Sweet, Smoky Success

Rodney George has flourished for 15 years--but only after a rocky start that he attributes to racism

Rod's K.C. Barbeque is the sort of place that serves food with a big helping of memories on the side--even if they aren't your own memories. Pictures of famous jazz singers bedeck the room, and a large portrait of owner Rodney George's deceased grandparents lovingly gazes down at customers.

This restaurant is not only a place to get outstanding food, but it's also a monument to one man's unstoppable drive.

George grew up with his grandparents in Kansas City, Kan., while his mother got established as a teacher in Tucson. According to George, his childhood was bathed in the savory tang of Southern barbecue culture, and his grandfather doggedly pursued barbecue perfection in their backyard barbecue pit. All of George's recipes come from his grandpa, and he guards them with the knowledge that they are a steaming, spice-infused secret that unlocks the door to his own history.

While George was growing up, he always had "an entrepreneurial spirit." Although he said some people considered him a "jock" in high school and college, he always wanted to find a niche and create something entirely of his own, despite people's perceptions of him. After college, George got a job at a bank in Kansas City and began helping his grandfather and uncles with their barbecue experimentations. Then George started to enter barbecue contests himself, winning second- and third-place prizes. This was no small feat considering how seriously people in Kansas City take barbecue.

"It's like life and death there," George said.

In 1982, George had to leave Kansas City and move to Tucson to help take care of his aging parents. He worked a variety of different jobs, and around 1987, he got involved with the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, selling barbecue ribs. He did well at the fairs, and people kept telling him that he needed to open his own restaurant.

After a few years of encouragement by his fair customers, George decided he would open his own place, specializing in the barbecue that he had spent years getting just right.

But before he could do that, George needed to get money to finance his business--and that's where he encountered roadblocks. George said a friend recommended he try a local loan agency that specialized in loaning money to small, minority-owned businesses. He went and filled out the necessary paperwork and showed the people at the agency his records as a successful freelance entrepreneur. However, George said he got a bad vibe as soon as he entered the place, and felt they had already made up their minds to not grant him the loan from the beginning. He remembered that one time when he came back to check on the status of his potential loan, the receptionist went back to get the loan officer and laughingly told him: "Mr. Barbecue Man is here."

George was denied the loan by the agency on the basis that he didn't have a track record, as all his past business-ownership experience came from working at the street fairs. George, however, believes he was turned down for the loan because he was black rather than Hispanic.

"It pushed my buttons. If I had to eat bread and water for two years, I was going to do it (open my business)," George said.

So George searched for an alternative to get his business off the ground. The solution came in the form of a loan officer from Home Savings and Loan (now Bank One) who happened to love George's food. She told him to come to the office, and she would try to help him get a loan. Within two days of sitting down and talking to a loan officer there, George had the money he needed.

In some ways, George said, he feels the poor treatment at the other loan agency was a blessing in disguise. When he went to Home Savings and Loan, he already had his paperwork completed, and he even got a lower interest rate.

"It turned out to be the best thing I ever did," George said.

When the restaurant finally opened on May 5, 1990 (his birthday), George was overwhelmed with a sense of both relief and joy.

"It was a fantastic day, and we did really good," said George.

George's business has continued to thrive, and it was almost inevitable that he would someday run into the people who denied his loan. A few years ago, two men from the loan agency came in and started talking to George, complimenting him on his successful restaurant. One of the men told the other that their agency had loaned George the money to start the business. George could not believe his ears. However, instead of getting upset, he simply corrected the man.

"I just set him straight. I said, 'You told me I didn't have a track record. You didn't loan me any money. It would have been nice if you did; I could have used it, but you didn't help me. You sent me off running,'" George said.

George's business has continued to do well, and far from taking all the credit for his success, he said that his wife has played a major role.

"My wife and I got married in July of 1990. She's been by my side through it all. She's a very integral part of the business. She planted the seed--starting it is one thing, but keeping it going is something else," George said.

George's wife, Dee, does a lot of the background work, including setting appointments for farmers' markets and festivals, as well as doing all the baking. Dee said the restaurant is a lot of hard work, and that people often don't realize the amount of dedication needed to keep the establishment afloat. However, she maintains an upbeat attitude and a sense of playfulness.

"He (George) won't tell me about how to make the hot links, and I won't tell him about the peach cobbler. That way, we've got to stay together," she said.

George's right-hand man, Robert Allen Pruett, has been working with him for about a decade, and he is extremely important to the business.

"He's a really dedicated individual. He helps us run the place. One of the good things about him is that he is consistent. He does a good job, and that's really hard to find in this business," George said.

Pruett had only good things to say about George, too.

"He has a good attitude and is a good person. I am more family than employee now. He's a very intelligent man, and he has knowledge in things most people don't. I love these people; they are wonderful, really wonderful," Pruett said.

George takes pride in the food he serves people, and he is quick to point out that nothing you get from his place will ever come from a factory.

"Everything we do is from scratch. ... Either Robert, my wife or I go and buy the ingredients and make it," George said.

Rod's K.C. Barbeque has won many awards through the years, and people keep coming back for the ribs and homemade potato salad. Despite all the accolades, customers give George the most satisfaction.

"The best thing about having this restaurant is being able to see the gratitude, the enjoyment on a person's face when they're enjoying our food. That's it for me," George said.

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