Longtime Sysco client Joe Davidson is an entrepreneur, restaurant owner, and a legend in the barbecue world. Joe has garnered over 300 barbecue cooking titles, including the Jack Daniels World Championship. Most recently, the illustrious title of Inductee into the 2020 Barbecue Hall of Fame.
Joe’s journey to becoming a barbecue legend began, as he would describe it as “…one happy accident after the other”. While pursuing a Master’s degree in agricultural engineering at Oklahoma State, Joe worked as a welder to pay for his education. At twenty-five, he ambitiously invested $2,000 to design and manufacture a dozen meat smokers that he then took to the Oklahoma State Fair. Not only was he able to sell all twelve smokers, but Joe walked away with dozens of pre-orders for more smokers – immediately catapulting him into the meat smoker business.
As a man with tremendous ambition and commitment to his craft, Joe decided two things needed to happen: he would have to manufacture the best smokers in the world, and he would need to be one of the best at cooking barbecue to do it. A year later, Joe got his first taste of the competitive barbecue scene. He explains, “I was hooked right then. I just loved cooking barbecue. I love the camaraderie. I loved the aspects of seasoning, [and] barbecue cooks being mentors to young men and women out there trying to get a good start.”
As Joe’s winning reputation grew on the competitive barbecue circuit, so did production at his smoker manufacturing plant in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Regular tours of the facility brought in domestic and international dealers who were just as interested in smokers as they were in tasting award-winning barbecue. Joe recalls, “We were cooking out in front of our plant all the time, and I just felt like, man, we have to open a restaurant.” That’s exactly what he did.
In 1995 Joe convinced his good friend and cook-off rival, Jeff Stehney, to open their first restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma; followed by Oklahoma Joe’s opening in Kansas City a year later. With expectations high and numerous barbecue legends calling Kansas City home, Joe decided “we’re going to have to cook better barbecue than everyone else if we’re going to do this at all.”
He went to work devising a plan to ensure that quality and consistency would be two main ingredients at both his restaurants. He explains –
“The key to our success was to document a process of our steps of what makes great barbecue and executing them identically every time. That means using the same type of wood to cook with, the same cookers, and the same dry rubs that we took with [us] for competitions. It was all in that process – well documented, spelled out, not only in writing but through an apprenticeship program over training pitmasters to be cooking the way I cook”.
Sysco is proud to say that we have provided Oklahoma Joe’s products and operational support for the past ten years. When we asked Joe what comes to mind when he thinks of his ten years of being a Sysco client, he says –
“The difference is the relationship. All the innovation, the marketing, and the know-how [that Sysco brings] to the table. Any time that I need something, all I have to do is pick up the phone and call one of the executives with that team, and they make things happen very quickly.”
On working with Sysco Sales Consultants, Joe says “ [it’s almost] like they get paid by Sysco, but they’re working for me. They are literally in my stores three days a week at least. I will tell you that role has intensified since the pandemic as well. So that’s when they really became …an extension of us because supply channels have been compromised in many instances.”
At the onset of the pandemic, one of those supply chain challenges was the rising cost of beef. Joe tells us, “During the time that brisket was getting so expensive… the [Sysco] Chef came up with the idea of doing a chicken fried ribeye sandwich. How many people have ever had a chicken fried rib eye? We did this and I will tell you it’s one of my favorite sandwiches now at a barbecue joint. [This] brings an incredible experience to my customers, and also allows us to make a fair profit. That’s important.”
Looking forward to a future of unknown challenges and unlimited possibilities, Oklahoma Joe’s has set their sights on becoming a nationwide supplier of their award-winning barbecue – by building their own facility. “We’ve already started the process… and then that facility, in turn, will allow us to enter into the foodservice outside of barbecue as well.”
Now a Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee with over 30 years of success as a smoker manufacturer, and restaurant owner, we asked Joe what his proudest accomplishment. “I’m most proud that we’re still a family run business. There’s a level of satisfaction [that’s] hard to describe.”
Sysco is proud to call Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue a valued client, and we have no doubt that even more success is coming his way in the years ahead. If you’re ever in Oklahoma look up one of Oklahoma Joe’s six locations.