For their Kansas City visit, the producers of Food Wars: Barbecue came up with a predictable itinerary: Arthur Bryant's, the place native son Calvin Trillin called "the best damn restaurant in the world" back in a 1974 issue of The New Yorker, and KC Masterpiece Barbecue & Grill, which shares its name with a brand of sauce sold in supermarkets across the nation.
Aficionados may scoff at including KC Masterpiece in a survey of great barbecue joints. In the Food Wars episode, a well-fed Bryant's patron characterizes the KC Masterpiece restaurant as "on the elegant side" -- words not intended to compliment.
Though it may lack authenticity among connoisseurs, KC Masterpiece has an interesting story to tell. The sauce was invented by Dr. Rich Davis, a child psychiatrist in Kansas City who liked to tinker in the kitchen. After perfecting a recipe for barbecue sauce, Davis began peddling his concoction to grocers in 1977. Sales grew an average of 60 percent each year after that, Davis later said.
Davis eventually sold the sauce to the Clorox Company for millions. But as a condition of the sale, he retained the right to open and operate restaurants under the KC Masterpiece name. The first KC Masterpiece Barbecue & Grill opened in Overland Park in 1987.
That site remains open for business; there's also a location on the Plaza. On Metcalf, the Travel Channel crew captured images of Davis greeting customers as they entered the building. He's now 79 years old. But his eyes are alert and his voice clear as he describes how molasses brings a distinct flavor to the tomato-based invention that brought him wealth and fame.
But that's the sauce. The restaurants tell a sorrier tale of family drama and legal strife, ineptitude and sleazy business practices.
Originally, Davis' two sons, Rich II and Charlie, ran the restaurants. But they no longer have roles with the business. Rich, 50, declared bankruptcy last year. Divorce records show that Charlie, 47, gambled away thousands, cheated on his wife and was fired for mishandling money.
The family eventually turned over the business to Bruce Frazey, who runs it today. Since Frazey's arrival, several vendors and creditors have sued over the restaurants' unpaid bills. In February, a judge awarded $319,000 to the restaurants' former supplier of spices, mayonnaise and other items.
Courts everywhere are busy with plaintiffs and defendants arguing over money. But what's striking about KC Masterpiece Barbecue & Grill is the way it has managed to elude debtors without having to suffer the humiliation of bankruptcy. Instead, the restaurants have found a new corporate identity, leaving its suppliers to chase a ghost.
As the Travel Channel showed, the KC Masterpiece name remains an icon. But sometimes icons have their sordid sides.
A hungry customer who steps into one of the restaurants enters a place where time stopped sometime during Bill Clinton's first term.
The restaurants recall the days when Roy Williams and Norm Stewart were still coaching in the Big 12. When Morton Downey Jr. commanded a following. When a proprietor would hold a picture of himself standing with Joe Garagiola and think, I need a frame for this.
The restaurants on either side of the state line are virtual clones. The same photographs of the same celebrities (as well as the same reprints of the same newspaper and magazine articles celebrating Dr. Davis' achievements) hang on the walls. Are the images classic or dated? One might say that George Brett's 3,000th hit was a timeless event. One might also gaze upon the photo of Ken Ober (host of MTV's 1987-90 show Remote Control) near the hostess stand and conclude that management has stopped caring about the details.
For sure, KC Masterpiece Barbecue & Grill is not riding high. At one point, the chain had expanded to six restaurants: two in Kansas City, two in St. Louis and two in Chicago. Now its Chicago outposts have closed and its presence in St. Louis is restricted to a spot in the Union Station food court.
Davis and the boys had much grander plans.
"We want to have a national chain of restaurants," Charlie told the Kansas City Business Journal in 1993, when the number of locations stood at four. Charlie mentioned possible expansion into Denver and Phoenix.
The idea, of course, was to take advantage of the sauce's name recognition. At the time the Business Journal article was published, KC Masterpiece was No. 3 and gaining in supermarket sales.
Davis had sold the recipe when he realized he couldn't afford the advertising campaign he would need to compete with food conglomerates like Kraft and Heinz. Davis had been an excellent promoter of the sauce, traveling extensively, appearing on talk shows, conducting taste tests. But outside the region, KC Masterpiece was still a boutique brand.
"Somebody once said that we are too big to be considered small and too small to be big," Davis told Forbes magazine in 1986. "It's true. We will probably need a partner who has larger resources."
He sold the sauce a short time later.
Clorox paid between $8 million and $10 million, according to sources who know the Davis family.
