Interview: Joe Davidson of Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Cue
Owner/Pitmaster: Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Cue; Opened 2011
Smoker: Gas-Fired Rotisserie Smoker
Joe Davidson has been involved in all aspects of the barbecue world. He became a successful entrepreneur when his smoker company got off the ground in the eighties. He hit his stride in barbecue competitions in the early nineties, and won the Jack in 1993. Then he and his competition nemesis Jeff Stehney became business partners in the restaurant business with Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1996. That original location eventually closed while the second spot in Kansas City flourished under the guidance of Stehney.
Joe took some time off from the restaurant business for more than a decade before he decided to bring Oklahoma Joe’s back to Oklahoma. With his popularity buoyed by an appearance on BBQ Pitmasters, Joe and his wife Paige opened Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Cue in Broken Arrow in 2011, and another location in downtown Tulsa later that same year.
One other tidbit about Joe that I discovered was his prophetic words from 1992 when he commented on the future of competition barbecue to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I believe it’s going to be as big as bass fishing.”
Daniel Vaughn: You’re the Joe behind Oklahoma Joe’s. Are you from Oklahoma?
Joe Davidson: I’m from Okemah, Oklahoma. A little town of about 2,000 people. I was raised on a ranch. For barbecue you just had a fixed five-gallon barrel that was cut in half. We had Hereford cattle and pecan groves. My grandpa would make charcoal. He’d keep a fire pit on one side and burn the logs, and he’d shove those coals in there. Everything was cooked direct heat, unless it was in a smokehouse. I always thought smokehouses were weird, because ours was nothing more than a little bitty tin barn. They would kill the hogs, and get a 55-gallon barrel full of water. They’d hook it to a stick, let it go down in that water, and then pull it out and scrape it with a spokeshaved to get the hair off the hide. Then they’d whack that off and rub them with salt and put them in the smokehouse – whole hams and backstrap. Barbecue was hamburgers and steaks and hot dogs, direct cooking stuff.
DV: You started into barbecue through competitions, right?
JD: I manufactured grills first. I paid my way through college as a welder. As a graduate assistant [at Oklahoma State], one year I saved up $2,000, built twelve cookers, went to the state fair in Oklahoma. When the fair was over, I’d sold the twelve and had orders for a hundred an eight more cookers. And that’s how Oklahoma Joe’s was born. I started building those in my backyard.
DV: Did you bother graduating?
JD: I got my bachelor’s degree in ag education, but my master’s, I lacked in my thesis and didn’t finish it. I built the cookers. I found my calling. I thought it was just the right thing to do. I knew I didn’t want to teach high school, and I thought I was going to be a college professor. I thought, this is better. I loved it. It was just a passion.
DV: When did you get into the competitions?
JD: The competitions, I just thought, well, I’m in the cooker business, so I should do a cook-off. The first one was in ’87. I went to the T-Town BBQ Cook-off, cooked next to guys that owned Charlie’s Chicken here locally. They were from Muskogee. I thought I died and went to heaven. I’m very competitive, and you’re getting to cook, you stay up all night drinking beer.
DV: And you get to advertise your cookers.
JD: That’s right. I was making cookers by myself, and I hired another guy that was an Aggie guy that was working on his master’s to help me. He was a welder, too. And then I hired two more guys, and we finished those orders.
DV: Were you worried when you got in those orders early on? Where did you build them?
JD: I rented a little automotive shop in Perry, Oklahoma. My wife was a teacher, she kind of raised the family and paid for the family. My work paid for the growth of the company. And I started building these cookers then, and I set up my first dealings. One was Jack Wills Casual Furniture here in town, another was Statuary World in Oklahoma City. And it turned out, they were part of a casual dining group. And they had members in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. So I went from having two dealers to having twenty dealers. And that was really when it started spring-boarding.
A circa early nineties video from Joe Davidson:
DV: How old was the business by then?
JD: That was one year into it. It started growing. An old gentleman, his name was Ed, would come down and visit with me at my shop about once a week. We’d been welding, grinding, building. Just taking a lot of pride in what we were doing and putting out. About a year into it, I knew Ed very well, drinking coffee with him and visiting him and stuff. A guy showed up and he says, “I’m Jim Roth, I’m the executive vice president of Ditch Witch, and Mr. Malzahn has asked me to come down and visit with you.” I said, “Mr. Malzahn?” “Yeah, Ed Malzahn.” I said, “Ed is the owner of Ditch Witch?” “Yeah.” I didn’t have any idea. He came down to see if I wanted a plant they had just bought and didn’t have any use for it. I said, I’d love to have it, but I can’t afford it. He said, “How much can you afford?” I said, “I don’t know, maybe $600.” “We’ll take it.” And it was a plant with bridge cranes and everything. So they moved us in out there, and he really made himself available to me anytime I needed him. He really mentored me, through 1988 through ’94, until we grew to the point that I needed to build a brand new facility. We built it in Stillwater. We were still in Sam’s and Lowe’s and Home Depot. Forty percent of our production was going to Europe. Built about 100,000 units a year, really nice units.
