Back in 2016, Tyler Harp was trying to figure out what to do with his life. He was 30 years old and working as a server and bartender at the Hereford House steakhouse.
“I was kind of at a rough spot in my life — a little valley there,” he says.
Harp would get off slinging steaks at the local institution about 11 pm. Rather than hit the bars with his co-workers, he’d go home and fire up the grill in his backyard. For Harp, who grew up going to barbecue competitions with his father and uncle, it was sauce-splattered solace.
“My best memories of my childhood are at the ballfield, playing baseball and being with my dad and his brother cooking on the circuit,” he says. “I grew up around it.”
Then Harp made a pilgrimage to Texas — a journey that sent him on the path to his wildly popular Saturday afternoon barbecue pop-up at Crane Brewing Co. in Raytown.
“That was my first time eating barbecue in Texas, and I got real inspired,” he says. “About two weeks after I came back, I bought a 125-gallon smoker from a guy in Wichita so I could do like six briskets or eight pork butts.”
Within weeks, Harp was selling whole briskets and racks of ribs out of his driveway in Independence. He advertised by word of mouth — and by pitching meat lovers he encountered at his day job.
“I was peddling my barbecue to the Hereford House customers,” he laughs. “I think that got on their nerves a little bit.”
Harp is part of a new school of what he calls “craft barbecue.” The national trend toward cheffy pan-regional ’cue owes a lot to Austin’s Aaron Franklin, who Harp says “changed the game in a way that nobody will ever be able to do again.” Locally, the craft barbecue influence is probably most obvious in the menu from CIA-trained Q39 pitmaster Rob Magee, whose menu includes brisket poutine and pork belly BLTs.
Harp’s cart has a dedicated social media following and has drawn people to line up a dozen deep before they swipe cards across his Square. His regular menu is still small: sliced brisket, pulled pork, dry-rub ribs, cheesy corn, vinegary slaw. His meats come with the sauce on the side — highlighting his reliance on the all-powerful trio of salt, pepper and smoke.
“To me, Kansas City was supposed to be embracing the best of all the regions,” Harp says. “That was just something I took to heart. I love the Texas style. I kinda consider my barbecue to be closer to the Texas style.”
While the brisket and sausages pay homage to the Lone Star State, Harp is sticking to KC for the ribs, burnt ends and, of course, the sides — the characteristic that’s evolved KC ’cue from piles of smoked meat with white bread to a full-fledged cuisine.
“We really want to be the best of all the regions and bring that under one roof,” he says.
Harp travels extensively, having now been to 300-plus barbecue spots around the country. He actively seeks out training from pitmasters who “know a hell of a lot more than I do.” That’s led him to the hills of west Tennessee, where they still smoke whole hogs over wood, an intense process that’s rare in modern ’cue. The secrets have been passed down for generations.
Harp is looking to learn — and then pass it backwards a generation to his father and uncle, the guys who got him into ’cue.
“When I was 12 years old, my dad and my uncle had cooked a whole hog for a family member who was getting married,” Harp says. “Well, they go to unwrap the hog, and it wasn’t done. My uncle had to go down to Gate’s and spend $700 or $800 to feed the family,” he says. “That left a scar on me permanently because to me these guys were the barbecue Gods, and I’d had never seen them screw nothin’ up.”
GO: Harp Barbecue at Crane Brewing Co., 6515 Railroad St., Raytown, Mo. Open Saturdays from noon to sellout. facebook.com/harpbarbecueatcranebrewingco.