KANSAS CITY — Without anyone noticing, segments of Kansas City's most heavily identified smokestack industry have been slipping away.
Not foundries, not assembly lines, not machine shops.
No, these are the great meat mills, with their smoking fireboxes fed with hickory and stoked by sweating men with gloves — OK, they’re wearing those little plastic jobs, but you get the picture.
In 2000, those on the sauce had nearly 90 area rib works to choose from.
Since then more than 40 operations have closed — Amazin’ Grace’s, Backstage, Hobo Joe’s, Smoke-Me-Baby — and not enough new ones are opening to take their places.
Remember Ricky's Pit Bar-B-Que, which hand-delivered barbecue with its distinct vinegar tang to Bill Clinton during two campaign stops? Gone.
Can't blame China for this one.
The recession has taken its toll, just as it has with nearly every other heavy industry. (Excuse us, you doubt the “heavy” part? Have you ever taken out an Arthur Bryant’s beef sandwich to go?)
But some mom-and-pops also thought opening their own barbecue joints was as easy as grilling up the family supper. They set up shop, only to be sideswiped by such things as out-of-control food costs, cranky employees, city regs and all the just plain hard work.
Still, others keep coming to stoke the coals, to eat the smoke, to slice the brisket.
Nearly 20 new operations have stepped up since 2000, and there are suggestions that they know what they are doing.
“We won 22, 23 grand championships, and then the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, so we knew we had good food. We just had to get it out there,” said Phil Hopkins, co-owner of Smokin’ Guns BBQ Restaurant and Catering in North Kansas City, which opened in 2003.
“This is a barbecue town, so if you have good food, they will come and pay for it. Business is getting better. We haven’t noticed the economy at all.”
Another newcomer is Frank Schloegel. His family has long sold wood and at one time did barbecue as a side business. When demand for wood began dropping off in the last few years due to electric and gas fireplaces, Schloegel brought the sideline business back at the Kansas City, Kan., wood yard.
How did the barbecue restaurants on his wood customer list take to the aptly named Woodyard Bar-B-Que?
“We can’t compete with Gates, so they don’t care,” Schloegel said. “A lot of businesses barbecue on the side or just do catering. Running a barbecue restaurant is a lot of work. You can’t get away from it.”
While outside chains such as Tony Roma’s weren’t quite up to the sophisticated Kansas City barbecue palate, Famous Dave’s now has a foothold with two locations, and Texas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit plans to enter the market in late summer.
Local favorites such as Gates, Bryant’s and Fiorella’s Jack Stack have opened new locations in the last decade.
But will it be enough?