DV: When you were first building the smokers, were they all offset smokers, or did you build direct-heat models too?
JD: At first, they were all offset. As the demand for some less expensive units came from Sam’s and Lowe’s, we started building Super Joes and Little Joes that were 16 inches in diameter and 24 or 30 inches long, without a firebox. I couldn’t tell you how many of those we built. They were still 1/4-inch steel and handmade, but cheap. You could get a Little Joe, four peg legs on it, 16 inches in diameter, 24 inches long, for $100 at Sam’s.
DV: When did you stop making the smokers in Oklahoma?
JD: In 1998, we sold it to CharBroil [then they had a manufacturing plant in New Braunfels, Texas]. And that’s when I moved to Texas.
DV: Were you still competing once you got to Texas?
JD: There was a cook-off at Anhalt [Texas], so I’ve got my little train cooker. I loaded up and I go over there and I enter the contest, and it’s Texas rules there, which are very different than KCBS, no garnishing, just aluminum foil. And we did brisket, ribs, and half-chickens. And then you got a bean category. So I entered the thing, and they don’t do a grand champion overall, there’s just a champion for each category. I won three categories, and I just thought that was the greatest thing ever. My ribs said “Oklahoma Joe’s” on them. I knew I got a few funny looks to me about that one, but we had fun, and Jerry Jeff, he played his normal antics, and about halfway through he could barely talk, but he could still sing. He’d come out there and take barbecue, and you couldn’t understand what he’d say when he was trying to talk to you, but he could still go on stage and sing and you could understand every word. I’m going, how the hell do you do that?
DV: Did you go back and defend your title?
JD: Yes. We had so much fun I said, “I’m going back again.” Same thing happened, I won three of the categories. And there was an old guy that had to be 75, 80 years old. And he came up to me and said, “Oklahoma Joe. I want to congratulate you on your wins.” And I said, “Well, thank you.” He shook my hand and said, “But don’t come back again.” “Excuse me?” “I mean it. Don’t come back again.” I thought, well good gosh. I said, “Can I at least just come back for the bands?” He says, “You can do that, but don’t be dragging that rig again in here.”
DV: You made them mad, huh?
JD: What it boiled down to, that was a local, community cook-off, and they perceived me as being kind of a ringer that got thrown in there and was a professional barbecue cook.
Joe’s spoof video audition for the current season of BBQ Pitmasters:
DV: When did you start in competition barbecue?
JD: In ’87, I started competing. I worked on my craft for a number of years, and then by 1991-92, I was getting pretty good. In ’93, it’s like I had my a-ha moment. I finally landed on my two dry rubs and my barbecue sauce. That year, I won Best Sauce on the Planet and Best Dry Rub on the Planet at the American Royal. And then I won the Jack Daniels World Championship that year, and about eight or nine regional and state championships.
DV: That was in 1993, so the smoker business was well established by that point, right?
JD: Yes. I built a big two-story cook-off rig then. It was the very first one in the nation that was a two-story, mobile rig. So we showed up, had this giant locomotive cooker on there, spiral staircase, tents on top of it. I was on the Today show at Memphis in May, and the greatest thing that ever happened to me was at the World Pork BarbeQlossal I made the cover of Pork Producer magazine. For a barbecue guy, Pork Producer magazine was it back then. We were always competitive at Memphis in May, but we weren’t a Memphis in May team, so I could get almost to the finals. I was always in the top ten in whatever I did, whether it was whole hog, shoulders, or ribs. But we would kill ’em in “Anything But” categories. To them, with barbecue, part of the definition is pork. So “Anything But” was the chicken, the seafood, the beef. And I’d always do regular chicken, regular brisket for the beef, and I’d do seafood. And we’d knock them out in those categories.
DV: But they couldn’t ask you not to come back even if you were winning.
JD: They couldn’t. They might boo us after the second thing we’d win, but that’s okay because we had lots of fun.
DV: Did you compete with [former business partner] Jeff Stehney back then, or had you guys always competed against each other?
JD: We competed against each other. He bought his first pit from me in 1990, it was a little 24-inch firebox trailer. And then he came up, got it, spent the night with me, and we cooked together and I showed him how to cook with it. Then we started competing against each other. By ’93, he was coming into his own, as well. It was one of those deals where if he wasn’t winning, I was winning. My team was Hogamaniacs. His team was Slaughterhouse Five. Anytime we were competing, we would have standing bets that were very large. We weren’t competing against everybody else, we were competing against each other. Once we formed Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue and catering, we created a team called Oklahoma Joe’s All-Stars. We only cooked together two times. One was the Kansas state championship, and we won grand overall at that event. We cooked together at the Jack Daniels World Championship. We were good together.
