The Father of Kansas City Barbecue: Henry Perry
By Diane Euston
Burnt ends, ribs and brisket smoked slow and low for hours – this is the heart and soul of Kansas Citians stomachs. Although Kansas City has grown into a metropolis which includes much more than a menu of smoked meats, its national recognition resides in the barbecue business. Kansas City’s barbecue roots began much earlier than the recognizable restaurants of today. A small cart pushed near the Garment District in 1908 by an African American named Henry Perry is purported to be the beginning of Kansas City’s barbecue fame.
The Beginning of Kansas City’s First Pitmaster
Perry was born near Memphis, Tn. in 1875. Perry claimed he was “endowed with a gift for barbecue” since he was a child. Little is known about his childhood, but by his 20s, he is reported to have worked as a cook on steamboats on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. He moved west and settled in the Kansas City metro in 1907 and worked as a porter at a saloon.
The following year, Perry began smoking meats–a trade he apparently learned in his native Tennessee–and fashioned a push cart around an alley at 8th and Banks St. He sold his delicious barbecue to people working in the Garment District and word quickly spread.
Building a Business of Kansas City’s First Barbecue Restaurant
Perry worked up the funds by 1910 to open an “eat shop” at 1514 E. 19th St., considered Kansas City’s first barbecue restaurant. His new location was steps away from the Jazz District and served up menu items such as ribs, mutton, raccoon, opossum and pulled pork. At one time, Perry even experimented with making rabbit sausage. He smoked the meats over a fire of hickory and oak woods and slathered a spicy sauce on top. When customers ordered at the counter, Perry sliced the meat and served it wrapped in newspaper.
Perry was Kansas City’s “Barbecue King.” In fact, he called himself this as the popularity of the business began to grow. People of all races lined up. His barbecue was so popular that in 1916, a man traveling to Chicago sent a letter to Perry, enclosed $3, and asked that Perry “please deduct postage and send me the rest in ribs, and you may put in some mutton.”
The Barbecue King Restaurants
After over a decade at the corner of 19th and The Paseo, Henry Perry moved his popular business to an old, white cinder block trolley barn with sawdust floors at 19th and Highland Ave. He painted “Henry Perry – King of Barbecue” on the glass. Twenty-five cents would buy you a rack of pork ribs. His no-nonsense, no-frills restaurant was further emphasized with a sign that read, “My business is to serve you, not to entertain you.”
Around 1931, Perry suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side. After being robbed six times in just four years, Perry wasn’t about to let anyone get the best of him. In 1936, a man tried to break into the restaurant and was critically injured by Perry with a shotgun. Due to Perry’s paralysis, he couldn’t lift the shotgun above his hip.
None of these misfortunes stopped him from building on his enterprise. By 1934, he was running three locations, including one at 502 Westport Rd. attached to current-day Kelly’s Westport Inn.
The Barbecue King’s Kind Heart
Perry was a powerful part of the African American community, but he never took for granted his success. In 1920, he hosted his first free barbecue dinner on the 4th of July. Served on a lawn near his restaurant, the meal was free to anyone 65 and older or under the age of 12. It consisted of beef, pork and mutton sandwiches, lemonade, watermelon and soda.
Over 1000 people turned up that day and it was reported to cost the Barbecue King $500. He felt it was important to give back to a community that embraced him. Perry continued to host a free barbecue dinner for years after.
Perry’s Barbecue Legacy
Perry passed away from pneumonia in 1940 just six days after his 66th birthday. He entrusted his business to one of his apprentices, Charlie Bryant. Charlie’s brother, Arthur, who also worked for Perry, once said, “Henry Perry really knew his stuff, and I learned the game from him.” When Charlie sold Perry’s old restaurant to his brother in 1946, the barbecue itself stayed the same but was renamed “Arthur Bryant’s.” Arthur made one change from the way his brother and Perry made barbecue–he changed the sauce.
Arthur claimed in a Kansas City Star article, “Old Man Perry and my brother made [the sauce] too hot.” Arthur tried to get the men to lay off the cayenne pepper because the “harsh and peppery sauce” brought tears to customer’s eyes. “They wouldn’t believe me,” he proclaimed. In 1959, Arthur moved to the current location at 18th and Brooklyn and continues to reign as one of the best barbecue restaurants in the nation.
Another man named Arthur Pinkard got his start under the wings of Perry. When George and Arzelia Gates set out to start their own barbecue joint in 1946, they partnered with Pinkard who used barbecue recipes that were “the Henry Perry way.” Gates Ol’ Kentucky was opened at 19th and Vine and the rest is history.
The Father of Kansas City Barbecue
Henry Perry was listed by Southern Living Magazine as one of the 15 most influential people in barbecue history. Without Old Man Perry, Kansas City barbecue would not be the same.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com