In addition to riches, the recipe also brought celebrity. In 1985, People published a story about Dr. Davis' unlikely transformation from child psychiatrist to barbecue baron. The spread featured the requisite photograph of Davis and his family members playing with a dog in their backyard.
Davis, who did not respond to the Pitch's request for an interview, has said that he learned about grills and smokers from his father, a railroad executive, while growing up in Joplin and Topeka. He earned degrees from the University of Kansas. His medical career included a stint as dean of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine.
A white medical doctor and father of four, Davis bore little resemblance to Arthur Bryant, who never married and used to fly to Mexico City to watch bullfights on his days off. Bryant, Trillin writes in Feeding a Yen (his latest collection of food writing), was a "single-minded man who stayed close to the premises, keeping an eye on the barbecue pit."
Dr. Davis saw himself as more of a visionary than a craftsman. In 1985, he and Shifra Stein co-wrote All About Bar-B-Q: Kansas City Style. The "about the authors" page describes him as both a "man of many talents" and a "man of diverse talents."
A man of obviously high self-regard, Davis tried to carve out a prominent role in civic affairs. In 1990, he pushed a plan to build a local attraction called Food World, a 30-story globe celebrating agriculture. Modeled on Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, the globe was to contain exhibits explaining food production, as well as amusement rides, including the world's largest indoor roller coaster.
In pitching the idea, Davis noted his ability to accomplish the extraordinary.
"Some of the dreams I have don't turn out," he told The Kansas City Star in 1990. "But some turn into things like the second-largest-selling barbecue sauce in the country."
But even after he cut Food World's price tag from $180 million to $30 million, the idea proved too fanciful to advance beyond model scale.
The defeat stung. As one person who used to be associated with the restaurants put it, "Doc Davis cares more about his image and what the world thinks of him than anything else."
With the sale of the sauce to Clorox, Davis had realized every tinkerer's dream. Convincing fortune to smile on the restaurants would prove more difficult.
The original bar and grill in Overland Park performed well, though success did not come easily, says Larry Ziegler, its first general manager. Ziegler tells the Pitch that one of his biggest challenges was making it clear to the family what running a restaurant really involved.
"I said, 'Dr. Davis, you know there's a little bit of difference between putting two briskets on the grill in the backyard and putting 60 briskets in a smoker so that you could produce them for customers the next day,'" Ziegler recalls.
Still, it wasn't long before the restaurant hit a stride and the family was looking to expand. In 1989, a KC Masterpiece Barbecue opened in suburban St. Louis. Ziegler says he tried to convince the Davises that building a second store in Kansas City would be cheaper and easier, but they ignored his advice.
Managing restaurants 250 miles apart was exhausting for Ziegler, who says he'd get calls in the middle of the night demanding that he do something about rumors that ribs were disappearing out the back door of the St. Louis store.
Ziegler also had to deal with the family itself.
"One brother would tell me, 'Larry, we've got a meeting in St. Louis tomorrow.' And the next brother would say, 'Well, don't pay any attention to him. You need to be in Kansas City.' And between the three of them -- Dr. Davis, Charlie and Rich -- they were always on each others' backs. They never seemed very happy to work together."
Others who have worked at KC Masterpiece say there was a tension between Davis and his sons, who often seemed to regard their father as a meddler, an expert with a large supply of unwanted ideas. "He'd drive them crazy because he knew all the answers," says one source, who adds that Charlie once ordered Davis to leave the restaurant.
In the beginning, sources say, Rich II and Charlie stayed active in the business, working nights and keeping an eye on food quality. But their interest seemed to wane. (Rich II declined to comment, and the Pitch was unable to reach Charlie.)
Charlie and his former wife, Angela Green, a lawyer, owned a house near Stockton Lake in the Ozarks. Charlie liked to spend long weekends in Stockton, where he boated, fished and tended to his property. People at the restaurants say it seemed as if his desire for a more leisurely lifestyle clashed with the demands of owning a restaurant.
Rich II, who graduated from law school but practiced only briefly, also distanced himself from the restaurants. He and his family moved to Lawrence, where his wife, Lori, attended classes at KU.
The sons each owned restaurant stakes worth $1 million, money seeded by the Clorox sale. And when the restaurants turned a profit, the sons were eager to claim -- and spend -- the earnings. Charlie drove a Cadillac and sent his kids to the private Barstow School. Rich and Lori lived in an expensive home in Lawrence.