DV: So what prompted you to go into the barbecue joint business?
JD: As Oklahoma Joe’s Manufacturing grew, I constantly had VIPs or dealers coming to Stillwater to tour the plant, and they always wanted to eat barbecue. So I thought, you know, we oughta be in the barbecue joint business. That’s when I went to Jeff and said, “Jeff, come on. Join me.” I’m kind of this big-picture guy and this is how we do it, and he’s methodical, more of a steady, slow — we were different personalities. I pushed him and pushed him, and he’s like, “Nope, I’m a regional manager at Kraft Food Service, I make $60,000 a year, and I’ve got a 401k. I can’t do it. Just can’t afford to do it.” Finally, I said, “Jeff, this is the deal. One year, I’ll match your salary and I’ll give you 50 percent of the company. What do you say?” A few months later, he says, “I’ve thought about it. I’ll do it.” So he came down to Stillwater, and we opened the first Oklahoma Joe’s in 1995. We took over an existing building. It was like a food court building. It was this ugly junk of a place down on the strip, which is right near campus. We were the only restaurant there. We put up a big Oklahoma Joe’s smoker down there and opened that place. And then the year after that we opened up the one in Kansas City at the gas station.
DV: Did Jeff go to Kansas City and you stayed in Stillwater?
JD: Jeff was at both places. For day-to-day operations, he was in charge of both of them at that point in time. My wife, Paige, when Jeff was owner, she was running the one in Stillwater. It was fun. It was a great little barbecue joint.
DV: What prompted the closing?
JD: When I sold the manufacturing company, we had always said that a pitmaster has to be around a barbecue store. And me moving to Texas, I didn’t trust anyone to do that. I felt like it would damage our brand, so I just closed it.
DV: Is the building still there? Is it still a restaurant?
JD: It is. It’s called Fuzzy’s Tacos.
DV: What happened to the manufacturing facility?
JD: I owned the building still. Since CharBroil wanted to move everything to Texas, Brinkmann came up and rented the building from me. I already had the employees and everything, so it put them in the competition.
DV: So Charbroil had just bought you which allowed for their competiution to come use your old facility and employees. You were making money from both of them.
JD: Yeah. I was leasing the building to them. Then everything changed very quickly in the grill industry as a whole. First, they experimented with what are called maquiladoras down in Mexico, where we do the engineering and buy the equipment, they’ve got the building and the labor pool, and they would make it for us. And that didn’t work very well. It went very swiftly to China, and I’m just going, oh my gosh. Literally, all these jobs from all the gas grill manufacturers, everything went to China.
DV: Is that when you left the smoker manufacturing business?
JD: I worked for two years with them. And then after that we wanted to go back and raise our family in Oklahoma. We moved to Tulsa. I went to Wal-Mart and asked them if they would like to sell a series of outdoor cooking videos, and I produced them myself down in my front yard in Spring Branch, Texas, out at the ranch. I did six videos, and I went and said, Here they are, in a real neat package and display. And they said they needed help launching Sam’s Choice Charcoal. So I helped Wal-Mart launch Sam’s Choice Charcoal, and I sold them over a million of these videos. It was nuts. These are VHS tapes, too, this was before DVDs were out. I said, “We’re gonna sell them for $4.95.” And we sold the bejeebers out of ’em.
DV: I’m sure they sold one with just about every smoker they sold.
JD: That’s right. It was really a great experience. In 2009 I started building grills again and got sick of going to China, spending two months a year in China. At first it was exciting, but then it got to where I was miserable. The last time I got miserable was when Oklahoma Joe’s got too big in manufacturing and I sold it. I’m through with this, it’s time to reinvent myself again. I did corporate team-building, called Joe Davidson’s Grill Camp. I had the good fortune of hooking up my first real camp event for a company called Oracle, and we went to Banff, Alberta, Canada, spent seven weeks up there. I was the team builder. Congressman Charlie Wilson was the speaker. And The Who was the band. And I thought, this is the gig I’ve been looking for a long while. That’s all I did for a while.
DV: When you ended up moving back to Oklahoma, did you move to Tulsa?
JD: I did. I really evaluated what I was doing in the environment of manufacturing in China and dealing with Chinese factories. The one business I know Americans would never tolerate importing from China – Barbecue. Keep it American, you know. I said, if I’m going to grow a company and add employment levels to the community, be a good corporate citizen and contributor and giver, this is the way I think I can do it and make a real difference. I wanted to stay home and do something I love, and I still love cooking barbecue.
