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When Davidson broke ground on a new manufacturing plant in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1994, he began to think about opening a restaurant to capitalize on his brand. He approached Stehney and proposed an equal partnership, convincing him to run the original Oklahoma Joe's location that opened in Stillwater in January 1996. Five years after buying a smoker from Davidson, Stehney was working alongside him.
"Jeff and I are both phenomenally competitive, but we're very different," Davidson says. "I was a bet-the-farm risk taker and I cooked that way. He was more methodical, thought-out and organized than I was. That's what made it work."
The Oklahoman supplied his sauce and rubs, which had been named "best on the planet" at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue. Stehney was tasked with adapting his approach to competition barbecue.
"With competition barbecue, you're taking meat right to the edge," Davidson says. "The perfect rib is the one you can't eat 10 minutes later. By spending all those hours fine-tuning our cooking systems at Oklahoma Joe's, Jeff figured out how to make it right, how to hold meat. And that's what makes Oklahoma Joe's so unique."
"Many people dream about building on their success in competitions and going into business," says Ardie Davis, a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. "But then they try it and discover it's a whole different animal. That's not the case with them."
Stehney, eager to spend less time commuting between Roeland Park and Stillwater, urged Davidson to open a second restaurant, and by August 1996 the Mission Road location was up and running. Joy left her job with the Black-eyed Pea restaurant franchise to run the business alongside Jeff. She was a constant behind the counter while Stehney handled the smoker.
When Davidson sold his smoker company in the spring of 1998 to New Braunfels, he also granted the subsidiary of Char-Broil the retail rights to sell his sauces and rubs under that name. He retained the Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue and Catering business. With Davidson headed to Texas to work for New Braunfels, the duo decided to close the now-pitmasterless Stillwater location. Stehney then bought Davidson out of the KCK restaurant and was granted a sub-license for the name.
"We were very good friends for a very long time and business partners for a short time," Stehney says. "It didn't work out the way we hoped. I give Joe a lot of credit — he certainly helped me jump into something it turns out I was pretty good at."
Davidson opened his own Oklahoma Joe's restaurant in Tulsa last December. The menu features the familiar Z-Man brisket sandwich alongside okra and bologna — barbecue staples of the Sooner state — but Stehney has no financial interest in the business.
"I get to take advantage of the fact that Jeff's been perfecting his systems since 1996," Davidson says. "It's been a blessing for me that he would open his books like that to me and just give me the keys to his castle."
A little after 7:30 a.m. each day, the pork butts are ready to be pulled out of the white-oak-fueled smoker. The heat and the fans have been carefully regulated so that the meat retains moisture and a smoke ring forms beneath a luscious brown bark. Gloved hands trim the fat and then squeeze it over the meat. Stehney can tell the pork's temperature by touch before the thermometer needle has finished its confirming rise.