Rob Magee of Q39 has his finger on the pulse of Kansas City barbecue and, contrary to conventional wisdom, the future is hot and fast, not low and slow.
At the start of a Thursday lunch rush, denim-clad servers are a blur, weaving in and out of full tables delivering appetizers followed by platters of meat, sandwiches, salads, desserts, craft beers, barbecue-friendly wines and smoke-infused cocktails.
Magee — a gregarious, fast-talking bear of a guy with sandy brown hair and a mustache — is wearing a black-and-gray chef’s coat. As he stands at the helm of the open kitchen, his eyes lock on a computer touchscreen. Eighteen electronic guest tickets are in various states of completion: When a customer has been waiting more than 12 minutes, the ticket turns yellow, then purple at the 15-minute mark. If there is a rush — a latecomer to a large party, someone who has to dash back to the office or a child — the ticket blinks.
“This is a modern kitchen,” Magee boasts, as his staff accelerates their gas pedal according to the flow of orders. “There’s no paper … I wanted to bring everything up to date.”
Be the first to know.
No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.
The traditional mom-and-pop barbecue joint is morphing into a bustling full-service restaurant chain thanks to technology. On an average Saturday, 1,400 customers churn through Q39, a 190-seat upscale barbecue restaurant in a 39th Street strip mall.
Magee’s role as “expeditor” makes him look more like an air traffic controller guiding meat to a soft landing pad than an award-winning pitmaster. Q39 uses a team approach designed to mimic the timing and freshness of competition-style barbecue: spareribs, brisket, pork shoulder and chicken. Each cook on the line is responsible for slicing a single meat onto a plate that they place atop a stainless-steel island. The sides, cornbread, warm sauces and garnishes are added by “runners” who deliver the food to the diner’s table.
“We have broken it down into a science: Expeditors and runners allow that volume,” says Magee, a Culinary Institute of America graduate with 30 years of experience in the hotel industry and a set of barbecue bona-fides earned over a decade on the competitive circuit.
Magee spent the first year and a half working 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. without a single day off. But at 2 1/2 years, Q39 operations appear to work seamlessly, thanks to six trained “pitmasters” who oversee the gas-fired Southern Pride pit-ovens programmed to control variables such as time, temperature and moisture.
The pit-ovens can be stoked with wood, although most items also get an additional kiss of smoke and char marks from the oak-fired grill. At the end of service, the pit-ovens are scoured so they remain shiny — not “seasoned” — inside.
“Who wants food cooked on old food?” Magee says, shaking his head. “And for anybody who thinks that’s flavor, they are absolutely ludicrous.”
It’s hard to argue with his formula for success.
Magee is expanding the original space with a 1,100-square-foot addition to accommodate a second bar, a patio seating 45 and room for 52 more seats inside. His payroll has jumped from 35 to 115 employees. And a second 7,100-square-foot Q39 will go into the former Hayward’s Pit Bar-B-Que at College Boulevard and Antioch Road in Overland Park, opening in spring 2017.
And while some hard-core purists may wince, the demolition crew has been instructed to tear out the original brick pit.
‘A New Way to Q’
A full-page ad in 435 Magazine’s “Kansas City BBQ” issue features Magee, along with his “A New Way to Q” culinary philosophy spelled out in these key phrases: “scratch kitchen,” “in house” and “by hand.”
Conspicuously absent is the hallowed phrase “low and slow.”
“Everybody loves hearing it! I mean, I’ve said it, too — and you give them what they want to hear,” Magee says. “But you don’t have to do low and slow. I like it hot and fast, till it’s all done.”
Magee opens the doors of his Southern Pride pit-ovens and warm, moist air billows upward.
“My briskets are done in seven hours,” he boasts. “That allows us to cook briskets for lunch, and then cook for dinner. If I did low and slow — guess what? — you’re going to have leftover brisket that’s been stuck in the smoker.”
About halfway through the cooking process, the briskets are wrapped in foil, a competition technique that speeds up the cooking time but keeps the moisture in. “You can always add flavor, but you can never add moisture,” he says.
Katey Magee began learning barbecue from her father while in the thick of his competition glory days. As a child she began competing in kid ’cue contests. She attended the Broadmoor Technical Center in the Shawnee Mission School District, then graduated from Dad’s alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America.
