- Associated Press - Saturday, February 13, 2021

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Marlando “Moe” Cason has the best barbecue in Des Moines, according to Marlando “Moe” Cason.

“It’s a fact, and you can put an exclamation point on it,” he says.

“My beans will make you smack somebody,” he adds. “My mac and cheese - my hot pepper mac and cheese that my wife created - made Steve Harvey lie down on the floor.”

There’s only one problem: Des Moines diners can’t always get Cason’s brisket, pulled pork, short ribs, spareribs, greens, beans or mac and cheese.

Cason, 54, has cultivated celebrity by competing in and judging pitmaster competitions on TV. His Facebook page has 88,000 followers. But although he’s worked pop-up events in town, he’s never owned his own restaurant.

He believes that will soon change. Although he hasn’t signed a letter of intent, Cason told the Des Moines Register he’s in talks to open up shop in a renovated building at 1601 Sixth Ave. in the River Bend neighborhood.

First, the renovation of the 132-year-old former North Des Moines City Hall needs to actually happen. Developer Chaden Halfhill secured a $200,000 Grayfield Redevelopment tax credit from the Iowa Economic Development Authority in 2017, with a deadline of April 2020. The tax credits are for renovations of a building in which at least one-third of the structure has sat vacant for a year or more.

The deadline for the award passed, and construction has yet to begin. Halfhill told the Authority that he has struggled to raise private money for the project, and the Authority granted him an extension Friday. He now hopes to finish the renovation by November 2022.

Halfhill said he is raising funds to complete detailed renderings of the renovated building, which he hopes to provide to the State Historical Preservation Office before spring in an application for $400,000 to $500,000 in tax credits. If all goes according to his plan, he will secure enough money to begin construction in late summer.

Halfhill said a commitment from a tenant such as Cason is key to raising private funds for the project. Over the past four years, he said, he’s talked with various entrepreneurs who either couldn’t secure their own funding to open a shop or couldn’t generate enough revenue to pay rent.

Landing a tenant is particularly challenging in the River Bend neighborhood, where the poverty rate is about twice that of the city as a whole. But Halfhill said Alec Davis, the owner of Dough Co. Pizza on University Avenue, told him that Cason might be the right fit. Some private investors dropped Cason’s name as well.

“He embodies Des Moines,” Halfhill said. “He loves the vibe of this community. But he has an international presence, and that is an amazing thing for this city.”

The two sides have not signed a contract. But if Halfhill raises the necessary money to renovate the building, Cason said, “it’s a go for me.”

He said he wants to open a restaurant in River Bend because of the community’s diversity. About 60% of the neighborhood is Black, Latino or Asian, twice the rate of Des Moines overall.

The city currently is renovating the street in front of the building by decreasing the number of lanes to three from five, adding a bicycle and pedestrian path and planting trees. The old city hall, which served a municipality that disappeared when Des Moines annexed it in 1890, sits across from popular Mexican restaurant Tacos La Familia.

“I love what they’re doing to the neighborhood,” Cason said. “That’s what the neighborhood needs. I know what that neighborhood used to be. It’s going to be buzzing, you know what I mean?”

He added: “I would never put a restaurant in West Des Moines. It’s cookie-cutter. It has no feel. It has no soul.”

Cason grew up near East High School. His grandmother, Margaret, and his mother, Mary, were passionate cooks. He began experimenting on the grill himself when he was about 12, cooking hot dogs, bass and crappie.

After a stint in the Navy, he returned home and took an 11 p.m.-7 a.m. job as a water treatment operator at Des Moines Water Works. He continued to cook for his family and became hooked on TV shows about pitmaster competitions.

He began competing himself in 2005 and soon started traveling the country for events, facing some of the most famous pitmasters in America. As his skills developed, other competitors told him he had the right personality and “look” for a TV show.

After he sent an audition tape, Cason debuted on Destination America’s “BBQ Pit Wars” in 2014. He has since appeared, either as a competitor or a judge, on TLC’s “BBQ Pitmasters” and Food Network’s “The Kitchen” and “Chopped.”

Cason also has appeared on Steve Harvey’s and Harry Connick Jr.’s talk shows. In 2017, he starred in a Little Caesers ad for a smokehouse pizza, and Academy Sports started selling his barbecue rub a couple of months later. He also released a line of knives and barbecue sauces.

After 24 years on the night shift, he quit his job at the water treatment plant.

“I looked at my Des Moines Water Works paycheck,” he said. “I looked at the numbers, and I said, ‘I’m gone.’ It’s been a beautiful thing.”

But Cason said he is embarrassed by Des Moines’ barbecue scene. He said residents of the Upper Midwest were not raised on a proper diet of smoked meats and soul-food sides - not the way people in Texas, Kansas City or the Southeast were. It doesn’t help, he said, that barbecue is rooted in Black culture, and Iowa is 85% white.

“There is no good barbecue in Des Moines,” he said. “There just is not. I know who’s got trophies. But the barbecue just doesn’t speak to you.”

He said he won’t recommend barbecue to friends visiting the city. He is not bashful about his feelings toward Des Moines’ restaurants.

The building at 1601 Sixth Ave. has a long history. Built in 1888, its second floor originally opened as the North Des Moines City Hall, when the area was its own municipality.

Over the years, the property’s first floor has held a variety of shops and bars. The second floor became apartments.

Halfhill plans to lease three or four affordable apartments upstairs. Meanwhile, the city continues its streetscaping outside.

According to a Des Moines capital improvement planning document, the city completed the first phase of the street renovation from College Avenue to Hickman Road last year. Its overall cost is pegged at about $10.4 million.

The city plans to finish a stretch from University Avenue to College Avenue by November. The final phase will renovate the road from Interstate 235 north to University Avenue.

In addition to the city’s funds, according to the planning document, the federal government will kick in $1.4 million. Sixth Avenue Corridor, a nonprofit development group, has raised $1.7 million for the streetscape.

“This was a project over a decade in the making with significant stakeholder input,” said Sixth Avenue Corridor Executive Director Breann Bye. “So it’s been pretty incredible to witness the implementation.”

Cason still plans to tour the country and make TV appearances, but he said he will train his staff and monitor the process to ensure the food meets his expectations.

“It will have a really nice feel to it,” he said. “That old-school Des Moines feel.”

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