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Sister pitmasters of Jones Bar-B-Q, made famous by Queer Eye, are selling their restaurant

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Deborah "Little" jones (left) and her sister, Mary "Shorty" Jones have owned Jones Bar-B-Q for decades, but they said they need to retire.

After more than 40 years of serving up their family's sausages and sauce, Mary and Deborah Jones say they need to take a step back — but not too far back — from their Kansas City, Kansas, restaurant.

After Thursday’s lunch rush, Mary “Shorty” Jones and her sister, Deborah “Little” Jones stood outside of their beloved Jones Bar-B-Q, waving at the cars and trucks that honked “hello” as they passed.

The pitmaster-duo — a beloved fixture of Kansas City, Kansas, who rose to international fame after an appearance on the Netflix reality show Queer Eye — are selling their business this fall, citing their ages, health issues and short staffing.

Two of the few Black female pitmasters in the country, the sisters took over Jones Bar-B-Q from their father, Leavy B. Jones Sr., who started the business in the 1970s.

“After 43 years, it’s time to sit down. We’re tired,” says Mary Jones.

“I don't really want to,” Deborah Jones interjects. “But you know, sometimes you don't want to do a lot of things. But sometimes it calls for it.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
The Jones said one of the reasons they are selling their business is because they are short of staff. This note hung from the order window Thursday.

The Jones sisters said they plan to step down September 15, but they aren’t going anywhere. They want to train the new owners and share some recipes, and plan to be just a phone call away to answer questions.

“If it's something you [the new owners] need on the side or something, you know, they'll always be able to find us,” says Mary.

The Jones sisters and their restaurant were given a Queer Eye makeover in 2019, an appearance that the sisters say has brought in visitors from all around the world. Soon after the pandemic hit the next year, they debuted the city's first barbecue vending machine, and have kept it stocked with rib tips and burnt ends ever since.

Now the restaurant often sells out before lunch ends at 3 p.m. — on Thursday, they ran out of food at 1:40 and closed early.

Rick Wheaton showed up for lunch just in time to get a platter of ribs. He’s been following the sisters since seeing them on Queer Eye and decided to try Jones Bar-B-Q before they depart.

“I wanted to come over here and partake, if you will, of some really good barbecue. I'm a barbecue snob so I wanted to come over here and help support them,” Wheaton says. “These ladies, I guess, as I understand it, they're probably the only two female pit masters out there.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Rick Wheaton, enjoying his lunch Thursday. He said he wanted to try Jones Bar-B-Q ever since he saw them on Queer Eye, so he drove from the Raytown area to Kansas City, Kansas to meet the sisters before they leave.

While the sisters own the building and all of their equipment, they do not own the piece of property the restaurant sits on. It will be up to the new owners to work something out with the property owners or move the business. They also have two employees, who they hope the new owners will keep on staff.

But not all of Jones Bar-B-Q is up for grabs. The Jones sauce and sausage recipes will remain a family secret.

The Jones Bar-B-Q Sauce — another result of the Queer Eye makeover — is a separate entity, and will continue to sell online and in select stores like Made In KC.

Deborah Jones said when she retires from the restaurant, she plans to work in the warehouse where she won’t have to be on her feet for long periods of time. As for Mary, she said wants to go back to school and get a teaching degree.

“I'm going to be a teacher, because the kids need me now,” Mary says. “The adults wore me out. Now the kids need me.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Detra Wilson, a longtime patron and family friend of Jones Bar-B-Q, stands between Deborah "Little" Jones and Mary "Shorty" Jones.

Detra Wilson has been a Jones Bar-B-Q customer since she was a child — she’s followed them as the business moved three times within Kansas City, Kansas. On Thursday, when the Jones sisters posted on Instagram about selling their business, she rushed to the restaurant on her lunch break.

Wilson says she’s anxious about the idea of new owners.

“It's gonna be kind of sad for me because it's personal. Just not the love of the barbecue. Just that they're sweet, they’re some sweet individuals,” Wilson says. “Everything about them is just... it's everything, because you taste the love in the food. Like it's been more than just about money I think for them.”

The Jones have high expectations for the next owner, though, who they say must bring a strong understanding of the “basics” — customer service and proper barbecue. And there’s a special ingredient they want to see.

“They gotta come with some love. Everything we prepare has love in it. Everything from the bread to the pounds of beef, to the slabs, to the sausage,” Mary says. “You have to want to do this and you have to want to know that whatever it is you do, somebody's going to feel good about it.”

“We're walking outta here together,” Mary continued. “Just like we did 43 years ago, we walked in with our heads high, we're walking out together with our heads high. One can't leave the other — hell, who am I gonna argue with?”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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