So when you wanted to go out to a nice restaurant in Kansas City – with rare exception – it wasn’t in the state of Kansas. Kansas City, Missouri was where the action was at when it came to credible dining options. Because in the 1970s Kansas was still sorting out its antiquated liquor laws and you had to “join” a “club” to be able to order liquor by the drink with your meal.
But as the 1980s unfolded a bold Johnson County barbecuer by the name of Hayward Spears bought up a bunch of land at College Boulevard and Antioch and moved his popular rib roost south from 95th Street into a gorgeous, new space with a scenic view of the city to the north. Oh and he got one of those new-fangled liquor licenses Kansas was starting to give out and – just like that – fine dining was born in Overland Park.
However unlikely though because Hayward’s was a mere barbecue joint.
“Yeah, it was odd,” says longtime Hayward’s fan Roger the Plumber. “Because most barbecues like Gates and Bryant’s focussed more on the food and you would have to tolerate the atmosphere and location. But Hayward’s had everything; it had the ambiance; it was clean and it had cocktails.”
That was then.
I got an email one year from a man who had grown up worshiping at the alter of Hayward’s who had returned home for the holidays and a family dining ritual there with his parents. The man was appalled at how far Hayward’s had fallen. It was grungy, the service was bad and the food sucked by comparison to his now endangered childhood memories.
And it was sad.
I checked with my former Kansas City Star editor O.J. Nelson and others at the newspaper’s nearby office and they concurred – Hayward’s just wasn’t the same. Something about it being loosely run by family members and employees who didn’t share the now-wealthy founder Hayward Spears work ethic and vision.
“Hayward had everything going for himself in the beginning,” Roger says of the original location. “It was a small joint and Hayward worked his butt off there. He got there early and he stayed late. And he looked at every plate of food that came out of that kitchen to make sure it was perfect.
“He had been a janitor for the Price brothers and they gave him cheap rent and helped him get started. And he bought the land at College and Antioch and built that building after about six years and he owned the whole thing. It was way bigger, but you still had to wait outside to get to sit at a table.”
Hayward’s continued to slip and Spears sold the restaurant to new owners or “partners” with a penchant for microwave ovens and more interest in cleaning up at the cash register than cleaning the restaurant. It opened a satellite eatery to the north in 2010 and later closed it. And from what I could see from my many drive-bys was that the long lines to get in the College Boulevard Hayward’s were mostly history.
The bloom was off of Hayward’s rose and the once mighty had fallen.
Enter new owner Eric Sweeney this past January.
“We cleaned it up,” new hostess Amber said when I finally made my pilgrimage there two weeks back. “Everything’s been scrubbed down. I heard it was really dirty, but by the time I got here it had been cleaned up, thank goodness. They had a problem with the smoker and they fixed that – it was bad before that – and they put in all new TVs. And they used to have just boxed wine and a handful of beers, but now we have bottled wine and a wide variety of premium beers.”
“It was terrible, there’s no denying that,” adds new manager Kyle Davis. ” But we’re definitely back. We just got here February 1st and we’ve done a ton already, but six months from now you won’t even recognize the place.”
If someone were to buy Gates, mum would be the word, because you wouldn’t want to scare off customers who might worry about new owners messing with something that was legendary and excellent. The opposite was true of Hayward’s.
“We’re trying to let everybody know it’s under new ownership,” Davis says. “We want everybody to know there’s new ownership, a new manager, a new pit and an entire new kitchen staff from top to bottom.”
The microwave ovens were the first to go, Davis says.
And what of Hayward’s that made it one of KC’s top barbecue joints remains?
“Well, we have the sauce back to the original recipe,” Davis says. “The people before were trying to find cheaper alternatives. And the sausage and the burnt ends – we just got rated the No. 1 burnt ends in Kansas City by the Burnt Ends Society of Kansas City.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s no smoke in here,” Davis says. “It used to hurt your eyes it was so smokey in here and people stopped coming in here in suits because of that. We just really fixed everything and if we notice something even now, it’s fixed right away.”
Now allow me to make an editorial comment about Hayward’s food.
A friend and I sampled the burnt ends and the ribs and simultaneously declared them to be the best we’d ever tasted. No kidding, the best. And it’s definitely not my style to make statements like that.
“We just put a 28 ounce BBQ brisket on the menu too,” Davis says. “And it comes with fries for a very good price – 15 bucks. We’ve lowered our prices in every single category and we’ve improved quality.”
Here’s the deal.
For like 10 years I’d been trying to force myself to go to Hayward’s so I could write a column about how far the iconic south Johnson County eatery had fallen. Now it’s too late. Instead, what had become one of Kansas City’s biggest barbecue disappointments is once again one of its best.
New owner Sweeney rolled the dice but it paid off.
“I knew what I was getting into when I bought the place,” he says. “I read about 500 reviews and about 150 of them said they loved Hayward’s, they didn’t care what kind of product they put out. Another third or 200 of them were critical, but mostly in the last five years. And they said they’d come back if it could find its old ways. And the rest said they were not coming back; they didn’t care, they didn’t like it or they had a bad experience.”
Sweeney wasn’t about to take that criticism lying down.
He tracked down as many of the 500 reviewers as he could on Facebook and “I offered them if they would come back in I would pay for it,” he says. “And I don’t think I’ve had more than one complaint since.
“When I took it over I think it had probably bottomed out. I came in here with two goals. One was to get the food back to as close if not better than Hayward’s at its prime. And based on what I’ve heard, we’ve exceeded that goal. The second thing was to change the decor, to update it and improve it. And we’re not there yet, but we’re close.”
I’ll second that.