by Arthur McGregor
Founded in 1938 by Jim Wright and Jess Kincaid, the world famous Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse has remained a family owned and operated tradition inspiring fond memories and fine dinning for 70 years in Martin City.
“People know what they’re going to get here,” said Jess & Jim’s owner Mike Van Noy. “1 still hand cut every steak.”
A Famlv Business
Mike learned his trade from his father R.C. Van Noy -founder of R.C.’s Restaurant in Mattin City-and his cousin Jim Wright -known as Uncle Jim – while working at Jess & Jim’s in the 1970s just as his brothers Chuck and David had. Mike cut his first steaks at the age of 14. He still makes 300 loaves of bread from scratch each week and prepares the Jess & Jim’s famous beets.
Today, Mike is teaching a fourth generation through his son Mike Van Noy, Jr. According to Van Noy, he expects his children to work hard and give the customers the same quality of service they have come to expect from Jess & Jim’s.
“My father said, ‘If you’re going to run a restaurant you have to be consistently good,’” Van Noy said.
Van Noy says that a big part of Jess & Jim’s success has been the fact that they are a family business. The entire Van Noy family is involved in Jess & Jim’s. Mike met his wife Debbie while they were working together at the restaurant 30 years ago. Their daughters Ashley and Rachel grew up workin gthere. His son-in-law Scott Francher also works at Jess & Jim’s.
The customers sense that family warmth. Van Noy said that one of his customers upon returning from a long trip told him that he’d been back in town for a couple of days, but now that he’d been to Jess & Jim’s, “I’m really home now.”
Jess & Jim’s History
In 1938 when Kincaid and WRight started out, Jess & Jim’s was located further east at 135th and Holmes Road near the spot where Jack’s Stack BBQ is today. The original enterprise was a small bar and grill. Kincaid and Wright were best friends, but they only worked together for a short time. Kincaid married and decided to sell his share in the business. However, his name “Jess” remains to this day a reminder of the friendship of the two founders shared.
The Great Tornado of 1957 passed through Martin City before it hit Ruskin Heights. The same terrible calamity that leveled the newly built Ruskins Heights Neighborhood also changed the shape of Martin City. The original Jess & Jim’s was leveled in the wake of that storm. Wright was forced to move to the current building that Jess & Jim’s occupies at 135th and Locust.
Wright was an excellent cook and well-loved by the many customers that his restaurant drew. However, he wasn’t quite sure for a long time that he wanted to make the steakhouse his life-long occupation. In the early days, Jim sometimes closed on the weekends.
In the late 1960s, Jim Wright brough his cousin R.C. Van Noy into the business. A fw years later, R.C. asked Jim waht his goal for Jess & Jim’s was. Jim thought about that for a moment and said, “I want this to be the best steakhouse in the country.”
From that day in 1970, R.C. and Jim split the duties. R.C. was the host and Jims was the cook.
“His father was a great storyteller,” Debbie Van Noy said. “People came from all over to hear him tell stories.”
Between R.C.’s storytelling and Jim’s cooking, it wasn’t very long before Jess & Jim’s went from a local favorite to an internationally known destination.
In 1972, Calvin Trillin named Jess & Jim’s the best steakhouse in the world in one of his articles for Playboy Magazine. Since that day the acclaim continues. In 1992, USA Today named Jess & Jim’s amongst the top five steakhouses in the world. In 2001, Playboyagain proclaimed Jess & Jim’s one of the top ten steakhouses in the world. Recently, Jess & Jim’s appeared in Cowboys & Indians Magazine, Mid-West Living, Persona, Mid-West Airlines Magazine, and soon there will be a story in Esquire. (Read it HERE)
R.C. wanted to start a restaurant of his own, so in 1973 he opened R.C.’s Restaurant & Lounge just west of Jess & Jim’s. In 1977, R.C. took the reigns of Jess & Jim’s when Jim’s health began to fail. Mike took over Jess & Jim’s in 1989.
Sadly, Jess, Jim, and R.C. have all passed on, but Jess & Jim’s under Mike and R.C.’s under David Van Noy continue to succeed.
The Customers and the Employees
“We have the best customers in the world,” Debbie Van Noy said. “We have a great customer base and lots of regulars.”
The customers and the employees at Jess & Jim’s have strong loyalties. According to Mike Van Noy, many of his employees have been with the steakhouse for ten to 40 years, and so have the customers.
“These people are my family,” Van Noy said. “If we don’t’ see someone in a month or two we worry that something’s happened to them.”
There was a time when the crews from the Union Pacific trains that passed through Martin City would stop for lunch. It was a real destination for the men that worked on the rails. In the days when hobos hitched rides on railcars, the could always count on a free hamburger if there were fortunate enough to stop in Martin City and find their way to the kitchen door of Jess & Jim’s.
Over the years, Jess & Jim’s has had many famous visitors including President Harry S Truman, Walter Cronkite, Jerry Mather, Tony Dow, and an unconfirmed visit from Don Knots, but Mike says that he treats everyone the same.
“We don’t play favorites, and we don’t allow people to ask for autographs.”
Many sports legends have also stopped in . One of the most memorable visits was by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
“Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came here before the Kansas Speedway was even built,” Mike said. “He was here for an autograph signing and asked to go to the best steakhouse in town.”
Martin City is poised for the future as one of South Kansas City’s growth points. World-renowned restaurants like Jess & Jim’s and R.C.’s help to give the community stability and a unique identity that links its future to the past…as new legends are made each day along with the fresh bread.