Hearne: From Worst to First — Kansas City’s Best BBQ Ribs & Burnt Ends

65b52051121aec96574b00cb4bd74038Once upon a time there were only private clubs

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.

UnknownHowever sometime in the late 1990s / early 2000s something happened.

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.

Sweeney

Sweeney

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.”

There’s more…

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.”

burnt_ends_01And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Sweeney came from Oklahoma Joe’s.

“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.

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20 Responses to Hearne: From Worst to First — Kansas City’s Best BBQ Ribs & Burnt Ends

  1. hot harley says:

    a true American success story hearne.
    The guy opened with a small loan from a very nervous bank.
    Don’t doubt mr. spears…..his food has remained very good but
    as all businesses do they sometimes go thru down times.
    But he remained.
    I ate there probably more times than anyone on kcc…because I’m
    a bar b q expert with decades of experience in the restaurant biz.
    just ate there last week and they have upped the quality.
    But don’t doubt Hayward. He worked his rear off to be successful…
    and evne survived in an area where the number of similar restaurants
    came and went and where competition grew quite fast.
    Good luck to the new owners….its a tough tough biz and we’ve
    enjoyed haywards since we switched to his place.
    I just hope you understand the restaurant is one of the toughest
    businesses you can get in.
    hope things go well.
    the king of bar b q:
    Harley!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. mike t. says:

    Years and years ago, I declared, for me anyway, that Hayward’s had the best burnt ends in town. They were actually BURNT ends, not hunks of brisket with a bit of char on them. But I’d heard the stories about Haywards and quit going. This is welcome news.

  3. BrotherSunday says:

    Great story. I will be hitting this for sure. When asked for comment, Harley put on his favorite GET OFF MY LAWN!!! crazy old man scowl and muttered, “I was hoping they would bring back Furr’s Cafeteria and put it there. Damn all this spicy food!”

  4. nobody special says:

    We tried to call for takeout two weeks ago tonight–we knew the place was under new ownership and wanted to give them a chance to woo us away from Oklahoma Joe’s, and it’s much closer to home. I started calling about 6:35pm and the phone rang and rang…8-10 times. I hung up and tried again about five minutes later…same thing, over and over every five minutes until I gave up a little before 7 and called OK Joe’s where they answered on the second ring, if that, put me on hold for a couple of minutes and then came back on to get my order. If you had asked me that night, I would have sworn Hayward’s had closed…what kind of restaurant doesn’t answer their phone on a Friday night, or at least have an answering machine to pick up calls? Absolutely ridiculous.

  5. Lee says:

    My sister has blind rib tastings twice a year. She invites a dozen or so people over. She buys a slab of ribs from 4-6 BBQ joints and puts them out on separate platters with just a number on each. No sauce on them although she has various bottles available. Everybody has one rib from each plate and rates them. We have tasted ribs from perhaps 20 places over the last few years.

    In a blind tasting, you would be surprised how many people who thought a particular BBQ joint was the best and their favorite, voted for other places when they didn’t know which slab was which.

    Try a blind tasting sometime and then decide whose ribs are the best.

    • mike t. says:

      actually sounds like fun. one thought… add McGonigle’s ribs to the taste test if you haven’t already. not a bbq joint of course, but good stuff. we like’em well enough that we just don’t bother going farther to some of the known joints.

    • hot harley says:

      lee…I’d love to come to a rib tasting!!!!
      sound like a cool idea….

  6. Stomper says:

    A piece about Bar-B-Que in Kansas City is a sure way to get comments flying. We really are blessed with the variety of places we have. I’m sure we all have our favorites and lots of factors play into that. My personal favorite is Bryant’s but I’m sure the foundation for that is the fact that I went there as a kid with my Dad whenever we went to see the Athletics play at Municipal Stadium, 23rd & Brooklyn.

    I know others have more discerning tastes than I do but I’m reminded of something I heard from an old mechanic named Lester when I got my first car serviced regularly at the old Miller Pontiac, 42nd & Main. He would say ” the worst sex I ever had was excellent”. For me, it’s the same with Kansas City BBQ. 🙂

    R.I.P. Lester.

  7. Cody 'Wild Bill' Pfeiffer says:

    Owner Eric Sweeney, General Manager Kyle Davis, and Pitmaster Roland Stevens have put Haywards BBQ back on the map. Amazing food and excellent service!

