status as No. 13 on culinary personality Anthony Bourdain’s now-famous food bucket list, and served to visiting presidents and Fortune 100 royalty.

The venerable Wall Street Journal—a publication not exactly known for food reviews, but nonetheless regarded as an expert on American success—has regaled Oklahoma Joe’s as “The One to Beat.”

Actors, comedians and British peers appearing in local stage productions are caught on Oklahoma Joe’s customers’ iPhones, their photos posted on blogs depicting sauce dribbling down quivering chins as the celebs tuck into an onion ring-topped Z-Man Sandwich, the restaurant’s most popular menu item.

Rock stars’ tour busses are loaded up with Oklahoma Joe’s take-out following shows at Sprint Center. Athletes, professional and amateur, take the edge off a loss or celebrate a win with the restaurant’s savory fare.

Okahoma Joe’s Pulled Pork Sandwich recipe has been shared with millions of television viewers on the “Crazy Q’s” episode of chef Bobby Flay’s eponymous Food Network Show and food writer/pop culture chronicler Michael Stern crows about the Smokie Joe Sandwich on his roadfood.com Web site.

The Stehneys take it all in stride. After all, it’s barbecue, not brain surgery.

Hearth and home

Today’s interview is purposely scheduled away from the fray of the Oklahoma Joe’s action, at Jeff and Joy’s bucolic DeSoto home. The location is perhaps symbolic of the Stehneys’ careful cultivation of a life away from their thriving business. Five cats wander in and out of the peaceful residence that overlooks stables, a pond and a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen.

Leaves are changing colors on trees that populate the property on this brilliant fall afternoon, and aside from a collection of cookbooks, you’d be hard pressed to categorize the indoor kitchen as one belonging to a barbecue baron and baroness.

Jeff joins the conversation late, wrapping up a call about the company’s newest location slated to open at the crossroads of food at 119th and Roe in mid-2012. Joy is talking about her passion—the world-champion quarter horses that the couple raises in their business, Stehney Quarter Horses—pointing to the massive trophy displayed on the mantel.

At first you think it’s one of the many prestigious awards that Slaughterhouse Five, Oklahoma Joe’s competitive barbecue team, has won during the years of toiling over the white oak smoke at events across the country, and in particular at the American Royal. Joy quickly corrects—it’s a World Championship she won in 2009 by showing her prized 2-year-old gelding. The sparkle in Mrs. Oklahoma Joe’s eyes transmits across the room.

“This is my first love,” says Joy. “I went to almost a dozen horse competitions this year. I still get show nerves, and I practice relentlessly.”

Joy is preparing for her last big show of the year in Oklahoma. No doubt she will place amongst the competitors, her natural spirit and talent kicking in, her thoughts far away from award-winning ribs, sandwiches and fries.

Barbecue fever

The Stehneys acknowledge the fervor over the recipes they have painstakingly developed and adapted from their early days of competitive barbecue that began in 1990. They value the media attention that’s focused on Kansas City from the people and publications with authoritative voices on definitive food who endorse OJ’s as divine, but their demeanor about being a sought-out mecca for barbecue is decidedly low-key.

“The truth is,” says Jeff, “that our growth has been steady the entire 15 years we’ve been around. But it’s undeniable that Bourdain’s mention of Oklahoma Joe’s as one of the 13 places you need to eat before you die ignited some intense media attention.”

Jeff cherishes being part of a fraternity of one-name barbecue legends—Gates, Bryant’s, Fiorella’s—and doesn’t think for a minute that Oklahoma Joe’s supersedes the strong historical roots established by the granddaddies of the coveted Kansas City tradition.

“I’m inquisitive and always want to know what to do differently or better,” says Jeff, who spends days at Oklahoma Joe’s in the 47th Avenue store’s catering kitchen, perched on a stainless steel table with a cup of coffee in one hand and something that’s on the menu testing block in the other. “Joy and I have a strong work ethic, and by association, our employees—whom we consider family—do. None of us take our accolades lightly.”

Indeed Jeff, a self-professed innovative traditionalist who pushes his employees toward perfection as hard as he charges for the brass ring, regularly scrutinizes Oklahoma Joe’s average $9 ticket to determine what customers are buying and why. Whether or not OJ’s is at the top of someone’s personal list, Jeff’s deep and abiding respect and affection is fierce for the city that takes prideful ownership of its barbecue.

“We’re honored to be a part of KC’s barbecue heritage and tradition,” says Jeff, a student of culinary traditions from around the world that ultimately inform his approach to food. “But Joy and I are determined that the business won’t consume us.”

That’s why you can drive to an Oklahoma Joe’s Monday through Saturday for some serious barbecue, but never on Sunday. On the seventh day, both locations are closed.

“It’s not all about making money,” insists Jeff, who might be one of the most cerebral barbecue masters around, always thinking ahead to the next project, the last slab of ribs that came off the smoker, the business model that he tweaks. “It’s about quality and high standards, yes, and even about being the best. But Joy and I aren’t trying to be the biggest barbecue restaurant in Kansas City. We want to have fun and enjoy the business.”

And for a company with a culture shaped by its leaders—the hardworking, passionate and grateful Jeff and Joy Stehney—the fun never stops. And fortunately, for the legions of fans of Oklahoma Joe’s, the barbecue doesn’t either.

Except on Sundays.

For more information on Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue, visit www.oklahomajoesbbq.com.

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The R&D of Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue

Great barbecue doesn’t just happen, and the checks and balances in place to ensure quality at Oklahoma Joe’s reflect Jeff and Joy’s attention to detail. Not surprisingly, a significant part of the culture at the restaurant also includes relationship building—not only with regular customers, tourists who roll into the parking lots and new OJ evangelists, but also with vendors.

Director of Marketing Doug Worgul, an acclaimed author (“Thin Blue Smoke,” a fictional yarn about KC barbecue) and frequent wearer of a pork pie hat, says suppliers are considered partners.

“We’re constantly pushing them for better product,” says Worgul. “And they help keep us abreast of trends in the industry that we can incorporate into our business.”

One of Jeff’s inspirations is developing new menu items that have gone through the paces in Oklahoma Joe’s kitchen. He’s giddy as a kid on Christmas morning when a new dish debuts and meets with customer approval. Though he won’t divulge any sandwiches or sides that are in current R&D, Jeff says there will always be something new that captures his imagination and resonates with customers.

Could anything be better than the Z-Man Sandwich?

“You’ll have to wait and see,” he says, a twinkle in his eye.

Categories: Food, On the Menu, People, People & Places

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