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A trim man, with salt-and-pepper edging in his black hair, Stehney is not often recognized outside competition-barbecue settings. He's more often mistaken for former University of Kansas basketball coach Larry Brown, to whom he bears a passing resemblance (enhanced by his squared-off eyeglasses). All of this is fine with Stehney, who — like the Great and Powerful Oz — would rather stay unseen behind the smoke.
While Stehney, 52, can claim Oklahoma roots, he is not the namesake of Oklahoma Joe's. That would be his former business partner, Joe Don Davidson.
"I remember when Jeff came to me and said he wanted to open an Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City," Davidson recalls. "I said, 'Man, that's the toughest market in the world. Why would you want to do that?' And he told me, 'If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere.' "
Four blocks from his home, Stehney spotted a failed fried-chicken-and-liquor-store operation (called One Fast Chick-n) in a corner gas station at 47th Street and Mission Road. There, Oklahoma Joe's opened in August 1996; ten years later, the liquor-store portion of the space was converted into a kitchen and an office.
On a Wednesday afternoon in late May, Stehney sits at his desk at the restaurant, working the phone. Through his office window, he can see a line of people on the sidewalk that extends 50 feet from the front door. In Olathe, there's similar demand at the restaurant's second location, which he opened in a former nightclub seven years ago. And Stehney is about to take his smokers to Leawood for a third outpost. The 210-seat Joe's No. 3 (as Stehney and Worgul have taken to calling it), a former T.G.I. Friday's at 11723 Roe, opens July 2.
Over the past several months, Stehney has fielded franchise queries from as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as one New Jersey man who wanted to pay Stehney $1,000 a day to shadow him for a week. On this spring day, though, between calls from suppliers, he explains that the newest of his Oklahoma Joe's troika is also the last expansion he plans to undertake.
"I don't think we'll ever get branded a chain — that scares the crap out of me," Stehney says. "We've got a responsibility to promote Kansas City as barbecue country. We're not going to go all around the dang country. We've got plenty of opportunities. I just tell people, 'There's nothing I can do to accommodate your wishes.' "
Stehney was born in Buffalo, New York, at a time when barbecue was still considered ethnic cuisine. The spiciest thing in the house was the Vernors ginger ale that his mother, Carol (a Lansing, Michigan, native), loved. She was a Betty Crocker-era homemaker whose meal repertoire favored chop suey and cinnamon rolls. At 9 years old, Stehney began cooking for himself, making French toast on an electric skillet. The secrets of butchering and preparing a pig would come later, from his father John's Slovenian relatives on their hog farms in southwestern Pennsylvania.
His father's work as a mechanical engineer took the family around the country to Chicago, Kansas City and then Bixby, Oklahoma. But it wasn't until he got to the University of Kansas that Stehney discovered the world of barbecue and the business of restaurants. Many of his close friends and longtime employees are from those days in Lawrence. Artist Mike Savage, who painted an 8-foot-by-8-foot tin sign for the Leawood restaurant, and Charlie Podrebarac, a Kansas City Star cartoonist and Stehney's partner in the Cowtown Barbeque Products line of rubs and sauces, are fellow KU alums.