Kansas City resident Jesse Williams drove countless hours beginning in 1970 to keep his restaurant, Crosstown Barbecue, alive in Springfield.
Back then, the barbecue joint was open Tuesday through Saturday on East Division Street. And after closing up shop on Saturday, Williams would get back in his car and return to his wife and children in Kansas City. When Monday rolled around, the routine began again.
He didn’t move his family to southwest Missouri, says son Steve Williams, the restaurant’s current owner, because no one would sell him a home. With no other options, Jesse Williams slept in a 4-by-8 storage room during the week at the restaurant.
“Being a black man in Springfield, Missouri, just fresh off the Jim Crow laws,” Steve Williams recalls, “there was discrimination against him at that particular time. My father had to overcome a lot of obstacles.”
Jesse Williams opened the Springfield restaurant because he heard of a turnkey operation that was for sale. The younger Williams took over the family business in 1984 after graduating from Drury University; he worked at the restaurant during college.
Crosstown Barbecue is now in its 50th year, and Williams says its longevity has been no easy feat. It boils down to creating customer relationships, he says.
“My customers are my friends,” he says. “We’ve continued to carry on that legacy. The same reason why people came here 50 years ago is the same reason they come today … good food and people.”
The barbecue restaurant’s menu features smoked meat dinners, ribs and sandwiches. Williams says The Bluto sandwich – with smoked beef brisket, hot link sausage and barbecue sauce – makes up about 30% of sales. His ribs and smoked brisket are other popular dishes.
The restaurant is on pace to eclipse $300,000 in revenue this year, up 20% from 2019, despite interruptions from the coronavirus pandemic. Customers have been able to utilize drive-thru and curbside pickup while the dining room had been closed.
Williams says Crosstown Barbecue, since its beginnings, has been a gathering place for people of all backgrounds to connect over barbecue.
Jack Webster, a customer since the early days, says his father used to drive him to Crosstown Barbecue before he had his driver’s license. He still visits at least once a month 50 years later to get ribs, smoked brisket and hot wings.
“Steve makes everyone feel like an old friend, and Jesse was the same way,” says Webster, who owns local real estate firm Checkmate Realty Inc. “It’s a place with a lot of tradition and memories. Steve has managed to breathe new life into it over the years and keep the restaurant going.”
Williams, who also works as an assistant minister at Turning Point Church, says his restaurant was one of the only places in the 1970s where people of different colors would break bread.
“Crosstown Barbecue has always been the melting pot where black people and white people can come together and eat good food,” he says. “My dad turned around hatred with love, and that’s special. I want to be able to continue that legacy of being able to bring everyone together in the community and break down the barriers between us.”
Jesse Williams died in 1997.
Wes Pratt, chief diversity officer at Missouri State University and president of the Minorities in Business networking group, says he was in his 20s when Crosstown Barbecue opened. At the time, he remembers multiple black-owned businesses in the Springfield area, from grocery stores to barbershops. But he says those business owners weren’t afforded the same advantages as white business owners – such as access to capital – which he says is a reason why many are no longer in operation. He says the Springfield area still lacks equitable support for minority-owned businesses.
“For Crosstown Barbecue to be in business that long – a lot of that has to do with the fact that Steve has followed in his dad’s footsteps and has the entrepreneurial spirit,” says Pratt. “That’s a tremendous and significant accomplishment … to be in business in Springfield for that long.
“It is part of the fabric of our community.”
Steve Williams says he’s had to make some changes in recent years to stay relevant in the local barbecue scene. At least five barbecue restaurants have opened since the start of 2019 – most recently Bourbon & Beale and a new Rib Crib, according to Springfield Business Journal research.
“Springfield has exploded in the barbecue business in the last few years, but we’re still standing,” he says. “We’ve had the longevity because we’re always having to reinvent ourselves for our customer base.”
In the last 50 years, some of his regular customers have either died, moved cities or changed eating habits. He says that means marketing and menu tweaks are a must to maintain sales.
Working with two part-time employees, Williams modified Crosstown Barbecue’s catering services since March to single-plate lunches to mitigate the concern of spreading germs. He says it’s become popular in recent months among businesses and represents 20% of sales during COVID-19.
Williams plans more catering changes in the coming year.
“I’m a chef, and I can cook anything, so we’re going to offer more customized catering options,” he says.
Once he reopens the dining room, Williams plans to start creating Southern comfort food on Saturday nights. Menu items will include collard greens, macaroni and cheese and pork chops.
“I don’t really want to be known for one thing; I want to be known for all things,” he says.
With COVID-19 still present in the Ozarks, there have been changes to make celebrating still possible but with safety in mind.
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