Although no one knows the exact origins of BBQ as a cooking style, the history of Kansas City BBQ can be traced to one man: Henry Perry. Perry’s BBQ mastery and tutelage paved the way for hundreds of other restaurants, and his influence can still be felt today in the venerable institutions of Kansas City BBQ.
The Original Masters
Perry was born in 1875 in Tennessee near Memphis. After working in steamboat kitchens on the Mississippi River, he arrived in Kansas City in 1907 and began serving BBQ meats in 1908. His popularity soon outgrew the small alley stand he was selling from and he moved to 17th and Lydia. Several years later he would move again to a trolley barn on 19th and Highland. The Jazz Age was in full boom and Perry’s meats were a hit in the historic Kansas City neighborhood. Selling meat wrapped in newspaper for 25 cents, Perry’s BBQ was distinguished by its harsh, spicy, peppery sauce and a menu which included meats such as possum, woodchuck, and raccoon in addition to the meats we associate with BBQ today.
During this time Perry’s restaurant served as a training ground for the next generation of BBQ legends. Two of Perry’s proteges stand out in particular: George Gates and Charlie Bryant. When Perry passed away in 1940, Charlie Bryant inherited the business and ran it with his brother Arthur, who he sold it to in 1946. Arthur Bryant refurbished the restaurant and tweaked the sauce to make it more palatable. Eventually the location moved again, and is still standing today as Arthur Bryant’s BBQ, one of the most famous BBQ restaurants in the country. Bryant’s was proclaimed the “the single-best restaurant in the world” by legendary food-writer Calvin Trillin, and has served as an essential stop for people looking to try Kansas City BBQ, including several presidents.
Another student of Perry’s, George Gates, opened his own restaurant with Arthur Pinkard. In turn, he taught his son, Ollie Gates, the tricks of the trade. In 1958 Ollie established his own restaurant, Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q. Decades later, there are multiple locations and they are still a Kansas City favorite.
Other early influencers of Kansas City BBQ included Otis Boyd, who moved from Chicago after attending culinary school to open Boyd’s Bar-B-Q, and Anthony Rieke, who opened Rosedale Barbecue, which mixed southwestern influences with the Kansas City style. These and more helped to pave the way for a new generation of BBQ restaurants and established Kansas City as a mecca of BBQ.