Once a pitmaster has won the American Royal, there's really only one last mountain to climb in Kansas City: opening a barbecue restaurant in a town that demands smoking excellence. So four years after he hoisted an oversized check as the American Royal Invitational Grand Champion, Todd Johns is firing up Plowboys BBQ in Blue Springs.
"We want to make this a local Kansas City thing in the midst of all the chain restaurants out in the suburbs," Johns says.
He's in the final stages of purchasing a former Wendy's at 310 Northwest State Route 7. Once that former chain restaurant gets a renovation, Plowboys BBQ could open as soon as mid-July, with a 74-seat dining room and drive-thru service.
Johns, a 13-year veteran of the barbecue circuit, plans more than just a drive-thru lane to help his barbecue joint stand out.
In addition to the standard offering of ribs, chicken and brisket, Plowboys BBQ's menu should include open-faced brisket sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy, smoked meatloaf, pulled-pork nachos and barbecue-topped salads.
"We'll take barbecue and use it in a different way," Johns says. "It's things that are a little bit more of an adventure but still are comfort food."
The recipes have evolved from what Johns calls "Monday leftovers" — the refrigerator full of meat the day after a barbecue competition ends.
"It was something I just invented when I came home from work one day," Johns says of one such result: the brisket taco panini. "It was late, and the family had already eaten. I went to the fridge, and we had some brisket from a competition, some provolone cheese and tortillas. I got out my panini press, and it was just awesome. You take a couple or two or three of those, add a basket of fries, and you've got brisket taco paninis."
At contests, the Pork Pullin' Plowboys cook with pellets, but at the restaurant, Johns expects to use a combination of oak and hickory. He figures that the smell alone will pull in customers driving by on Highway 7.
"We've got an Ole Hickory pit. It's just a matter of figuring out what we like," Johns says.
He also wants Plowboys BBQ to feature items from other local barbecue competition teams. He's in talks with Jason Day, of BBQ Addicts (which has long sold Plowboys' rubs), creator of the Bacon Explosion, to feature that dish. Johns is also keeping a channel open to Smoke on Wheels Competition BBQ's Andy Groneman, who sells marinades and teaches barbecue classes across the country.
Meanwhile, Johns is attempting to perfect a new sauce, something between his Sweet 180 (named for the perfect score that the chicken basted in it received from American Royal judges) and his En Fuego. "I want a vinegar-based sauce — what I call a more KC style," he says. "It's balanced, not really sweet. It's tomato and vinegar and spices."
Johns plans to sell his sauces and rubs at the restaurant, along with yet another new notion. He's creating a pit-bean starter kit that would allow home cooks to add the beans of their choice to Johns' blend of molasses, vinegar and spices.
Johns still feels that he's in a contest, only this time he aims to convince people to come back to Plowboys BBQ: "I want people to look at the awards on the wall and feel like they got the same food that won those awards."