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"It's lead, follow or get out of the way," Savage says. "And Jeff is definitely the lead guy."
Stehney graduated with a degree in advertising in 1983 and began working as a waiter at Kansas City's Alameda Plaza Hotel (now the InterContinental). He loved the work, but he saw servers 10 years his senior, also with college degrees, living off tips. The food-supply business promised some upward mobility and allowed him to stay connected to the restaurant scene. During his five years with Pisciotta Fruit and Vegetable, in the City Market, he learned what makes a restaurant operator successful. (He also met an inside sales representative named Joy. In August, the couple celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary.)
Around that time, barbecue competitions changed from something he did with friends to something he entered to win.
"It was the competition," Stehney says. "If there had been a competition where you went out and baked cakes, got to drink with your friends and, at the end of the day, there was a dinner, I would have gone out and baked cakes."
His first competition smoker, an Oklahoma Joe model, arrived in 1991. By the following summer, Stehney, Joy, Jim Howell, and fellow Kraft employee Jim Harmon were regularly pulling in prizes. In Kansas City Barbeque Society events, in which most of their opponents entered tenderloins in the pork category, Slaughterhouse Five smoked pork butt. It was what they knew how to cook, Stehney says. But it was also something they wouldn't tire of eating the week after the competition. With more and more weekends devoted to hitching the smoker to a trailer, pork butt was never far from their plates or minds.
"He didn't go to a contest if he didn't think he could win," Kirk says. "He really worked at his trade. To be successful like Jeff, first you've got to have some talent. But you also have to practice and practice and practice."
On the strength of more than a dozen wins at major competitions in 1993 — that's a career for a successful pit master — Slaughterhouse Five was named the Kansas City Barbeque Society's team of the year. Joy and Jeff rented a refrigerated truck, which they parked in the driveway on weekends, and began catering. And when they needed more space, it was Joy's Pepsi habit that pointed them toward the gas station. The place she stopped for a morning soda on her way to work downtown would become the home of their first commercial kitchen.
"That year, it seemed like if I wasn't winning, he was winning," says Davidson, who won the grand championship at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in October 1993. The amicable rivals had a standing gentleman's bet of $100 per category. "We got to be great friends," Davidson says. "We were at so many of the same dang cook-offs, and I liked to beat him and he liked to beat me."
Unlike Stehney, Davidson was in the barbecue world full time. In 1987, Davidson went to the Oklahoma State Fair as an agricultural engineering student hoping to sell 12 smokers he'd built as a potential side business. He left with 120 orders and put his education at Oklahoma State University on hold. Davidson's success on the competition circuit became his best advertisement. In barbecue, as in NASCAR, the model you need is the one that is winning right now.