DV: How did the conversation go with Jeff Stehney when you told him you wanted to come back into the barbecue joint business and open an Oklahoma Joe’s here?
JD: He just said, “Great.” I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve done and accomplished up there. So [when I decided to open in Tulsa] I went to him and told him I need to send people up there, and I need to bring some of your people down here. He’d been doing this a long while, so he could eliminate a huge learning curve for me. I know the recipes are ours from the very beginning, the spices are mine, the sauces are mine. But he’s got some systems for high-volume barbecue that I needed to tap into. We still collaborate. We compare numbers. He has been a great resource to us since we opened in 2011.
DV:Is there any competition between the two locations like back in the old days? Do you still want to beat him sales wise?
JD: I’ll never do it in Tulsa, so I’m gonna have to go to a major market and beat him on that. But, hell yeah there’s competition.
DV: Do you get good traffic here?
JD: The way I look at it, every great barbecue place that comes to Tulsa makes me work a little harder and makes them work a little harder. We’re all after barbecue dollars, but our reality is that on the average day, you’re gonna get business from about a 5-mile radius around you. I can claim, oh, I’m a destination barbecue joint, and that may be true on Friday and Saturdays, but it’s not true on Tuesday through Thursday. It’s a different world there. So tonight there will be people coming from Fort Smith or Muskogee or wherever, come over and have ribs and stuff.
DV: Did you have barbecue memories as a kid?
JD: When I was a kid, I would be loaded up and go fishing with my dad. We’d go and fish on the river by Muskogee and go to Slick’s Bar-B-Que, or we’d go down to Wildhorse Mountain Bar-B-Que. I didn’t know what good barbecue was. I thought I did, until you start having these experiences. Once I got into competition barbecue and started knowing what the perfect brisket really tastes like – once you’ve been to the top of the mountain, sometimes it’s hard to eat in the valley.
DV: You’re famous for burnt ends. When you opened the place in Stillwater, were you doing burnt ends?
JD: We did them, but very few, because we were chopping so much of it back then. We didn’t re-smoke, I’ll put it that way. We would take those little chunks and take that and make burnt ends out of it, but it wasn’t on our menu as burnt ends.
DV:When you opened the one in Kansas City [in 1996], is that when the true burnt ends started getting on the menu?
JD: About five years after we opened, we started adding them. We used them in competitions forever.
DV: People equate Kansas City style barbecue with burnt ends, but you’re saying it wasn’t a popular item, at least on menus, in Kansas City?
JD: It was competitions that drove the popularity of burnt ends, and guys that competed and owned restaurants as well started going, “I think I’ve won more contests with those burnt ends…”
DV: The story always goes that Arthur Bryant’s would give them away, so they’ve been around…
JD: Yes, just like the ends on a Texas brisket, but they hadn’t been defined. Joe’s and Jack Stack started putting them on the menu around 1999 or 2000. We had to explain it. We still have to, in Oklahoma. There are still people that come in now and say, “They’re rib tips, aren’t they?” We trim them, re-season them and re-smoke them.
DV:What kind of smoker do you have back there?
JD: It’s an Ole Hickory.
DV: Is that what they use in Kansas City too?
JD: Ole Hickory and Southern Pride. They’re so similar, you can have a hard time distinguishing the difference from a distance.
DV:Is it kind of odd to you that a place called Oklahoma Joe’s is the most popular place in Kansas City?
JD: It tickles me every time. It makes me grin. Just like I grin every time someone says, “Finally, there’s some great Kansas City barbecue in Tulsa.” And I just go, “Finally!” [laughing]
DV: Any plans for more locations?
JD: We’re exploring the opportunities. I’m actually in the process of negotiating the purchase of another building here in Tulsa, so I’m gonna have another one here. I’ve got one downtown at the Cain’s Ballroom that is open Monday through Friday for lunches, and then proper show nights. It would shock you how many shows are at the Cain’s Ballroom. At the end of this month, Jack White’s coming to play. He loves barbecue.
DV: One last question, which is underhanded. I’m sure you’re aware that Anthony Bourdain said that Oklahoma Joe’s was his favorite barbecue in the country. That was until he came to Texas and I showed him some of our best barbecue.
JD: I had heard about that.
DV: Any thoughts?
JD: I’d say that barbecue brethren have to stick together, even if they are Red River rivals. How’s that for a political answer? I think that in Texas, they can cook brisket as well as anyone in the world. But to me, when I see nothing but salt and pepper used for seasoning, I’m going, “It could be so much more.” And they probably go, “They overcomplicated it. It could be so much more pure.” But, I only cook for my palate. You can’t be all things to all people.