KCQue Barbeque, located at 310 E. Tarpon Ave., is in a restored building, fixed up with the help of city façade grants.
TARPON SPRINGS – Kansas City has a barbeque history that goes back as early as the 1900’s, and after a Missouri native made his way to Tarpon Springs, he made sure to bring a little bit of that culinary history with him.
Mike Kaiser and his wife Nancy’s barbeque spot, KCQue has recently moved from a small spot at 900 Backwater Drive in Tarpon Springs to their new and fully renovated spot in downtown. Their story started long before that, though.
Mike Kaiser was a competition barbequer back in Missouri.
“I grew up in Kansas City,” Kaiser said. “I would do competitions on the weekend.” He participated in shows throughout the state in the Kansas City area, winning competitions as prestigious as the 17th Annual American Royal in 1996, one of the biggest national barbequing invitationals.
“It’s the biggest BBQ contest in the world,” Nancy Kaiser said. Out of the 500 teams that compete, Mike’s came in first.
Mike eventually moved to Florida in 1999, where he met Nancy in October of 2000. In December, they were married.
Nancy, a born-and-raised third generation Tarponite, was already heavily involved in the Tarpon Springs scene, so it didn’t take long for Mike’s barbeque to make its debut. There wasn’t a great competition scene in the area, so they got involved with local organizations.
“Thanksgiving for 1,000” dinners, fundraisers at the high school, Boys and Girls club events and more featured the tastes of Kansas City from the Kaisers. Before long, people were asking when he was going to start selling it and open up shop.
“Oh, we’ll try it just on the weekend,” Mike Kaiser said. A friend of Kaiser had a small former meat distributing location that had been empty for some time, and allowed the Kaisers to take up shop there.
Mike Kaiser recounted a small restaurant they visited once in the Carolinas that was run out of a garage in an alley. It was even smaller than the distribution space they ended up taking over.
“If they can do it, we can do it,” Nancy said laughing.
With that mentality, they gave it a try.
“We actually started the Saturday after Thanksgiving 2013,” Mike Kaiser said. Nancy added that for a year and a half, they were only open one day a week. Then it was three days.
Because they were on a backstreet, drivers often passed it, though some would catch the scent of Mike smoking meat while going down U.S. Hwy. 19. Through online reviews, KCQue catering, and handing out sliders during Wine Walk events, “it made it,” Nancy said. “It just kept growing. [People] said, ‘you are a hidden gem.’”
Eventually, it was clear something needed to give.
“We were growing so much, we knew we had to do something,” Nancy Kaiser said. By the time they had the revelation that moving was going to have to be in their future, the timing was right for the atmosphere in Tarpon Springs.
Karen Lemons and the city were giving out façade grants to fix up old buildings, and the downtown area was starting to blossom. Then there was a death in the owner’s family, and the old house on 310 E. Tarpon Ave. was to be sold.
To make matters even more fated, the woman who lived in the property was a former client of Nancy Kaiser, who used to do her hair. Kaiser was a hairdresser for 40 years. Things were beginning to come full circle for the Kaisers.
The property had been a bar and lounge with a performance stage, and even an Italian restaurant, but sat vacant for some time before the Kaisers purchased it.
“The inside wasn’t too bad,” Mike Kaiser said. In fact, the air had been left running, so the inside did not mold and the air did not turn stale. “The biggest part was the outside.
There was no drainage system, and they had to build a smokehouse. On the inside, it was difficult to see through the window with the staircase railings blocking the sunlight. Even a stained glass window, original to the building, had been covered by a closet. They had work to do.
They purchased the property February 2016, and they had their soft opening on April 13, after almost a full year of work.
KCQue continues to give back to the community. Culinary students from the Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School need volunteer hours, and KCQue opens their doors to them. Some have even gone into the restaurant business. In fact, their current manager is the first student that worked for them. Currently, they have two seniors, Lexi and Michael, and a junior working in the restaurant. Lea, the junior, will be studying abroad in Brussels to learn about pastries and desserts. She does all of the desserts for KCQue now, and has dreams of becoming a pastry chef.
KCQue also participates in the Boley program that gives low-income students an opportunity to work and maintain a bank account as long as they keep their grades up. They have nine students working in that program through the Shepherd Center.
“I call it teaching,” Linda said. “We’re teaching new kids coming up responsibility.”
Currently at KCQue, the favorite item is the “KC Que Sampler Platter for 2,” which features pulled pork, ribs and brisket with the choice of three sides. Everything at the restaurant is done by hand and from scratch. Students shred the collard greens by hand and the beans are soaked overnight.
“I’ll have [the students] learning how to prepare some of the meat,” Mike Kaiser said. All of the meat is done with a dry rub and their homemade spices are on the side.
They are still working to get everything running smooth, but so far, they are excited with where they are headed.
As far as any future, contests, Mike Kaiser said the barbeque competition world is behind him.