Rich and Lori had three children and were married for ten years before she filed for divorce in 1995. Rich kept drifting further from the restaurants. Pay stubs in the divorce file show that his salary fell from $125,000 to $75,000, his duties having been reduced after a new chief operating officer was hired in 1995.
Rich turned his attention to a cartoon character, "Captain Ribman."
Captain Ribman was supposed to promote the restaurants. But Rich and Captain Ribman's co-creator, artist John Sprengelmeyer, felt that the superhero -- which they described as having "Superman's body and Homer Simpson's brain" -- deserved a life beyond place mats.
"It was immediately obvious that Rich would be a great partner," Sprengelmeyer tells the Pitch in an e-mail. "He had tremendous creativity, motivation, smarts and [a] sense of humor." The strip began running regularly in the Star's Preview section in 1997; it was also syndicated by Tribune Media Services.
Rich's departure from the restaurant business had been gradual, but his brother's was dramatic and abrupt.
In February 2000, Charlie filed for divorce. Court papers reveal that he had not been a good husband. He gambled heavily, and he played around with other women, divorce records show. He admitted to gambling away $17,000 and spending $20,000 to $25,000 on girlfriends, according to court documents.
Charlie used company money to support his lifestyle. Davis said, "Fire him," after Chief Operating Officer Phil Neal presented the doctor with incriminating information about his son, according to a company source. In court papers, Charlie admitted that the restaurants asked him to reimburse $17,500.
The judge in his divorce case seemed to look upon Charlie with a mix of pity and revulsion.
"To put it as kindly as possible," Johnson County Judge Patrick McAnany wrote in his divorce decree, "petitioner has been neglectful with respect to the finances of his family as well as his company."
After the divorce, Charlie moved to Florida.
In the sons' absence, Davis took a more active role in American Barbecue & Grill, the restaurants' parent company. He and his wife, Coleen, became company directors, as did their daughter, Laura Gregory, and her husband, Lewis Gregory. Phil Neal (who was an Olive Garden executive before he was American Barbecue's COO) became president after Charlie was fired.
The restaurants continued to lose money, though.
The family nearly cashed out of the business in the fall of 2000. In October of that year, newspapers carried the announcement that Famous Dave's, a publicly traded barbecue franchise, would acquire the four remaining KC Masterpieces in Kansas and Missouri. (The sites in Chicago had closed.)
A month later, the deal collapsed. Famous Dave's issued a press release saying that the decision not to move forward had been made "[u]pon completion of due diligence" -- a sign that American Barbecue may have been in worse condition than was apparent on the surface.
The family later fired Neal and named William Teel the chief operating officer. With Teel and Vice President of Operations Steve Greer, a veteran of the Gilbert/Robinson chain and a former partner in the Golden Ox Restaurant, squeezing pennies, the restaurants climbed out of the red.
"We were profitable, we paid all our vendors and we serviced all our debt," Teel tells the Pitch.
Yet Greer and Teel lasted only 18 months. They were forced out in August 2002, not long after the arrival of a consultant named Bruce Frazey.
Frazey had been a fraternity brother of Lewis Gregory's when the two attended KU in the 1970s. Frazey went on to lead a varied career, moving from Kansas City to Wichita to Miami. He practiced law, developed real estate, ran a magazine and taught accounting to college students, according to his résumé.
Just prior to joining KC Masterpiece, Frazey had been director, treasurer and chief financial officer of Apple Capitol Group, the owner and operator of 23 Applebee's restaurants around Washington, D.C.
Applebee's is a successful concept -- the chain is the largest of its kind in the country. Yet in 2002, Apple Capitol entered bankruptcy. (Frazey tells the Pitch that he left the group eight to nine months beforehand.)
To the Davis family, Frazey looked like a hero. He became president and CEO of American Barbecue after the removal of Greer and Teel, both of whom went to the Golden Ox.
After Frazey took charge, American Barbecue appeared to find a new path to survival: The company stopped paying its bills.
Steve Barouh, the publisher of monthly magazine,KC Sports & Fitness, thought he had sold advertising to a name he could trust. "I put all my faith in the fact it was KC Masterpiece and they've been around for 400 years," he tells the Pitch.
But when he tried to collect payment, Barouh started to believe that he had misplaced that trust.
Barouh says that on multiple occasions he sat in Bruce Frazey's office and listened to promises that he'd get his money.
"I was certainly indulgent," Barouh says. "I was left holding the bag."
Barouh filed suit in February 2004. He is one of about a dozen plaintiffs to sue the restaurant company since Frazey took charge in 2002.
