Harp Barbecue adjusts to post pop-up life

Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden.

The longest I’ve ever waited in line for barbecue was four hours. I had the misfortune of passing through central Texas two weeks after Food Network aired a show featuring the legendary Snow’s, and the line of tourists stretched for more than a block and four-plus hours. 

The second longest I’ve waited for barbecue, though, was at the old Harp pop-up in the back room at Crane Brewing in Raytown. It was Father’s Day weekend and the wait was three hours. If it can ever be said that a meal is worth standing on a cement floor for three hours on a sunny Saturday—I have my doubts about this, but I do so out of professional obligation—this qualifies.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, I popped into the new Harp location, which sits in a Raytown strip mall where you can also get your nails done or buy a pound of frozen parrotfish. There was no wait, which was nice. But the brisket wasn’t anything like the sublime slices I had on Saturdays of yore at a spot we’ve twice crowned as the best barbecue in the city.

“The biggest mistake I made was I switched my meat provider when I came to the restaurant, and looking back on it, that was disastrous,” says owner and pitmaster Tyler Harp. “The briskets were really hard to cook. I could do it and I could trim them and they would be pretty good, but they were tough to deal with.”

Those briskets were more expensive than what Harp served in his pop-up era, he adds, so it’s not like he was doing it to save money. Rather, it was part of an effort to professionalize his operation by using larger food distributors. He’s since switched back.

“Luckily, we were so slow on those Wednesdays and Thursdays that I don’t think a lot of people had the food when it sucked,” he says. “Honestly, it sucked for a while.”

Harp’s candor and brutal self-evaluation is what’s kept him on top of the game. A subsequent visit found the beef on Harp’s signature sandwich, the Truth Bomb, to be much improved.

Anytime a longtime successful pop-up grows into a full-fledged restaurant, you can expect hiccups. That’s doubly true when the owner doesn’t partner up with an experienced money man, as is the case with Harp.

“I thought it was important that I have control of the vision and the direction of the restaurant instead of the person in control of the financing doing what’s making sense for them,” Harp says. “The one thing I knew how to do was work, and I figured if I knew how to work, the rest would work itself out.”

At the ninety-day mark, Harp feels like his spot has finally “learned how to be slow.” He’s also learned that in a blue-collar town like Raytown, the “lunch rush” isn’t a bunch of office drones flying in at noon but instead a rolling wave of hungry laborers. While the show-stopping trays of sliced brisket and sausage plated with pickles and sides are still Harp’s calling card, sandwiches are now a big focus.

“We like making sandwiches,” he says. “A lot of people here have gone to LC’s and Gates their whole life, so instead of veering too far off the path, we’re doing our version of what they know.”

Harp opened the standalone spot on November 5, and his stated goal was to keep the same menu and personnel for the first ninety days he was open, which he’s done.

“Now it’s time to start having a little more fun,” he says. “This next ninety days is going to be a nice time.”

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