By Joseph L. Murphy
Any way you slice it, American barbecue is one of the most debated food topics. Some will claim Kansas City or Memphis barbecue is the best. And states like Alabama, Texas and South Carolina always find their way on top 10 lists. But more people are adding Iowa to those lists. Or at least they will if Darren Warth gets his way.
Warth, owner of Smokey D's BBQ in Des Moines, is familiar with all the arguments and best-of lists. But he says the best BBQ in the country is in Central Iowa, and he has the hardware to back it up.
"I walk in every morning, and I just love barbecue. Barbecue is 100 percent of our life," Warth said. "I go barbecue to get away from barbecue. My relaxation time is sitting over a pit on a Saturday during a barbecue competition."
That passion is paying off for Warth and his wife, Sherry. The duo is the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, the King of the Smoker and, most recently, the Houston Livestock World Championship. Add to that 82 state championships and 800 individual category awards, and you start to build an impressive resume that simply can't be touched by anyone else.
"It’s a balance," Warth said while explaining why his barbecue is so highly rated by judges. "It’s meat, it’s smoke, it’s spice and it’s sauce. It’s not one of those things overpowering the other."
In 2007, the former vice president of transportation for Ruan Trucking in Des Moines, walked away from a lucrative career to focus his full-time attention on championship barbecue competitions and a catering and takeout business.
"It went crazy," Warth said of a catering and takeout business that started in his driveway in 2005. "I was on the road 60 percent of the time. I was traveling everywhere."
That led the couple to open a location in the old Polk County Sheriff's building and eventually in the skywalk in downtown Des Moines. Today the Warths own three locations in the metro while still competing across the country in barbecue competitions.
"When I look at a restaurant and see how it runs I don’t think like a normal restauranteur," he said thinking about his start in the trucking industry. "I think about how efficiently I can get food to the customer and how I can have better customer service. If I can make a customer happy, the rest are just details. Everything is a process to me.”
Those details paid off on the tournament circuit and for his restaurants. He is quick to say the quality of pork, beef and other meats are just as important in a barbecue contest as they are in his restaurants.
"We use one word around here, and it’s 'consistency,'" Warth said. "It’s the consistency that really keeps bringing people back. We bring the consistency and quality that we have in competition barbecue to the restaurant business.”
To do that they use meat suppliers like Smithfield when purchasing their meats.
"We look for a heavy meat cover on ribs with as much marbling as possible," he said. "That ensures it will be a juicy product at the end, whether you are cooking for judges or customers."
Smokey D's business received a boost when famous food "judge" and traveling customer Guy Fieri, host of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” featured Warth's wings on his television show. Warth said even though Fieri featured his wings, most customers know Smokey D's for their ribs and burnt ends.
"If you think about Smokey D’s, you're thinking about ribs and burnt ends," he said. "People come here for ribs and burnt ends. There’s not much profit in them, but it is what brings people through the door.”
Any given day, Smokey D's will serve up barbecue to thousands of people. They’ll typically sell about 1,200 racks of ribs per week and serve 125,000 pounds of pork and beef per year.
"We have a weird demographic," Warth admitted. "You have grandma and grandpa sitting here and next to them is a Harley rider with tattoos down his arm and a screaming kid across the way. And it doesn’t seem to bother anybody because it is Smokey D's."
Over the past decade, Warth has built a business and championship pedigree that is tough to beat. Those endeavors paired with other fantastic barbecue restaurants across the state have put Iowa barbecue on the map.
Is it the best? It might be a solid claim for one of the most-debated food topics. One way to find out is to try Smoky D’s for yourself. For locations and other information, go to www.smokeydsbbq.com.
Originally published for the Iowa Food & Family Project