Page 5 of 5
"We don't oversmoke our food," he says. "I don't want it to taste like a railroad tie. The things that are flavoring the meat aren't the things that are visible."
That includes Stehney, a fact that makes his restaurant an outlier in Kansas City barbecue. The pitmaster's name — his name — isn't on the sign. The menu's signature dish, Carolina-style pulled pork, is from another region. Oklahoma Joe's does things differently because Jeff Stehney believes his way is the way things should be done.
"We're not a mom-and-pop shop anymore," Stehney says. "But I never wanted to create a huge corporate conglomerate. It's important to me that I keep the company at a place where I can manage it — where all the restaurants are at the same level [and] it's just the experience that's different."
So it's his taste that drives the restaurant. The grilled chicken sandwich, Stehney's least-favorite menu item, was quietly reintroduced recently, after about six weeks of development, as a pulled-chicken sandwich. Like the blue flame of his smokers, Stehney keeps himself largely insulated from the machinery of promotion. He prefers making pitmaster tweaks and staying out of view. It's Worgul who leads an MTV crew behind the counter or appears on camera for the Travel Channel to talk about the 12,000 pounds of pulled pork that go into Bessie, Wilbur and Smokie for 17 hours.
Jeff and Joy Stehney, who have no children, have grown the company enough that Stehney has a small management team of a half-dozen people in place. Vacations in the early days of the restaurant were the hours spent competing at the American Royal. Today, the couple can travel, indulging their own culinary tourism in places like Las Vegas and New Mexico.
Once the Leawood restaurant is established and a planned expansion at the Olathe restaurant is finished this fall (the Stehneys' Kansas City BBQ Store moved two doors down in order to give the dining room and kitchen some breathing room), Stehney says, he might try to start a series of stand-alone businesses, perhaps something with specialty smoked meats.
"Food is science and art," Stehney says. "I want to understand as much as I can about the science without being blinded by it. The competition side of me is almost like the racing division of a manufacturer. I keep looking to see if we could be doing something better."