An attorney for KC Masterpiece says it's not unusual for a company to have to defend itself against lawsuits. And in reply to a question about Barouh's allegations, Frazey answered: "I don't have a response to that, other than to say that contractual relationships are personal in nature. People believe different things. That's why we have a legal system."
But public records and interviews suggest that under Frazey's leadership, KC Masterpiece has made a dark art of avoiding its obligations.
Amresco, a commercial lender in Idaho, was one of the first to file suit. In the fall of 2002, Amresco claimed that American Barbecue had defaulted on notes worth $5.1 million. American Barbecue had borrowed the money in 1999, when Charlie was still president; the loans refinanced earlier debt that the company had taken on when it was expanding.
Other claims followed. Before going bankrupt itself, Gallo Produce of Kansas City sued American Barbecue in January 2003. American Meat Market sued a month later. Then Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages filed a petition. A heating and cooling company, Van Hoecke Contracting, filed a claim, alleging nonpayment for work done at the Overland Park restaurant.
The suits kept coming. Fleishman-Hillard, a St. Louis public-relations agency, sued American Barbecue for $130,000. One of the country's largest food distributors, U.S. Foodservice, sued for $319,000. The City of Kansas City, Missouri, sued for $5,000 in unpaid taxes.
In some instances, American Barbecue fought back aggressively. It answered Van Hoecke's claim with a counterclaim that accused the HVAC contractor of slander. (The court file is thicker than a big-city phone book, despite the relatively measly $15,079 that Van Hoecke sought.)
In other instances, American Barbecue didn't bother arguing. In April 2004, Steve Barouh walked out with a $12,600 judgment when American Barbecue failed to show up for court in Johnson County.
But Barouh has yet to see any money.
American Barbecue, the corporation, no longer exists.
"There's no one to collect from," Barouh says.
American Barbecue "ceased doing business," explains Greg Gerstner, one of the restaurants' attorneys. The restaurants are now run by an entity called the Lenexa Restaurant Group, which signed new leases with the restaurants' landlords and other businesses.
But the restaurants' new corporate identity is in many ways indistinguishable from the old one.
The acting president of Lenexa Restaurant Group is Bruce Frazey.
Dr. Davis is a shareholder, as are Laura Gregory and the Davises' other daughter. The corporate headquarters is in the same building as American Barbecue, off 95th Street in Lenexa.
Gerstner concedes that there is some overlap between American Barbecue and Lenexa Restaurant Group. But he rejects a suggestion that the company has simply changed its name to avoid its debts. Gerstner says the business had to "start anew" because of the actions of one plaintiff, Amresco.
Shortly after filing suit, Amresco decided that American Barbecue's situation was so dire that the court should appoint a receiver. American Barbecue agreed, but then accused Amresco of acting in bad faith, violating the terms of the agreement by, among other things, contacting American Barbecue's bank.
The parties later settled. But Gerstner suggests that Amresco's actions caused American Barbecue to suffer irreparable damage. The bank, Gerstner says, seized American Barbecue's cash, a move that sank the business. "It just eventually shut them down," Gerstner says.
Just in the nick of time, Lenexa Restaurant Group arrived to pick up the pieces. Gerstner says Lenexa Restaurant Group paid the full appraised value of American Barbecue's assets.
David Kraft, an attorney who represented Amresco and is trying to collect a $29,000 judgment against American Barbecue for a food and equipment supplier in Chicago, sees the "sale" of American Barbecue another way. "To an extent, what they've done is declare bankruptcy without declaring bankruptcy."
Gerstner says the restaurants did not declare bankruptcy because there was no money to go through the process.
In any case, the Davises were spared the public shame and trauma of a bankruptcy petition.
Yet they appear to be enjoying the benefits normally associated with such a proceeding, which infuriates former suppliers.
"I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that if somebody owes you money, they should have to pay you back," says Matt Kartsonis, the assistant general manager of Superior Linen and Supply in Kansas City, which supplied KC Masterpiece with cloth napkins and other items. "They can't just, you know, run what looks to me to be the same business in the same location and just not pay their debt."
Other companies that did business with KC Masterpiece Barbecue & Grill refuse to give up their claims without a fight.
In February, American Barbecue lost a trial in Jackson County Court when Judge Robert Beaird found for U.S. Foodservice, which had sought $319,039 from American Barbecue.
