My uncles Jerry and Mike Zarda had always wanted to open a BBQ joint. My dad, Steve, being the youngest of 6 boys, grew up with his brothers working for Grandpa Norb in his carwashes, gas stations and most importantly in his hamburger stands, known as Zarda Drive-In, which were scattered across the metro.
Grandpa was a hard worker and instilled work ethic, honesty and appreciation in my dad and uncles. The Zarda boys couldn’t help but catch the entrepreneurial spirit of Grandpa Norb. One of my favorite stories that my dad tells is one about when he was 7 years old and when he made enough money working at the drive in to actually have paper bills instead of change, he would flat iron his money because it was such a coveted treasure to him.
His older brothers, Jerry and Mike, dabbled in all sorts of endeavors, including real estate in the Ozark Mountains. When the real estate market took a dive, they decided they needed to put food on the table somehow and took a huge leap of faith in opening our first Zarda Bar-B-Q in May of 1976 in Blue Springs, MO. Grandpa Norb had a hamburger stand there years before, so the Zarda name was one people already knew.
With Grandpa Norb’s homemade block pit that they watched him smoke with growing up as their inspiration, they quickly perfected the smoking process using Ozark Hickory brought in from the Ozarks a few hours away. The ribs, burnt ends, sliced meats, vinegar and oil cole slaw and baked beans were a hit and the restaurant saw great success! New recipes were added a little at a time after many, many, many attempts to get it just right.
My dad, Steve, started helping his brothers after a failed attempt at becoming an electrician and he decided that we needed to open a location on the Kansas side, closer to where the Zarda Family grew up. The Lenexa location was born in June of 1979. He still talks about how on opening day there was a line wrapped around the building on the outside because people could not wait to get their hands on the free samples. I wish I would have been around then to see that. He will also go on to tell you that from opening day forward, the Lenexa location has never slowed down. You better be ready to work and to work fast if you are at Lenexa when lunch starts!
Meanwhile, the Blue Springs location was cruising along and running out of space. They moved into a location that allowed them to double their square footage but remain on the same stretch of MO Highway 7 that was so visible to traffic. The new location in Blue Springs also boasted a banquet room similar to the one in Lenexa.
Uncle Jerry died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in June of 1982, at the age of 39. God rest his soul. We were on the verge of something big that he never got to see. The same year that he died, Associated Wholesale Grocers approached us about producing beans for the local grocery market. From this meeting came Zarda Foods Inc., our grocery division that now produces over 6 million pounds of beans and 500,000 gallons of sauce per year. Grandpa Norb and Grandma Lucy didn’t live long enough to see how the beans grew into a national sensation, but I know Grandma Lucy somehow knows that it’s her bean recipe that makes us so proud!
Uncle Mike and dad are amazing and passionate about what they do and have instilled their work ethic and perfectionism in Suzanne and I. We have grown up in this business. I wish I had a dollar for every time my grandma, mom or aunts has said, “We are not talking business at the dinner table!” They knew it was falling on deaf ears, but at least they tried. Suzanne and I grew up listening to every conversation our grandpa, uncles and dad had, whether it was meant for our ears or not! She has a bachelor’s degree and I have a master’s degree, however, you can’t be taught what it has taken us our entire lives to learn and that is how to take our family’s treasured business into the future!
We are learning more every day and hope to continue the legacy begun by our dad and uncles 37 years ago!
-Jennifer Zarda Binkley