  8. Super Dave says:

    Hearne, your buddy Rodger is wrong about Hayward getting started and Harley is very correct (much as it pains me to say so). I knew the bank and the officer who did the deal on the loan. The banker was also a volunteer fireman in Overland Park for a number of years. So anyone who had anything to do with the fire service or was related to anyone who was, got the old speech about going there to eat so the bank gets the loan paid off, but we all did and loved the place. But Harley, no you never ate in there as much as I or George White did. one of Hayward’s kid’s who use to hang out at the old place suppose to be working I think, but would clown around with us doing his Richard Pryor imitations and cutting up, he was a riot. Known fact, Hayward didn’t like Richard Pryor at all, thought he was too vulgar. Hated to see to place fall like it did since I knew how hard Hayward worked to make it happen. At the new place thought he was set for life and he was, just never was crazy about Hattie singing. She did play some good ole songs on the piano no doubt.

    • hot harley says:

      super david…if you need any information about overland park/kcmo/
      probably about anything significant in this city…turn to Harley.
      Huge family…thousands of business connections…if you need
      someone you can rely on for the most accurate information
      turn the the “always right” Harley.
      and Hayward started at 95th and Antioch. Young guys from American
      royal bar b q took it over when Hayward left for bigger digs…
      but really the best bar b q is not Oklahoma joes…or fioreallaos…
      its lc’s. Gross restauarant but before after football there ain’t nothing like it.
      Seems the chains don’t make it here in kc….tony rommas was a failure…
      dickeys is disastrous….theres a new one coming in on crossroads
      area or nearby. They don’t understand bar b q….
      even in san diego theres a place called..get this “KANSAS CITY BAR B Q”…
      AGAIN…THANKS SUPER DAVID…hope things have changed for the
      better in your life…and remember…HARLEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      and no it wasn’t frank morgans bank who gave Hayward the first loan…
      can’t remember who it was.
      But frank and sherm helped started some of kcs top businesses…
      I know at least 10 that frank and Sherman financed including
      my uncles back in the 70’s!!!!!
      they took chances…and without frank and sherm there might
      not be a Johnson county that we know today.
      corporate woods/Metcalf south/all the development they
      financed…hell they even held the second on the plaza and proablably
      would have had owend the plaza had things gone differently.
      again..need info…go to law4life1000@yahoo.com….harleyconsults
      and helps good people with good hearts.
      also wasn’t bart….ben made most of the decisions down there
      but bart helped me get my first used bmw years ago…super guy…
      his running buddy was an a-hole!!!!!!

    • hot harley says:

      super dave…okay you win…if you claim you ate at haywards you win…
      I’ve eat their lunch special at least one time a week…so for the
      first time and only time…I ‘llgive you the credit…its due to you sir!

  9. Harry says:

    I would have thought the banker was either part of Frank Morgan’s banks or with Bart Cohen at Metcalf bank. Went to Hayward’s two weeks ago. 7 pm. Got a rib platter with fries. Carry out. Food was ok but not up to OK Joes or Jack’s stack quality. The carry out area was still dirty and needed painting / remodeling. I live at 116th and Antioch. So it’s close to the house but its not ready for prime time yet. I am a business owner so I respect Sweeny risking his capital on the business . Since that time I have been to Jack stack twice including the evening of the final four.
    Mr. Sweeny if you read this consider adding some beef ribs to the menu even if its on weekends. Many Jewish customers will eat beef ribs but never any pork ribs. The fiorella’s crown prime ribs are worth every dollar they charge for them. Lamb ribs are also great too.
    When entertaining out of town guests we always take them to Fiorella’s. when they come back to KC that is normally the guest first request.

  10. Bill Nigro says:

    Eric and his wife Debbie have a lot of restaurant experience and their enthusiasm to succeed will put them high up on KC’s BBQ list. I’m excited for them and I know they’ll do well. Debbie was an exceptional waitress in Westport when she was young and she’s an outstanding singer too. I heard her sing at the Phoenix downtown last year. Good luck to a wonderful couple, I’ll be in to try it soon.

  11. bschloz says:

    Nice Post Hearne,
    Congrats To Eric. Had a sandwich in there yesterday and it was spot on.
    Nice to see Shawnee Mission guy take over local brand like Hayward’s.

  12. Joe "schmodie" Howell says:

    I tried out haywards about two weeks ago and i couldn’t find a thing wrong. The burnt ends were top notch, the fries and onion rings as well. I work at a hotel in olathe and would/do recommend this place over any other bbq place in the area. Keep up the great work guys. one last note when you go there take a look at the beer fridge they have got alot of great beers that i hadnt heard of before, but liked all the ones i tried.

  13. kinder says:

    i don’t believe it. I ranked Haywards as the worst BBQ in KC 2 years ago.

  14. Red Hender says:

    Good story, I went in to Hayward’s two weeks ago because I heard on 810 radio they had half slabs going for 810 so I thought i would give this new owner a shot. WOW! Ribs tasted better then Hayward’s in the 80’s when i believe was still in the “Hay Days” let me tell you the “Hay Days” are BACK!! My wife and I have been in 3 times since and I tell you what those burnt ends truly are #1 in KC.

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