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Beloved Kansas City Barbeque Society In Turmoil, Financial Distress, Losing Members

Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City Barbeque Society's building at 2519 Madison Ave., in Kansas City, Missouri, has been for sale for more than a year.

A board member under fire for allegedly swindling an Indian tribe in Oklahoma. The organization’s $3 million Kansas City headquarters, bought and renovated just a few years ago, up for sale. The founder stepping away from day-to-day control. A CEO abruptly leaving after only a few months at the helm.

That’s the state of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the world’s largest organization dedicated to promoting barbeque, which appears to be in turmoil more than three decades after its founding in 1986. The society sanctions more than 500 barbeque contests each year, including the American Royal in Kansas City, and is viewed as the premier supporter and sanctioning body of its hometown’s most famous export.

A non-profit group with roughly 17,000 dues-paying members worldwide,KCBS is in debt, according to tax records, and is selling its 44,000-square foot “world” headquarters building at 2519 Madison near downtown. KCBS purchased the building in late 2016 and then spent a lot of money renovating it. In 2017, KCBS valued the property at roughly $3 million.

The group’s CEO,Heath Hall, left under murky circumstances in July after just seven months on the job and other longtime, loyal directors appear to be jumping ship. Hall, a Kansas City native and former U.S. Senate staffer who co-founded Pork Barrel BBQ, a producer and marketer of barbeque sauces and spice rubs, reached a confidential settlement with the organization. He could not be reached for comment. 

The society's CEO, Emily Detwiler, didn't return phone calls and an email seeking comment.

Some former society board members blame the organization’s current problems on David Qualls, the secretary of the society’s board, who is being sued by the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma for misappropriating more than $2 million in casino management fees from the tribe.

Credit Courtesy Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association
Courtesy Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association
David Qualls, secretary of the board of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, is being sued by the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma for allegedly swindling the tribe of more than $2 million and violating the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

In May, the Peoria Tribal Gaming Commission revoked Qualls’ gaming license after finding that he had failed to repay the money. Qualls, who could not be reached for comment, has denied the tribe’s allegations in court documents.

Arlie Bragg, a Nashville member since 1998, said many people are sad about the way the society is being run and they are talking on social media.

“It’s just sad that we, as a society, are really a good bunch of people. We’re a barbeque family,” Bragg said. “I guess in all families you have an outcast or you have somebody that doesn’t fit in.” 

When Qualls stood for election to the board a year ago, he told members that his decades-long tenure as chairman of a trade association representing the $5 billion gaming industry in Oklahoma “gives me the experience to help steer KCBS down a solvent stable path.”

The society, he said, faced “many challenges,” including declining contest participation, inconsistent judge training, financial burdens “and a (sic) all but non-existent responsibility to membership thru (sic) limited communication, no transparency of actions, and no real contributions in support (of) the most important aspect of its mission to promote Barbeque as culinary technique, sport and art form.” 

Qualls could not be reached for comment.

Mike Peters, who served as the society’s president in 2015 and its BBQ tour manager for 11 years until November 2019, said Qualls operates “like the Trump factor: whether he's right or wrong, he's saying what he's saying to try to sway opinions.”

“He's always been the loudest voice in the room,” Peters said, “and so a lot of people, I won't say cower to that, but they let the loudest voice speak and they followed down that path.”

For 12 years, Peters and his wife handled KCBS’ Great American Cookout tour, going across the country to promote KCBS and its sponsors. Peters said it was always a profitable venture but KCBS abruptly terminated his contract last year.

“The only thing I can guess is that I’m friends with the wrong people,” he said, “former board members that are no longer associated with KCBS and sometimes people take things too personal — that’s the only thing I can figure.” 

Mike Richter, a board member who resigned last year after accusing unnamed members of “constant negativity and bullying,” said some of the society’s new board members were “domineering” and “very strong-willed.”

Richter, who was reached at his home in Pensacola, Florida, declined to name names, but said there were “a lot of things” that happened in 2019 “that I don't believe were in the best interest and I'm not going to get into any specifics about it.”  

Richter had nothing but praise for society founders Gary and Carolyn Wells, who announced last weekthat she is stepping down as executive director after helping lead the organization for its entire existence.

Credit Courtesy Kansas City Barbeque Society
Courtesy Kansas City Barbeque Society
Carolyn Wells, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, announced on Dec. 27, 2019, that she is stepping away from the daily work of the group but will continue to be involved in special projects.

“They created an awesome organization that was about cooks having fun and, you know, it takes a lot to run it,” Richter said, adding, “I mean we need cooks, we need judges, we need organizers, we need reps, and they all need to get along.” 

Another former director, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said much of the turmoil was attributable to Qualls, whom he described using the same “loudest voice in the room” language used by Peters.

“You had a board member resign early in the year that put it on the record that he basically — you can mark this day in history as the destruction of KCBS,” the former director said, referring to Richter’s resignation. “And he said he couldn’t sit around and watch it anymore.” 

In its 2017 Form 990 filing with the IRS, the most recent available, KCBS listed $1.76 million in revenue and $1.89 million in expenses. Most of its revenues came from membership dues — about $325,000 — and contest fees — about $1.4 million. Its biggest expenses included occupancy costs, listed as nearly $323,000, and the costs of running barbeque competitions, nearly $311,000. The only salary listed was the $99,000 paid to Wells. 

Mike McCloud, whose company, MMA Creative, Inc., had a marketing contract with KCBS for 11 years, said part of the problem was the challenge of working with an active board that amounts to “12 bosses.” 

“It was a noble development for KCBS to have an elected board of 12 caring, compassionate people in the beginning,” he said. “But over the years, that can be challenging for any organization.”

The society ended MMA’s contract in 2017 before it expired, and McCloud reached a settlement with the board. McCloud is now  president and CEO of the World Food Championships in Dallas.

In January 2019, KCBS retained First Club Marketing, a firm in Cumming, Georgia, headed by Randall Bowman, to handle its marketing services. The agreement called for KCBS to pay First Club Marketing $13,000 a month over three years and additional bonus fees, depending on how much revenue it brought in. 

Eleven months into the contract last year, KCBS terminated it “for cause.” First Club Marketing has sued KCBS for breach of contract, contending it was terminated without cause. It’s seeking reimbursement for fees it says it’s owed and for damages. 

Bowman was president of KCBS in 2018. His attorney, Eric Dirks, declined to speak for the record, saying the lawsuit spoke for itself. 

Whether a desire to cut expenses played a role in the termination of First Club Marketing’s contract is unclear. But KCBS’s decision to put its building on the market was clearly driven by financial considerations. 

The society moved into the sprawling space from cramped 1,500-square-foot quarters and had hoped to lease out the top floor of the building. It never fully leased out the floor. But with a paid staff of about half a dozen people, KCBS also found itself with way more building than it needed and a substantial mortgage.  

“I don’t know that there was enough real estate knowledge or business knowledge on the board of that time to make a really well-educated decision about buying the building,” said the former director who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s a lot more financial burden than they need. … Really, they never should’ve bought it.” 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story failed to note that Randall Bowman, whose company is suing the Kansas City Barbeque Society, was president of the society in 2018.

Dan Margolies and Peggy Lowe are reporters at KCUR. Margolies is on Twitter at @DanMargolies and Lowe is on Twitter @peggyllowe.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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