Published January 29th, 2020 at 11:00 AM
The secret to cooking great barbecue is…a rake?
Sure, some say it’s the rub. Others insist it’s the choice of wood, quality of meat or type of pit. But pitmaster Johnny White relies on the evenly spaced teeth of a rake.
The teeth function like a ruler, providing a consistent measure for how far to leave the door of the pit open. Like the air dampers at the top of a backyard barbecue grill, the door regulates air flow to the fire.
“We have so many barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. You don’t have to be the best, but you do have to be consistent,” says White of Johnny’s Bar-B-Q at 5959 Broadmoor St. in Mission.
After four decades, White, 68, has decided it’s time to hang up his rake. He’s allowing the pile of hickory logs to dwindle as he prepares to close his doors for the last time this Friday, Jan. 31.
During a visit two weeks before the restaurant is set to close, the kitchen runs out of fries thanks to a robust lunch rush. White locks the door at 3 p.m. to catch his breath. He acknowledges the number of long-time customers coming in for their last meal has been a trip down memory lane, but it’s also been a bit overwhelming.
“It’s been hard for me to visit with customers because we have been so busy,” White says. “It’s been like opening for the first time and Triple D (The Food Network’s ‘Diners Drive-Ins and Dives’) put together. You don’t know what to plan for when you retire.”
Kansas City barbecue enthusiasts came to the old-school, family run joint to eat ribs, burnt ends and chicken. But they also came to celebrate wedding anniversaries, funerals and job promotions. One couple even got married at the restaurant.
John Ross, a former Kansas City Barbeque Society board member, helped turn Johnny’s into the unofficial headquarters for competition cooks, judges and enthusiasts a decade ago. The group, which usually numbered 35 to 40, gathered on the first Wednesday of every month for lunch.
“It was convenient, the food was excellent, and it was not one of these well-known tourist-trap barbecue places, like Gates or Arthur Bryant’s,” Ross says.
Over the years, Ross also helped cultivate the restaurant’s eclectic décor by contributing barbecue-themed vanity license plates and competition posters. Others in the group contributed to the bottled sauce collection lining the walls.
During the group’s last lunch in early January, they presented White with a Golden Rib Award, a homespun plaque made from barn wood and gold spray paint to recognize 40-plus years of “barbecue excellence.”
White got his start tending pits at age 14. His dad worked at Rosedale Bar-B-Q, one of Kansas City’s legacy restaurants, founded by pitmaster Anthony Rieke in 1934. White went on to work with the Earl and Herb Quick of Quick’s Bar-B-Q on Merriam Lane.
White’s first solo barbecue venture opened in 1978. Santa Fe Trail Bar-B-Que in Olathe was underfunded but he and wife, Linda, were young, hungry and eager to succeed. They got the business running and sold it a few years later.
White opened his next restaurant in a former Straw Hat pizza parlor in 1983. The new location, which he renamed Johnny’s, was closer to home, a plus as he and wife Linda raised their four children. Linda kept the books for the business while earning a master’s degree in nursing.
“I was always supportive,” she says. “But I came to be surprised how the restaurant becomes another member of the family. It was like he had another wife so to speak, that’s how tied you become to it.”
Their children, now in their 30s and 40s and living across the country, recently made one last pilgrimage home to reminisce about growing up at the restaurant. A photographer was hired to capture a family portrait of the clan at the restaurant.
Eric White, 44, recalls helping his dad set up the dining room when he was 10 or 11, a job he enjoyed and one that helped him earn money to buy baseball cards. Eric, too, started learning to cook barbecue around 14 or 15 years old.
After earning a business degree from UMKC, Eric decided to join the family business. In 2004, he opened a second Johnny’s location at 1375 W. Highway 56 in Olathe. The menu is identical to the Mission location and the décor is similar.
The biggest change from one generation to the next: Johnny cooked on brick pits while Eric cooks on Southern Pride stainless steel pits. These cookers are allowing more volume with greater efficiency but they’re also taking some of the art of mastery away.
Johnny hasn’t fired up brick pit for a few years ago. He followed Eric’s lead, but says even with the new temperature gauges and settings “we cook by eye and touch. You can tell (when the meat is done) by the color.”
Ardie Davis, barbecue folklorist, cookbook author and charter member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, is wistful about the closing of his friend’s barbecue spot.
“To me, (Johnny) represents the old-school Kansas City tradition that is slowly fading away for faster, easier to cook, more uniform barbecue,” Davis says.
By old-school Davis means KC-style spareribs, untrimmed and with the breastbone intact, cooked until it is fall-off-the-bone tender, a point considered overcooked by competition rules.
“Modern barbecue is becoming more — I hesitate to use the word — cookie cutter,” Davis says. “Today they trim the meat to specifications. Old school barbecue was different, and if you’ve tasted pit cooked versus oven cooked, you can taste the difference. Nobody will know that taste eventually.”
While father and son discussed passing down the Mission location, Eric decided that running two locations would take too much time away from his own family.
Unlike a newer breed of barbecue restaurant owners who cut their teeth on the competition circuit, White says his only competition has been keeping his doors open, a feat that became increasingly difficult due to recent labor shortages within the restaurant and hospitality industry.
“Most restaurateurs know when to fall out of it,” White says. “It’s just time.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.