Ollie Gates thinks that you can beat him at barbecue.
That’s what he told the audience at last night at the Kansas City Public Library's Central Library in a public conversation with Library Director Crosby Kemper III.
In your backyard, you can do what you want, cook it your way to suit your taste. Of course, Gates Bar-B-Q isn’t your backyard – it’s a business that’s been doing commercial barbecue in Kansas City for a long time. Mr. Gates joined us to help celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week, an initiative of the Kaufmann Foundation, as a part of our ongoing series, Kansas City: Cradle of Entrepreneurs.
It all started in 1946 when his father, who worked as a porter on the railroad, bought a tavern. It was open late to catch the last crowd of the night. His mother, though, wanted a business somewhat more legitimate than a night club and soon they transformed the tavern into a restaurant. That’s when they started serving barbecue.
Mr. Gates started working in his father’s restaurant because he wanted a car. He was in college getting a building trades degree and it was a long walk from campus to town, when you couldn’t thumb a ride. After college, he went into the Army and worked as an engineer. He himself built the barbecue pit at 19th and Vine.
He came back from his tour with the Army eager to move the family business forward. He also had three kids to support. But he and his father didn’t always see eye to eye. By this time, it was called “Gates & Son” – but his father was known to paint over the “& Son” part on the sign when they were on the outs.
The "kitchen wasn't big enough for the two of them" and eventually Mr. Gates ended up with two of his own establishments – a restaurant and a night club, right down the street from his folks. He never looked back. Today, Gates Bar-B-Q is an award-winning chain of restaurants, beloved by Kansas Citians.
And what does Mr. Gates think is the secret to the success of barbecue in Kansas City? Major league sports. Once KC had professional baseball and football teams, restaurants had plenty of hungry customers. Sports played a crucial role in popularizing KC barbecue.
But major league sports was good for barbecue in general – how has Gates Bar-B-Q managed to survive for so long?
Part of their success is the tradition behind everything they do and the customer experience. But Mr. Gates thinks it’s what you do outside of the business that matters most, your role in the community. He served for 19 years on the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation, serving for a time as its President. Much of the “greening” of Kansas City happened during his tenure. He has given his time and efforts to numerous civic bodies: he was a driving force behind everything from enhancing our boulevard system, to our sports teams, to improving the Missouri highways, to being on the vanguard of developing the east side.
He doesn’t think of it as "giving back" to the city, though. He just wants to express his appreciation for his home town and show everyone that KC is his favorite place on earth.
Ollie Gates loves Kansas City!
About the Author
John Keogh is the Digital User Specialist for the Digital Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. He grew up in Fargo, ND, (too small) and lived in Chicago for several years (too big) before he moved to Kansas City. He calls KC his "Goldilocks town" because it's just right.