Kansas City’s restaurant scene will come roaring back in 2021, predicted Rob Magee, serving up a look back at Q39’s wildest year in business and offering his take on what’s made the fast-casual barbecue joint so popular with customers.
“We’re going to get through this pandemic. Kansas City will rise right back up to the top — as it was back in January, February, March — the best three months I’ve had since I opened the doors,” said Magee, owner of Q39.
The restaurant ranked as the second-most-searched purveyor of barbecue in Kansas City — according to Lelex Prime-collected data that examined consumer behavior amid the pandemic, shared exclusively with Startland News.
Click here to see the full ranking of KC barbecue restaurants, as well as the Lelex Prime data collection process.
“I know people in Kansas City will start going back into the restaurants as soon as that vaccine goes out and we will be ready for them,” Magee said.
As early year sales soared for the pit master and Kansas City reached a new high — basking in the glow of a Kansas City Chiefs Superbowl victory — 2020 initially seemed like the year Q39 would shatter all its records, he admitted. (The still-relatively young barbecue leader first opened in 2014 on 39th Street.)
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, charring nearly every plan the restaurant had as it locked the doors on its Midtown and Overland Park-based restaurants and trimmed its staff by three-quarters, Magee said.
“We shut down the dining room for seven weeks. That’s when we prepared ourselves,” he said of the initial shock sparked by the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders.
While Magee and his team at Q39 worked diligently to survive the pandemic, quickly getting plans for curbside service in the smoker and overhauling its dining rooms to comply with city regulations tied to phased reopening, online inquiries about the restaurant started to surge, Lelex Prime told Startland News.
“It’s been one whirlwind after another,” Magee said, noting curbside activity at the restaurant lined up perfectly with trends shown by Lelex Prime’s data — which indicated a peak in popularity in the middle of COVID’s first wave.
“As of today, we have brought back half the amount of people [we laid off] and we look forward to when this vaccine comes out and the pandemic is in a place where we can get back to normal and bring [the rest of our team] back.”
Click here for the full Q39 menu or to place a curbside order.
Support layered like flavors in sauce
Such strong interest and a sense of support from the community didn’t come as a surprise to Magee, he said, noting its a similar Kansas City spirit that first inspired what would become Q39.
“I have lived in probably 10 to 12 cities throughout my career — going from city to city with job offers and trying out different places to live and learning a lot about each and every city,” Magee said, tracing his timeline back to his first weeks in Kansas City — more than 20 years ago — when he took a job as a chef at the Westin Crown Center Hotel.
“I have tapped into each city, but in Kansas City I tapped into barbecue contests and the camaraderie and the friendships that have been developed.”
In honor of those relationships, Magee was dead-set on any changes made to the Q39 lineup being people-focused as the restaurant found ways to pivot in 2020.
“We made sure we did not try to do something so outside the box that it didn’t represent Q39 in the proper manner,” he explained, noting Q39 tried a variety of ways to reach customers where they were.
“We created an expediting station where we can handle up to 20 orders at a time, making sure we’re getting them ready for curbside pickup. We created dividers in the dining room to separate tables. We created holiday packages for Easter and Mother’s Day,” he explained, noting Q39 also focused its efforts on creating a curbside specialist position that saw its bussers and food runners take on expanded roles within the restaurant.
“What we did is we refined [our process] and if you came in and did carryout we made sure the quality level stayed the same, so when we finish up with this pandemic, customers will be naturally drawn back to Q39 and to our dining room even more because we didn’t put our brand at risk.”
Grateful for KC
Such an approach is the reason Kansas Citians loved Q39 before the pandemic and it’s what Magee hopes keeps them coming to the table into the future, he said.
“Barbecue competition within Kansas City is the toughest in the United States — and I know, I did barbecue competitions for over 12 years and led one of the best teams in the United States,” Magee said of lessons learned on the circuit and in classes at the Culinary Institute of America.
“Judges were looking for the layers of flavor and the juiciness and perfectly cooked barbecue and I was able to take everything that I learned from the competitions and put it into Q39. … It was a pleasure to build Q39 and as customers kept coming in, constant adjustments had to be made so the restaurant could continue to rise.”
And for Magee, going with the flow is the secret sauce to Q39’s success.
“I am very grateful. I think Kansas City is the best. I think the Chiefs are the best. I think the Royals are the best. I love everything about my customers and how they perceive my barbecue and how they have supported me [to get me to] where I am today,” he said.
“For them to continually order to-go food and to have doubled our sales through this pandemic, when the dining room wasn’t open and they still felt a little uneasy — but knew we could provide them with great barbecue they could enjoy at home — I am very grateful.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.