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.
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.
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.
“We were in here doing our thing like always and all of a sudden there was all this commotion outside,” Deborah, 62, says, today. “We had no idea they were coming. No idea any of this was about to happen.”
Over a hectic three days of filming, the show’s hosts — known collectively as the Fab Five — gutted the restaurant's cramped kitchen, which dated back to the building’s taco stand days, and retrofitted it with all modern equipment. They redesigned the exterior of the building, giving it a sleek new look and even treated the ladies to massages and makeovers of their own.
But the cosmetic changes were only part of the makeover. The hosts, and specifically the show’s resident food and wine expert Antoni Porowski, told the sisters it was possible to outsource a bottling operation that would allow them to sell their sauce in stores and online. The team introduced the Joneses to a local specialty foods company and managed to convince Deborah to hand over the secret family recipe to a product development manager who was able to create a match that could be bottled and sold.
Within a matter of days, Jones Bar-B-Q was a completely different business.
“They gave us tools,” Deborah says of the show. “It wasn’t just re-painting the building or giving us a new refrigerator. They put us on a completely new track and there was a lot to learn. But I don’t think anyone was prepared for what happened once people saw it.”
“It Was On and It Was Poppin’”
At the time of filming, Jones Bar-B-Q had no social media presence and no website. Netflix hired Page Communications, a local PR firm, to help build and manage the business’s Instagram and Facebook accounts. Deborah’s lawyer referred her to Kansas City restaurant consultant Annie Lampe, who connected her with a design firm to build them a website with ecommerce capabilities.
In the months between filming and its debut, it was mostly business as usual for Deborah and Mary. Deborah was up at the crack of dawn to fire up the smoker, they started taking orders at 10:45 a.m. and closed when they ran out of food. The bottling, the website and the social media accounts were all going on in the background. Deborah was kept in the loop, but her focus was the restaurant.
Then came March 15.
When Season 3 of Queer Eye dropped online, the Jones sisters’ episode instantly struck a chord with viewers. On March 14, no one outside of Kansas City knew who they were. Within 24 hours, they were a viral sensation. A day after the show premiered, they had tens of thousands of new Instagram followers (today, they have more than 100K). Almost immediately, they started noticing guests at the restaurant who had come from all over the world just to meet them. The lines outside doubled and they were running out of food earlier than they ever had before. Jones Bar-B-Q was exploding and Deborah and her sister were becoming celebrities.
“It was on and it was poppin’,” Mary told the Kansas City Star.
Then there was the sauce. In the first week, they received one online order every 30 seconds for 24 hours straight over seven consecutive days. After two weeks, they’d sold 20,000 bottles. They’ve finally caught up to the backlog of online orders, but they’re still selling their sauce as fast as they can bottle it.
“This wasn’t anything we ever thought was possible,” Deborah says. “I think you can see it in our faces when you watch the show.”
Whether it’s reality television or a growing thirst among news outlets for viral social media moments, small businesses have never had so many opportunities to become known, even well-known, outside of their own geographical region. Overnight fame can be both a blessing and a curse for small businesses that are used to catering to just their own communities.
In May 2013, New York City pastry chef Dominique Ansel saw his business explode after his now-famous “cronut” was featured in New York Magazine’s food blog, Grub Street. Almost overnight a line began forming around his Soho bakery, but he resisted the urge to ramp up production and crank out more than the 350 cronuts his facility could make each day. By focusing on quality, rather than quantity, he maintained the buzz over time and was able to manage his growth over time. Today, he owns six shops that he’s spread out over New York, Los Angeles and London.
Other businesses never recover from their initial viral boost and attempt to grow too quickly. After winning the prestigious “Most Innovative Product” award over thousands of other products at the annual food show, Expo East, every distributor wanted a piece Wise Acre Frozen Treats. The company’s organic popsicles made with unrefined sweeteners were the toast of the packaged food world, and in less than two years had landed distribution deals on both the east and west coast, scaling its operations to include 15 employees at a massive manufacturing facility. By the end of its second year in business, it was bankrupt, unable to fill all of its orders.
Deborah is choosing to remain practical in the face of life-changing, overnight notoriety that, so far, has had a positive impact on her business. She is resisting the urge to ease the extra burden she and her sister have taken on in the wake of the show’s success and currently has no plans to hire additional help, even as the business scales its bottling operation.
“We don’t want to hire a bunch of people and then find out that all of this attention we’re getting just dies down,” she says. “We don’t want to put a bunch of people on staff and then tell them, ‘sorry, this thing has calmed down and now we need to lay you off.’”
That discipline is a function of both necessity — Deborah and Mary’s main priority remains cooking and serving their walkup customers — and their willingness to trust the systems that have been put in place to manage their business’ growth.
Lampe has stressed the need to maintain slow, organic growth on the retail side — especially with the feverish demand for the Jones’ sauce being so new. In addition to fulfilling all of the orders that have been coming in from all over the world, Lampe has used their website’s analytics to figure out where most of the demand is coming from.
While she’s gotten the sauce into several Kansas City retail chains, she’s taking a more measured approach when it comes to nationwide distribution. “We can see a lot of interest in Texas and in Los Angeles, so it makes sense for us to try and make inroads in those places,” she says. “We’re trying to be smart. Just because Walmart wants you doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. It’s more important to spread our wings in our own area, hit the local shelves and become a pride and joy here in Kansas City, first. If we can refill and keep up with that demand, then we can look to expand out of the area.”
Lampe says her own measured approach has synced with Deborah’s worries about growing too fast.
“She’s very level-headed,” Lampe says of Deborah. “She’s as skeptical as the next person and has been very smart in how she’s handled herself and her business in a situation that I don’t think anyone could be prepared for.”
For their part, the Jones sisters are putting their focus on the restaurant. Deborah says she used to begin prepping for their daily four-hour service at 4:30 a.m. Now she’s getting up at 1:30 so she can be ready for the onslaught of customers that, since the show aired, has forced her to close her doors about two-hours early every day. To help keep up with the demand, she’s allowed herself one extravagance — a second smoker.
“We’re going to keep going just the two of us as long as we can,” she says. “But it’s going to be nice to have a little something extra to keep up with the volume.”