“It’s more fun to stoke the fire, but it helps the quality of the food to control the temperature,” Katey says of the Q39 kitchen, where she has been working as sous chef for the last nine months. “Anybody can do this. It’s not like we’re hiding anything.”
But with the integration of technology, scratch kitchens like Q39 are a rarity these days: Yes, the Sysco supply truck pulls up to drop off potatoes — but not potato salad. There are no microwaves and only a very small cooler, an effort to keep the food fresh.
The quality of ingredients matters, but so does volume: The brisket is certified black Angus beef that has been aged 35 days and cut to Magee’s specification. A local rancher inquired about becoming a supplier but was unable to supply 80 briskets a day.
“Farm-to-market can’t work here,” Magee says. “There’s no way to keep up.”
The Q39 kitchen is “one of the most efficient I’ve ever seen,” bar manager Jenn Tosatto says. Like Magee, Tosatto comes from a competition background — she has been a finalist in multiple bartending competitions while at the Rieger and Manifesto, venues built on the finest craft cocktails.
Tosatto is in the process of figuring out how to pump up the volume without sacrificing quality. “Rob’s very hands-on,” she says. “I use him as a sounding board, and he pushes me to go further and try more.”
With the launch of a new fall bar menu, the typical whiskey, bourbon and scotch will be joined by sherry. And don’t be surprised if the smoked beef jus from the brisket is turned into ice cubes.
The face of barbecue
Magee would like to become “the face” of barbecue. “Two things I always wanted to do: Either be on TV or own my own restaurant.”
He has hired a Kansas City public relations firm to get his name out there. He has represented KC barbecue in Chicago for the convention and visitor’s bureau. He’s frequently on morning TV stations whipping up a recipe and bantering with the hosts.
“There’s nobody at these (other barbecue) restaurants where you can put a face to the restaurant,” he says.
He’s passionate, detail-oriented, quick-witted and fast-talking — a perfect brand ambassador. Just don’t slip and call his restaurant a joint or he visibly bristles.
The interior — an urban rustic decor, with concrete floors, wooden tables, chalkboards and domed lights — is by Arizona-based Realm Architecture + Design, the same company behind the Bread & Butter Concepts’ restaurants (BRGR, Urban Table, Gram & Dun, Taco Republic, Oliver’s and the soon-to-open Stock Hill).
While many barbecue kitchens’ floors are slick with grease, Magee is a self-admitted “clean freak.” He sits down to eat a meal every few weeks to survey his kingdom. Which is probably why when he stops long enough for an interview, he can’t help but scan the dining room.
He’s bothered by a table with two salt shakers (“How does that make sense?”) and a tub of dirty dishes by the bar. He has had the walls painted seven times to fix normal wear and tear. Every day, before the restaurant opens, Magee “drills down” on Yelp or Trip Advisor reviews (The Star gave Q39 3.5 stars in 2014) to see where the guest experience needs burnishing.
As Magee is fond of saying: “What gets measured gets done.”
In another phase of his career, Magee measured success in trophies and awards. At its peak, the Munchin’ Hogs team won two national titles and placed seven consecutive years in the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s Top 10. His current general manager, Ronnie Martinez, is a former team member who can be counted on to show up on his day off.
“Ronnie usually works to expedite the line,” Magee says. “He allows me to walk out and talk to my customers. You’ll see me behind the bar. I’ll walk up and down and ask, ‘How is everything?’ I love doing that stuff. I really like engaging with the customers.”
“How was everything?” Magee booms at a customer who appears in a hurry to exit through a side door instead of the congested front door.
“So amazing!” the customer responds.
“I appreciate you coming in. Have a great day! It’s beautiful out there,” Magee says.
“Oh, it’s beautiful in here, too!” the customer responds with a smile.
Not a Wonder Bread guy
Ask Rob Magee about his current barbecue restaurant competitors and he’s quick to admit: “I’m not a Wonder Bread guy.” Q39’s menu stretches the notion of barbecue, starting with the Granny Smith apple slaw, the cassoulet-style beans and the house-made dressing on the Caesar salad.
