I’m still not sure what the tie-in was to meat science, but the barbecue nerd in me didn’t care. During the final day of the American Meat Science Association’s Reciprocal Meat Conference held in Kansas City in late June, I was quick to notice a session titled: “BBQ- History, Trends and Educational Outreach,” and claimed a chair on the front row. “Raw Material and Cut Selection” was the presentation I waited anxiously to hear, mostly because the presenter was the founder of one of Kansas City’s newer and most popular barbecue joints, not to mention my personal favorite home-town eatery, Q39.
Meat science notwithstanding, I was captivated to hear Rob Magee talk about how his journey to barbecue stardom started after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1986, which catapulted him into respected chef roles in the restaurant and hospitality industry all over the US before landing in Kansas City 14 years later. Seeking a hobby that was indigenous to the area, he soon realized barbecue was a vital part of the culinary culture in Kansas City and competitive barbecue cooking is a smoky and satisfying pastime. Magee entered his first competition in the early 2000s and his learning curve was steep and fast. He was quickly hooked on this new hobby and was routinely winning more than his share of barbecue cookoffs. His collection of trophies, ribbons and prize money in a short time served as somewhat of a wake-up call.
Hearing the story of Magee’s leap of faith from his steady and stable career as a chef to aspiring barbecue restaurateur, I had a revelation about at least one way his story tied into a conference attended by food researchers and meat science gurus from industry and academia. Accepting and effectively managing risks is a part of every successful food safety program; it is the linchpin for processors’ capital expenditures and it’s a necessary element behind every successful product launch and acquisition strategy. It’s also a part of the daily grind of processing operations in an era of historic labor shortages, soaring freight costs and the ongoing potential of animal health threats. People in the food business are, by default, in the risk management business who hedge their bets with hard work and commitment. The founder of one of the most successful privately owned barbecue restaurants gets all that. While working as a chef at a Hilton property in Kansas City from about 2000 to 2012, Magee continued to compete in and win more than his share of contests all over the country. In one year his Munchin’ Hogs competition team competed in 42 contests.
“I was a weekend warrior,” he said. Magee also had a warrior-like attitude when he and his wife decided to open their first restaurant, risking it all in hopes of succeeding with a barbecue restaurant in one of the country’s most-crowded barbecue hotbeds.
“I took everything I had and put it into this restaurant,” he said, including taking out loans, draining savings accounts and cashing in retirement investments to contribute to about $1 million in start-up funds. He admits the risk was big and he kept thinking, “If it doesn’t make it, you end up with zero.”
But once he took the plunge and after signing a daunting bank note, “everything changed,” said Magee. Q39 opened in 2014 and the line out the door has seemingly never subsided. The success of the first restaurant led to the opening of a second location in 2017. And Magee hasn’t ruled out another opening, perhaps in Colorado. Magee’s fortitude and willingness to take calculated risks are the same attributes shared by everyone in that room.
“Once I signed that piece of paper it was a piece of cake; I never looked back. I knew I was going to be successful because there was no other choice.”