KANSAS CITY, MO. -- Two days after the death of a barbecue luminary named Arthur Bryant in December 1982, a cartoon in the Kansas City Star struck to the heart of what the 80-year-old restaurateur meant to this city and to barbecue lovers everywhere. Bryant was depicted arriving at Heaven's gate and being greeted by an angel asking the one question whose answer would guarantee redemption: "Did you bring sauce?"
Seven years later, Bryant's legacy -- the hot, peppery, rust-colored sauce and the smoked meats it smothered -- has not even made it past the courthouse downtown, where a legal struggle is simmering over control in Kansas and Missouri of the trademark "Arthur Bryant."
At stake is the right to use that name on barbecue restaurants other than the famous original -- Arthur Bryant's Barbeque Restaurant.
"It's been a tragedy," said Rich Davis, a child psychiatrist-cum-sauce-king whose "K.C. Masterpiece" is the nation's second-best-selling barbecue sauce. "And it stands out as a tragedy even more as there have been so many barbecue successes in Kansas City. If there is any one place that should have been a success, it is Bryant's."
Arthur Bryant's life story reads like barbecue hagiography. Born in Texas, he came to Kansas City in 1931 and joined his brother, Charlie, working for Henry "Old Man" Perry, often credited as the founding father of Kansas City barbecue. Perry bequeathed his restaurant to Charlie, and Arthur took over when Charlie retired in 1946. By cutting down on the hefty dose of cayenne pepper in the sauce and adjusting its tomato-puree base, Bryant found, as he put it, that people did not "frown" as they did when eating Perry's sauce. A barbecue legend was off the blocks.
Bryant's restaurant was to achieve fame through the years. But food maven Calvin Trillin, a native of Kansas City, offered the most unequivocal plug when he wrote in Playboy magazine in April 1972 that "it has long been acknowledged that the single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant's Barbeque at 18th and Brooklyn in Kansas City."
Today, Trillin remembers Bryant's as notable for more than its food. "Other than the buses and the ballpark, it was the only integrated place in town when I was growing up," he said. Its success in attracting a nationwide reputation helped Kansas Citians to "recognize the legitimacy of their hometown," Trillin said.
One thing held true for the mix of presidents, truckers, celebrities, yuppies and just plain folk who comprised Bryant's customers: All had to wait in line at the "grease house," as Bryant preferred to call his place at 1727 Brooklyn Ave. Bryant never expanded or franchised, nor did he market the sauce. Immediately after his death, Arthur Bryant's Barbeque was closed, and speculation about expansion was eclipsed by concern for its future. Could there be an Arthur Bryant's Barbeque without Arthur Bryant?
Within a month, Doretha Bryant, Arthur's niece and heir and a longtime cashier at the restaurant, announced that she intended to lease the place to Bill Rauschelbach, a local steakhouse manager, and Preston Kerr, a California investor, and their newly formed Brooklyn Barbeque Corp. (BBC). She assured a local newspaper that the prime culinary secret was not lost to posterity because, before dying, Bryant had confided to her the sauce recipe.
On Feb. 21, 1983, Arthur Bryant's Barbeque reopened, with Doretha behind the cash register. The bustle of people that greeted the occasion provided, ironically, one of the last peaceful moments involving the restaurant.
The legal problems began when Doretha decided to expand beyond the Brooklyn Avenue world of her uncle. In March 1984, she and Kerr formed Arthur Bryant's Inc. (ABI) to establish restaurants and market the sauce nationwide.
"It was Arthur's dream to make his barbecue famous from coast to coast," Doretha said at the time. "The mission of Arthur Bryant's Inc. will be to fulfill his dream." Doretha and Kerr decided that she would be paid $30,000 a year for life, in addition to percentages of sauce revenue and franchise fees.
Their partnership, however, spawned more lawsuits than restaurants. After four years of legal cross-fire between the two, stemming initially from a nullified letter of credit, a state judge returned control of the Bryant's trademark to Doretha. ABI folded without having opened a restaurant or sold a bottle of sauce.
But the judge also made Doretha's restored rights subject to those of BBC, still her lessee at the Brooklyn Avenue restaurant. Last year, when she opened a restaurant in Kansas City using Arthur Bryant's sauce and trade name, BBC protested, contending that an agreement signed by ABI in 1984 gave BBC exclusive privileges to operate such restaurants in Kansas and Missouri.
Doretha calls this arrangement a "secret deal," and her signature does not appear on the document. BBC insists that she was present when the agreement was signed, and the corporation does not contest that she has retail sauce rights in town. But BBC officials contend that, once she pours the sauce over pork and sells it, she is walking on their turf.
A court-ordered arbitration panel is expected to begin sorting through the culinary confusion soon and to determine who may legally operate Arthur Bryant's Barbeque restaurants in the two states.
Until that decision is reached, Arthur Bryant's barbecue can be eaten only at 1727 Brooklyn Ave.
Larry "Fats" Goldberg, a Kansas City pizza man who knew Arthur Bryant, does not sentimentalize about the possible proliferation of Bryant's barbecue. "If they can replicate it, and that's a big if, then Godspeed," he said. As for the litigation, his bias is clear: "When I want a big sandwich and fries cooked in lard, I don't care about litigation. I hear too much about lawyers anyway."
Pass the sauce.