Not your average Joe’s

JoesBBQLists of the great retail and restaurant strips of the world do not normally include W 47th Street in Kansas City (KC). But on a recent trip to the Midwest of the United States, that’s where I found a local KC institution that is up there with the best retail food experiences on the planet.

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In fact, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que was nominated by none other than chef and TV personality, Anthony Bourdain, as one of the, “13 Places to Eat Before You Die”.

Despite the lofty praise, there is nothing fancy about Joe’s. In fact, it sits in an unprepossessing gas station on the edge of town. The restaurant is wedged alongside the convenience store inside.

People don’t come here to fill up on fuel; instead, they arrive in force to fill up on barbecue. And it’s worth nothing that what the Yanks call “barbecue” is not the Australian definition of a “barby” – it’s meat, often pork, slow-cooked over charcoal, often overnight.

When I turned up on a midweek night, the line was literally out the door. To “eat at Joe’s”, you have to be prepared for up to an hour’s wait. Fortunately, a colleague of mine had been kind enough to save a place in the queue, so that reduced our time on line.

Queuing up is actually part of the Joe’s experience. People from every social strata jostle and joke together as they eagerly anticipate what Bourdain called, “the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world”. There is time to consider whether to savor the brisket or burnt ends, the pulled pork or the Pit Boss salad, which is easy on the greens, heavy on the meat and cheese.

As for ambience, Joe’s is less about fit-out and more about the feeling and the fun. Yes, there is a little neon and a little corrugated iron. And a lot of photos and signs celebrating the success of “The Slaughterhouse Five” – the charmingly-named team headed by Joe’s’ founders, Jeff and Joy Stehney, who won all kinds of BBQ contests before opening Joe’s. People make the difference here – both the customers and the folks behind the counter. It’s noisy, busy and you can smell the BBQ.

KansasAs you (eventually) order, the staff members don’t write anything down – they repeat what you ask for in a rat-a-tat rhythm, shouted out for the rest of their team. That helps them recall the order, but it’s also part of the whole retail theatre. Next, you shuffle along respectfully (a little like you would with Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi) to collect your order.

We ordered the lot, including Joe’s famous Z-Man sandwich – billed as, “slow-smoked beef brisket, smoked provolone cheese, topped with two crispy onion rings, on a toasted Kaiser roll”. The haul arrived on plastic trays with butcher’s paper and a plastic pitcher of Boulevard Beer (the local KC brew). Again, this is not about “proper” presentation, it’s all about the food.

Key lessons for retailers

What can retailers and restaurateurs learn from Joe’s? There are five key lessons on offer here:

  1.    Focus on the product: Quality BBQ is the key to the success of the whole operation. Too often in retail, the product doesn’t live up to the promise.
  2.    Tell a story: With Joe’s, you don’t just buy the BBQ, you buy into the founder’s myth. It’s the tale of a couple who fell in love with BBQ, won contests for it, met Joe Don Davidson (owner of the Oklahoma Joe’s Smoker Company) and went into business. Passion is a big part of the pitch.
  3.    Be authentic: Joe’s is as real as it gets and is completely unpretentious; the only thing that’s “Michelin” here are the tires on the cars in the forecourt. Sometimes retail tries too hard.
  4.    Be unique: Joe’s BBQ is “competition-style” and that’s what makes the difference, along with signature products like the Z-Man sandwich. What’s your genuine point of difference?
  5.    Create an experience: In a world of same-same, Joe’s stands out, and it’s a mix of place (gas station), product, people and presentation. Consider all the Ps (and all the senses) when you create a retail experience.

Great retail turns up in the most unusual places, when you least expect it. My visit to Joe’s was more than a pleasant surprise – it was inspiring, and I’ll be back for more.

Jon Bird is managing director of global retail and shopper marketing agency network, Labstore.

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