Sisters of smoke in KC
Story by Diana Lambdin Meyer
Photos by Bruce N. Meyer
Not long ago Mary and Deborah Jones were just two hard-working women, trying to earn enough money that Deborah’s daughter wouldn’t need to take out student loans or work a part-time job to pay for college.
“I’m still just a girl from the ‘hood,” says Mary, but there’s no doubt that things changed drastically for these sisters on March 15, 2019. That’s when Season III of the Netflix show Queer Eye profiled the Jones sisters and their barbeque joint in Kansas City, Kansas.
They are still hard-working women—seriously hard-working women—but they are now also celebrities with a business that is growing so fast they can barely keep their heads around it.
Let’s start at the beginning. Natives of Kansas City, the sisters’ father, Leavy Jones, raised his daughters to be self-sufficient, never needing to a rely on a husband for anything. He taught them to work on their cars, to mow the yard, to do all sorts of tasks that society has dictated are men’s chores.
And he taught them to smoke barbeque.
Kansas City is one of the four major barbeque regions in the U.S., home of the Barbeque Hall of Fame and the renowned American Royal World Series of BBQ. Members of the Kansas City Barbeque Society wrote the first rules for barbeque contests. If you see a competition is sanctioned by the KCBS, you know it’s an event with trained judges and consistent standards.
In a metropolitan area of more than two million people, Kansas City claims about 120 barbeque joints. While pit masters smoke just about anything in Kansas City, burnt ends are a signature dish in the region. As the name implies, burnt ends are the edges of a brisket that become burnt in the slow-smoking process. Chop ‘em up and slather ‘em with sauce, and you’ve got a Kansas City favorite.
With all of that going on in Kansas City, Jones Bar-B-Q was just one of many mouthwatering stops to enjoy good ‘cue.
Leavy Jones died in 1998 and the restaurant closed. But, when it was time for Deborah’s daughter, Izora, to attend college, the sisters decided was time to fire up the smokers again. That was 2015.
“People always making a big deal about us being women pit masters, but women been doing things all along,” says Deborah, whose nickname is Little. Her sister Mary goes by Shorty. “We just never got credit for it.”
Indeed, female pit masters in the barbeque business are rare. Black female pit masters are even rarer. For that reason, and certainly because they have a good product, Jones Bar-B-Q received a bit of media coverage that simply added to the lines in the parking lot.
There was no seating at Jones Bar-B-Q, just a window to pick up to-go orders in a tiny building that had at one time been a taco joint and, before that, a gas station.
Mary, aka Shorty, shows up for work to get the coals burning by about 1 a.m. Whatever the weather, she is outside tending the fire, turning the meat, all morning long.
Deborah, aka Little, shows up about 7 a.m. to get the beans, potato salad, and coleslaw going. The window opens for customers at 11 a.m. There’s always a line in the parking lot.
The small building doesn’t have much room for extra workers, but most days, one or two family members come in to help with the lunch rush. Usually around 1:30 p.m., the food is sold out.
When Izora graduated from college, debt free and with a good GPA, she wanted to do something special for her mom and aunt who had worked so hard to make that possible. She nominated them for a Queer Eye make-over, the Netflix show that not only provides hair, make-up and fashion advice, but an overall vision of a kinder, gentler lifestyle.
The Fab Five took Shorty and Little to a spa for a massage and mani/pedi. They bought new clothes, including a purse for Shorty who had always used a trash bag for valuables. They took Little to the dentist to improve her smile. And, Little laughs, “they bought us new bras.”
But more importantly, the Queer Eye team pushed the sisters to fulfill a life-long dream of Leavy Jones: to bottle his famous barbeque sauce. The first weekend the show aired, the Jones Sisters BBQ sauce sold 11,000 bottles, an average of 1.7 bottles a minute. And the sisters sobbed with joy.
While all of this was happening, the Fab Five painted and re-designed the restaurant, creating menus, logos, branded T-shirts and other clothing. Along with designing an inviting picnic area out front for guests to enjoy their ribs and burnt ends on the spot, the Fab Five put an exclamation mark on the Jones Bar-B-Q product.
The line at Jones Bar-B-Q each morning seems longer than ever. To keep up with demand, the sisters added another pit and ramped up production of their daddy’s sauce. They’ve hired a couple of full-time employees, a PR firm, and are considering taking a vacation.
But they still have time to take selfies with customers who now come from around the world, and they still call everyone sweetie, honey, or pumpkin.
While Kansas City will always be famous for barbeque legends like Arthur Bryant, Ollie Gates and Rich Davis, the Jones sisters have become modern legends in the barbeque world.
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Diana Lambdin Meyer is a southern Illinois farm girl who grew up in the Shawnee Hills, Illinois’ only viticulture area. Now based in Kansas City, Missouri, and a judge in the Kansas City Barbeque Society, she and her husband Bruce travel the world in search of good stories and good photos. Follow their travels at mojotraveler.com.