Chef J BBQ makes big moves into Arrowhead Stadium and Pennway Point: 'Follow the smoke'
Justin Easterwood, aka "Chef J," opened his current location in the West Bottoms in 2020, just weeks before the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now he's "slangin" barbecue on the main concourse of Arrowhead Stadium, and will open another location inside the Pennway Point entertainment district.
Walking through the West Bottoms, the smell of smoke and spice will lead a hungry wanderer to one of Kansas City’s emerging barbecue hot spots: Chef J BBQ.
Restauranter and pitmaster Justin Easterwood, better known as “Chef J,” has made a name for himself — now that hard work has earned Chef J BBQ a location within the highly anticipated Pennway Point entertainment district, set to open in 2024.
And announced last week: Easterwood just scored another high-profile spot within Arrowhead Stadium — which boasted its first home preseason game last Saturday — “slangin” BBQ on the main concourse of the world champions’ home turf.
Chef J BBQ’s journey hasn’t been without its challenges, Easterwood said. He opened his current location in the West Bottoms in 2020, just weeks before the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We did a few pop-ups and then we signed a lease to be able to come in here and start running on Saturday services,” Easterwood said. “Well, I signed that lease the day before COVID happened, the day before they canceled the Big 12 Tournament.”
“You’re kind of sitting there like, ‘what the hell?’ Everything’s worked up to this and now the whole world falls apart, but somehow, we were able to stay alive for those few months.”
Despite the initial challenge, “Chef J” slow-cooked a solid reputation for himself and his business.
“I think once [COVID restrictions lifted and restaurants were able to open] at 50 percent capacity is when we really took off, because people were able to sit down and eat, and we just kept growing from there,” Easterwood said.
By 2021, Chef J BBQ was ranked the No. 2 BBQ spot on Kansas City Magazine’s “10 Best BBQ Spots in Kansas City Right Now” list.
In addition to its West Bottoms location and incoming Arrowhead kiosk (Section 107), Chef J BBQ can be found at Kauffman Stadium smoking BBQ at the KC ‘Cue stand, on a rotating schedule with Scott’s Kitchen and Smoak Craft Barbecue.
Making a splash at the NFL Draft
Chef J BBQ saw perhaps its greatest success to date when the brand was featured in the Kansas City Smoke Show competition and as a vendor at the NFL Draft in April.
When he first heard the Draft was coming to Kansas City, Easterwood knew he wanted to be in the middle of the action.
“I mean, that was a few years ago when we were just starting,” he said. “We wanted to be a part of it in some way or another, and, I mean, that’s just to put on for our city.”
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve been able to grow and turn into what we are nowadays and establish ourselves as being one of the best in the city.," Easterwood said. "We wanted to represent that on a bigger platform and do what we do for Kansas City.”
While many local retailers and small businesses reported disappointing sales during the Draft, local vendors like Chef J who were officially tied into the event itself saw massive success.
At the NFL Draft, Easterwood said, his team served as much BBQ in one weekend as they would normally serve in a month.
“Thursday alone we served over 2,500 people. And that’s just Thursday,” Easterwood said. On its busiest days in the West Bottoms, Chef J BBQ serves about 300 customers.
The NFL reported that food vendors at the Draft collectively grossed more than $1.1 million in concession sales.
Find them at Pennway Point
Now, Chef J BBQ is taking on a new adventure as Easterwood is set to join the highly anticipated Pennway Point entertainment district, opening next year near Union Station.
“Pennway is a huge project for us because, not only are we taking a step up in our business, but we really want to change the perception of barbecue and what an authentic product should be,” Easterwood told Startland News.
The restaurant serves a craft-style BBQ, cooking its meats in thousand-gallon offset smokers to develop authentic flavor and tender cuts of meat.
“The fire is what barbecue really is. It’s meant to be cooked over live fire for long periods of time, breaking down tough cuts of meat until they’re super tender and flavorful,” he said. “If I’m spending 12-plus hours cooking it — to try and produce the best product — I’m not going to feel the same if I wasn’t tending to the fire the whole time and I just put it in an oven, set the temperature, and let it go.”
Chef J BBQ is expected to open in Barrell Hall, alongside Boulevard Brewery’s Barrel Aged Tasting Experience and Taproom, sausage stand Wurstl, and The Bull Creek Distillery.
The location will allow “Chef J” himself to operate on an entirely different level, with a full-service kitchen and smokehouse, alongside Barrell Hall’s other vendors. He plans on expanding the current menu, offering rotating specials and new barbecue fare, including a BBQ Brunch menu.
“I’m really eyeing on taking our dessert game to the next level as well,” Easterwood said.
The restaurant will also offer a special menu out of a takeout window in the back that meets the entertainment district, where the team will offer cook-to-order items that can’t be included on their full menu.
“It’ll really allow us to showcase some of our creativity and showcase some of the things that we can’t necessarily put on our line service.”
Like its current West Bottoms location, the Pennway Point location will operate primarily as a counter service restaurant, where diners will wait in line to order their food, and see the meat to be served cut and prepared in front of them. Diners can grab a drink at Boulevard or Bull Creek, then join the queue for Chef J’s legendary ’cue.
The live-fire smokehouse will feature windows and garage doors, with upward of 180 outdoor seats where patrons can be a part of the action and see what goes into making this craft style of BBQ.
“It takes a lot of time and love to produce the product that we’re doing,” Easterwood said.
In addition to the opening of Barrell Hall, Phase 1 of Pennway Point will include the KC Wheel, a 150-foot observation wheel operated by ICON entertainment.
Easterwood expects the KC Wheel to be great for business.
“Everyone will know where to find us,” he said. “Follow the smoke and look for the Ferris wheel.”