Jim Adler, an attorney for U.S. Foodservice, is trying to wring the money out of the restaurants. Through legal proceedings, U.S. Foodservice is examining the transfer of the restaurants' assets to a new legal entity to see whether the transfer was done properly.
But even if one of American Barbecue's creditors is able to prove the widely held suspicion that Lenexa Barbecue Group is essentially the same company, it's unlikely that anyone will see any money.
Kansas City lawyer Pamela Palmer represents a St. Louis refrigeration company that won a $15,658 judgment against American Barbecue last year. But she hasn't been able to find any assets to satisfy the claim. American Barbecue leased nearly everything it used -- the only thing of real value is the permission to use the KC Masterpiece name, which applies only to the Davis family.
"The bottom line is, without some solid asset -- a bank account, a building -- even if I try to do this, it's really worthless," Palmer says. "And if the new corporation is in the same boat, that they have no building or bank account or something that I can get to, I'm just practicing [law] for practice sake."
The restaurants' artful avoidance of bankruptcy may reflect, in part, the pride of the man who founded the KC Masterpiece brand.
In his later years, Davis has enjoyed esteem and awards. In 1996, the University of Missouri-Kansas City named him Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2002, the University of Kansas gave him a Distinguished Service Citation. He's been active in the Salvation Army and the American Diabetes Association, among other charities. Business Journal columnist Michael Braude has written that Davis is "a true Renaissance man" who "brings enthusiasm to everything he does."
One act of philanthropy went heavy on the schmaltz. With diamond magnate Barnett Helzberg Jr., Davis published the 2001 book I Am Loved: True Stories of True Love From People Like You, a collection of short essays. The pieces vary from reproductions of anonymous children's refrigerator art to the musings of such uncelebrated celebrities as Ron Tutt, who drummed for Elvis Presley during the singer's Vegas years. Davis and Helzberg donated their royalties from the book to charities.
Public efforts at philanthropy suggest a concern for legacy. And to date, Davis has not been able to count on his sons to burnish his reputation.
For Rich II, the elder, the Captain Ribman strip enjoyed some popularity in college newspapers and on the Internet. However, collaborations with celebrity guest authors such as Suzanne Somers and Dick Morris, the disgraced former Clinton advisor, signaled that Davis and Sprengelmeyer had run out of ideas. (Sprengelmeyer disagrees, telling the Pitch that the strip was blurring the line between reality and comics in "a unique way.") Regardless, Davis and Sprengelmeyer retired the strip in January.
As if in a state of suspended adolescence, Rich also worked in 2002 and 2003 as a producer with former Kansas City radio host and prankster Randy Miller. Most recently, he opened a bar and restaurant in Lawrence. Captain Ribman's Meat Market at 8th Street and New Hampshire was a romper room of sexy waitresses, fried Twinkies and Animal House-style humor.
When the restaurant closed last fall, Rich blamed the city's smoking ban and the chain operations on Iowa Street, which he said pulled customers away from the city's central business district.
But court documents make it clear that Rich had been living beyond his means. According to his own bankruptcy petition, his average income for the years 2002 through 2004 was $17,358 -- yet his home was valued at $289,000.
As for Charlie, when he cashed out his stake in the restaurants, he took home just $167,000 (after taxes and other deductions). Less than a year after his divorce, a court found him in contempt for failing to pay child support.
Charlie's ex-wife, Angela Green, later waived her claim to that child support. In a court document, she said that Charlie had complained about not being able to get a job because of an arrest warrant triggered by the contempt citation. As part of the arrangement, Charlie signed over his interest in the Stockton house. (Green, who practices law in Springfield, declined to be interviewed for this story.)
As his sons struggled to find their way, Dr. Davis pressed on. He returned to the kitchen and emerged in 2002 with a low-calorie salad dressing, Dress It Up (which the Star described as "a fusion of Eastern and Western seasonings").
Davis told the Star that developing foods was God's plan for him: "My faith has taught me that things far greater than I have set the perimeters of our life and goals and it's up to us to discover them."
And then there's Frazey's plan.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in April that the KC Masterpiece chain was "revving up to expand to more than 50" locations, with 16 of those planned for St. Louis. At the time, KC Masterpiece had one free-standing location in the St. Louis area. That restaurant closed a few weeks ago. Gerstner says the Chesterland location was troubled by parking problems and demographic shifts.
"The company is looking at options to expand," Gerstner tells the Pitch. "There are all sorts of possibilities on which way to go in terms of how the company can expand."
People who have already done business with KC Masterpiece, thinking it was a name they could trust, will be eager to see how that works.