On a steamy August afternoon in 2018, Deborah “Little” and Mary “Shorty” Jones did what they had done nearly every single day for more than 30 years. As the line outside of their tiny Kansas City barbecue stand grew with the daily lunch rush they tried — not always successfully — to avoid smashing into each other as they quickly prepared Styrofoam containers filled with ribs, baked beans, sausages and their locally renowned, family-recipe barbecue sauce.
Everything was the same as it ever was at Jones Bar-B-Q, until they heard a commotion outside and noticed several unfamiliar faces peeking through the window in their tiny kitchen. The young men shouted and waved and asked to come inside. The Jones sisters had no idea that those five strangers were about to change their business forever.
A Family Business Over Thirty Years in the Making
Thirty-two years is a long time to become an overnight sensation, but that’s exactly what happened to Jones Bar-B-Q.
Deborah and Mary’s father Leavy Jones, Sr. first opened the restaurant in 1987. Over the years, it gained a small but loyal following earning praise in the local media but was best known as a cult favorite among serious barbecue aficionados.
After Leavy Jones passed away, their older brother Daniel took over the operation until his own untimely death put the business in Deborah’s hands. In the early 2000s, she would twice move locations, and eventually downsized to a food truck before health problems forced her to shutter the business for good — or so she thought.
In 2015, nearly six years since Jones Bar-B-Q had served its last slab of ribs, Deborah got the idea to re-open the restaurant as a way to pay for her daughter Izora’s college education. She found a former taco stand in an industrial section of Kansas City, bought a used smoker at a nearby thrift store and with little fanfare, Jones Bar-B-Q was back in business.
By 2018, Deborah and Mary were attracting media attention from outside Kansas City. Southern Living magazine called them two of the most influential female barbecue pitmasters in the South and CBS Nightly News featured them in a national segment, calling them “the Smoke Sisters.” The buzz was building and they were selling out their inventory just about every day.
It was Deborah’s daughter, then a 22-year-old nursing student, who learned that the hit Netflix makeover series Queer Eye would be filming its next season in Kansas City. Izora, grateful for the sacrifices her mother and aunt made to help put her through The University of Missouri, thought it was time the family business took a giant step forward and started bottling and selling their secret barbecue sauce recipe. Even though the show had never in its history attempted to make over a business, she nominated Jones Bar-B-Q and was accepted. All without Deborah and Mary’s knowledge.
The Fab 5 Arrive
As the lunch rush started to die down on that humid afternoon in August 2018, Mary and Deborah looked through the steamy window in their sweltering kitchen and noticed five young men they’d never seen before. There were cameras filming them. One of them shouted, “Can we come in and help?!” Soon they were making their way inside.
“What is this?” Deborah asked. Mary had no idea.
Queer Eye had arrived.