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.

Creation of a BBQ Capital

There were several contributing factors leading to the growth of the BBQ boom in Kansas City. The first was its strategic location in the middle of the heartland. Kansas City was a major railroad hub and was located on the Kansas and Missouri rivers, meaning it never lacked for livestock from which to source its meat. Equally important was the availability of hardwoods, like hickory, oak, pecan and apple, which fueled the BBQ pits of the restaurants in town. Finally, due to the boom during the 1920’s Jazz Era, there were jobs to be had in Kansas City and people traveled from all over the country, bringing with them their culinary knowledge, creating a grand melting pot of different BBQ styles, all concentrated in one city. These factors combined to create the perfect conditions for BBQ to flourish in Kansas City.

Although not instrumental in creating the BBQ scene, Kansas City BBQ has benefited from the popularity granted to it by the media. Throughout the years, Kansas City BBQ has been praised by well-established food critics and writers as having the best BBQ in the country. From Calvin Trillin’s seminal piece in Playboy magazine in 1972 to Anthony Bourdain listing Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que as one of the “13 Places you Must Eat Before You Die”, Kansas City BBQ restaurants have enjoyed critical success and have been featured in many publications and programs.

Finally, the last contributing factor to the popularity of Kansas City BBQ has been the lively competition scene. The Kansas City BBQ society has over 20,000 members worldwide, and sanctions over 500 BBQ contests. Each year, the American Royal World Series of BBQ is hosted in Kansas City, and is regarded as the country’s premiere BBQ competition, and winning is one of the greatest honors a pit-master can achieve. In addition to the Royal, there are many other large and prestigious competitions throughout the year in Kansas City, each attracting hundreds of entrants and helping to foster a culture of BBQ appreciation.

Moving Forward

Through the years Kansas City BBQ has continually pressed forward, with new pit-masters establishing must-visit locations. Carrying on the legacy of Henry Perry, Arthur Bryant, and Ollie Gates, these new guard are winning accolades and awards all while creating their own unique take on the classic Kansas City BBQ style. Established veterans like Fiorella’s Jack Stack, competition champions like Joe’s Kansas City, and hot newcomers like Q39 are each contributing to the proud tradition and legacy of Kansas City BBQ and helping to make it capital of the BBQ world.