On a recent afternoon, Magee is in the kitchen developing a few new fall menu items, including a smoked pork burrito with a smoked salsa and a goat cheese and beet salad for non-carnivores. Both are likely to get a final thumbs up.
The Cuban sandwich, however, is looking iffy because it requires a type of bread not readily available in Kansas City. The smoked pork eggroll gets nixed because it turned soggy during the course of service. Both items are tasty, but each new menu item must also have “cross-utility.” Pulled pork, cheese and sour cream are already part of the pantry. A tortilla is not a big hurdle, but adding salsa and guacamole to the daily prep needs to be worth the time and cost.
The Triple Threat was an easy home run. The house-made chipotle sausage served on competition platters was formed into a patty served on a Farm to Market bun and topped with pre-existing menu ingredients: pulled pork, pork belly, apple slaw and zesty barbecue sauce.
“Now is that super-barbecue? Is that a thing that shows up on menus at barbecue restaurants?” he asks. “No, it’s our twist.”
And if you’re good at barbecue-with-a-twist, watch out for the copycats.
“People like me are going to come in and start testing the market. But hopefully the equipment I am using surpasses what we used to do, or puts more time in something else instead of all into the pit,” Magee says. “The pit is important, but it helps to streamline and create a more consistent product.
“It’s like sous-vide (a new method of cooking where food is sealed in an airtight bag and placed in a water bath). Why do (chefs) do it? It saves time, it’s more moist, and they can finish it off with the grill in 2 minutes. … So it’s trying to keep up with technology. I think that’s important.”
As for his role in upending time-honored traditions, Magee is unrepentant.
“Tell me what a barbecue purist is? What does that mean? Is it good chicken? Is it good brisket? I mean, that’s the bottom line.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on @kcstarfood and @chowtownkc.
About Southern Pride smokers
Low and slow or hot and fast?
“We were founded on that exact problem: The founders were looking for a consistent way to put out good barbecue,” says Heather Robertson, Southern Pride’s marketing spokeswoman.
Southern Pride got its start in the 1970s, when B.B. Robertson and his son, Michael, tried to ratchet up the volume at their family restaurant, Robertson’s Hickory Bar-B-Q Pit in Decatur, Ill.
Today, Southern Pride’s fully automatic, wood-burning smokers, fueled by gas or electricity, are fast becoming a necessary piece of equipment in the world of high-volume barbecue restaurants.
The Alamo, Tenn.-based, third-generation, family-owned company offers 10 pit-oven models designed for speed, consistency and ease of use.
Each model number indicates the pounds of pork butt that can be cooked per seven-hour cycle: For instance, the MLR-150 cooks 150 pounds, while the SPK-1400 tops out at 1,400 pounds.
The thermostat goes from 140 degrees to 350 degrees, and the device includes a programmable menu so that restaurants with multiple pitmasters can deliver the same results.
Customers use the oven for roasting everything from bacon for Bloody Marys to tomatoes for side salads — even dog treats. Stoke the firebox with one to three hickory or oak logs, and meats can be finished with wood-fired flavor.
“I, myself, still enjoy the true-blue way of cooking over an open pit, but in restaurants consistency is the No. 1 thing that gets them coming back,” Heather Robertson says.
Of course, sanctioned barbecue competitions such as the American Royal, which kicks off Wednesday, Oct. 26, do not allow the gas and electric smoker models. However, Southern Pride sells a package that allows the competition cook to convert to wood.
Say goodbye to sleepless nights spent stoking the fire.
Jill Wendholt Silva
We the Pitmasters
In order to form a more perfect union of smoke and meat, we profile pitmasters — wizards of wood, smoke and fire who often work unseen in the trenches. These are the people who perfect and perpetuate Kansas City’s own unique style of barbecue. Rob Magee of Q39 is the third person in our series.
Part 1: Master pit builder Bill Chaney
American Royal Barbecue
The 37th annual American Royal Barbecue runs from Wednesday, Oct. 26, through Sunday, Oct. 30. This year’s event is at the Kansas Speedway. Its barbecue’s largest competition and includes judging in invitational, open, sides and Kids Que competitions. There will be a Celebrity Cook-Off, as well as live entertainment and events. Parking is free. For ticket information, more go to AmericanRoyal.com.