Old soul of Martin City’s dining culture offers an experienced view of fighting back.
Mandatory social restrictions, empty streets, and fear of the unknown. This is Mike Van Noy’s first pandemic, but it’s not his first rodeo. “Like my Dad used to say, you’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet and that’s what this is — the bitter. We’re dealing with it.”
The late R.C. Van Noy never backed down when life threw a curveball at the restaurant he made famous. His son is no different. “This is more of a sidewinder,” says Mike with a grin. “But Jess & Jim’s will get through it.”
Even before dining room shutdowns became mandatory in our area, the man honored as a Greater Kansas City Restaurateur of the Year in 2018 was already pivoting and preparing Jess & Jim’s for another fight.
“We’ve been here 82 years and we’ve been through just about everything; wars, recessions, the mad cow disease scare,” says Van Noy as he glances out the window at a quiet St. Patrick’s Day in Martin City. “We’ve seen it all and here we go again.”
But this time is different. None of us has ever seen anything like this global pandemic and the dramatic repercussions rippling across the planet. Van Noy doesn’t take much time to ponder it all. He’s got bigger fish to fry, and world-class meat to cut. As America was just starting to wake up to the realities of the pandemic, Van Noy’s team was already shifting operations to curbside pickup.
“We’ll keep preparing food and bringing it to the curb as long as people keep ordering it,” says Debbie Van Noy, Mike’s wife, and Jess & Jim’s General Manager. “You can call us or order online and we’ll make it well worth it for you. We’re all in.”
Restaurant food has nothing to do with the transmission of the coronavirus, and Jess & Jim’s is making sure all carry-out packaging is clean and handled by clean hands. Debbie says the entire menu is available for delivery to your car out front.
“You can buy anything we have. Want to buy our steaks and burgers raw and cook them at home? We’re still cutting everything fresh and we’ll set you up. Want us to do the cooking? We can do that too. You can buy hamburgers by the pound here if you’d like. We’ve got kids’ meals, chicken, fish, so much that really appeals as comfort food. Don’t we all need comfort food right now?”
Customer loyalty is everything right now for all restaurants. Debbie says Jess & Jim’s has been earning loyalty for decades and relying on it heavily in challenging moments like this.
“We have a lot of people reaching out to us saying, ‘We’re going to get dinner from you as much as possible. We’ll be there at least a couple of nights a week. We’ll get lunches too.’ It just means so much to us. We give thanks for our customers every single day.”
Debbie is really urging bigger businesses to step up. Those that haven’t sent workers home can bring the numbers that can save local restaurants.
“Please, please go local. We want everyone to get the support they need, but local restaurants are really pillars in Martin City and other communities across the country. Before your office orders from a franchise or you hunker down with your groceries at home, please buy from local restaurants, even if it’s gift cards. You can bet that when I’m not on the job here I’m getting my meals from other local restaurants.”
Jess & Jim’s fifty or so employees have the benefit of experienced leadership. They look to Debbie and Mike for guidance that’s especially valuable because it’s packed with so many years of overcoming the unexpected.
“We feel like their families are our family and we want to take care of everyone,” says Mike, pushing his glasses up to his forehead and folding his arms. “Some of our younger employees have never experienced anything like this and they’re pretty shocked. We just encourage them to buckle down and stay strong. We all have to power through this. If we’ve got to clean the entire place over and over and over again, we’ll do it. If we’ve got to paint it, rebuild it, whatever. We’ll get it done.”
Some employees can rely on their spouse’s income or their parents, but longtime Jess & Jim’s workers are vulnerable because their job is all they have. Debbie says the entire staff is pulling together to prioritize and the way it’s happening is inspiring.
“We have employees giving away their hours to other employees without even being asked. They’re just good people and naturally inclined to take care of each other. It really says a lot.”
Our Martin City neighborhood is known for a fighting spirit that’s forged our survival since the 1800s. Jess & Jim’s is an enduring symbol of that spirit, hanging in there through eras when much of the community dried up. Mike Van Noy has clearly inherited resilience from his father, a man as synonymous with Martin City as the train tracks and the cow that watches over us from Jess & Jim’s roof.
“Maybe if we were smarter, we would just turn and run,” jokes Mike. “But we’re stubborn and I think that goes back to R.C. We’ve been doing this so long now that it’s in our blood. Walking away isn’t an option. We don’t know how.”
Even the steadiest restaurant owner can have his weak moments when every newspaper headline offers a reason to worry. How does Mike Van Noy cope?
“Her,” he says, pointing to Debbie. “She keeps me going. She’s so determined and reminds me that we all are. That’s why we’re still here. We don’t give up. Debbie has moments of doubt too. We pick each other up. That’s just what we do. You know we’ve been together since we were teenagers. We’ve seen our family go through so much and all of that experience points to one thing – keep going no matter what. Keep moving forward.”
That’s what Mike recommends to all restaurant owners. Stay strong. Turn lemons into lemonade if you can and use the slowdown to take care of other aspects of your business.
“We’re open seven days a week and that makes it really hard to get maintenance and other work done here without interrupting our customers. So I’m using this time to catch up as much as possible.”
Having time for cleaning and repairs is an opportunity hidden inside the slowdown.
Catching up can mean cleaning and repairing. He believes right now it’s especially good for your business, your mind, and your mood.
“Nobody here wants to just sit and worry. They all want to work just like me. It’s better than doing nothing. It boosts our restaurant and our spirit.”
Most importantly — stay positive. He says it impacts everything you do and will get you through.
“I’m the biggest pessimist out there, but even I know that in times like this you’ve got to stay positive. It’s the only option and it works. You’ll see and then you’ll realize yeah, we’re gonna get through this together.”
He believes one silver lining in this particular crisis is that business may come roaring back as soon as the pandemic begins to recede.
“It’s not like a tornado hit and knocked down your restaurant. The business is still out there and waiting to come back to you. If you can just hang on, your customers are waiting for the chance to come back. They just can’t right now. Just hold on. It’ll come.”
If you’re searching for signs of hope in all of this, consider what’s taking shape upstairs at Jess & Jim’s. Mike and Debbie are quietly piecing together a bourbon bar as rich in heritage and nostalgia as their restaurant and the building itself.
“There used to be a rollerskating rink up there from about 1900 to the 1920s,” explains Debbie. “We’re reviving elements of that era to create a private event space that will otherwise be a bar.”
You can expect the massive renovation to culminate in a grand opening in the months ahead. Yep, there are all kinds of ‘what ifs’ between now and then, but Mike Van Noy throws those fears to the fire.
“Jess & Jim’s will survive. We’re going to be here, even if it comes down to just me and Debbie serving and cooking until we get back on our feet again. But don’t worry, we’ll be here. We grew up here, our family is here and our customers are our family. A community is what you make it. All of us in Martin City have made a lot of it and there’s no way we’re giving it up.”
Many local restaurants are getting creative with service and menu specials. The best way to stay in the loop is to connect through social media and keep showing your support for RC’s Restaurant, Martin City Brewing Company, Jack Stack Barbecue, Martin City Coffee, and all other restaurants trying to power through the ‘bitter’ by continuing to offer plenty of the ‘sweet.’
Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse
517 E 135th Street, Kansas City, MO 64145