Opening their restaurant, Justus Drugstore, in Smithville 10 years ago meant Jonathan Justus and his wife, Camille Eklof, had to build a following from scratch.
“We knew the location was horrible, and we knew we would have to do something really strong and different to make it work,” Justus said.
So they did. The couple focused on making a statement both culturally and geographically when they launched their restaurant in May 2007. Dubbing their cuisine Haute Midwest, they served locally raised meat and produce, and wild foraged food.
“Farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, wild foods. That wasn’t happening here,” Justus said.
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Now they are finally bringing their decades of experience to Kansas City with Black Dirt, scheduled to open in late summer. They’ve signed a lease for a 5,000-square-foot restaurant with patio in the 51Main building at 5070 Main St., just south of the Country Club Plaza. The plan has been in the making for 2 1/2 years.
“We’re going. We started with an investor, then a bank loan, then investors again,” said Justus, a James Beard award-nominated chef. “We’re really excited but we are also terrified. Restaurants are really difficult and take a tremendous amount of focus and energy.”
Black Dirt will be a modern American restaurant and bar and “more approachable” than Justus Drugstore, with lower price points. It’s designed to be a “sought-after neighborhood destination.” It will have a made-from-scratch contemporary menu offering “modern takes on classic dishes and a few straight up comfort favorites.”
It will serve dinner only at first, then slowly add lunch, brunch and catering services.
In his business plan, Justus said black dirt is the local name for the extraordinary soil formed during the last great ice age. Where the Missouri and Kaw rivers meet, “there is no finer soil.”
The menu will include:
▪ Bar snacks: Such as house tater tots with horseradish dipping sauce, bacon-wrapped cured chicken livers, Asian citrus-glazed duck wings with soy dipping sauce and more, but available only in the bar.
▪ Cold small plates: Such as smoked trout with micro greens, shallot vinaigrette, pickled pullet egg, cucumber and avocado; and watermelon, mint, hemp seed croquant, goat feta and chili oil.
▪ Warm & cool small plates: Such as confit of chicken gizzards and shaved radish with buttermilk dressing.
▪ Warm small plates: Such as risotto fish sticks with smoked tomato and basil and orange pickled fennel remoulade.
▪ Larger plates: Missouri trout, “meatloaf acting like steak,” fried chicken, milk braised pork brisket and crispy walleye.
The restaurant, bar and patio will seat 160 people. Black Dirt will feature high ceilings and a large room broken up with intimate alcoves. Part of the space can be converted into a private dining room seating up to 20 people.
Justus and Eklof started planning their first restaurant in 1990 while living in San Francisco, taking notes each time they dined out and even traveling with a tape measure.
“There’s not enough room to cross my legs under the table. Why are they bringing my salad when I’m still eating my appetizer?” Justus said.
To them, the “theater of dining” is the experience from the first phone call for a reservation to the goodbyes, and that experience determines if a customer returns or not.
“You show me a restaurant that has great food but the front of the house and/or atmosphere is lacking, it is not going to be around that long,” Justus said. “You have to have all three.”
Justus took a series of culinary positions to round out his skills — including stints as a butcher and selling meat in a retail shop, at a wholesale fish company, and at a wholesale and retail bakery — sometimes taking a cut in pay. Eklof honed her small business skills by working for a startup tech firm.
In 2004 they moved to Paris to work, and then Justus became executive chef at a La Grande Motte restaurant on the Mediterranean. Eklof worked the front of the house and also had a stint in the kitchen.
On their way to Montreal in mid-2006, they stopped in Smithville to visit Justus’ elderly parents. The tenants who had leased his family’s pharmacy had moved out and the building was available. Despite its Main Street address, it had little traffic, and the building would need new plumbing and electrical, a new roof and much more to be converted to a restaurant.
“But we could go into the building with no money down,” he explained. “It would have been impossible to get investors without a brand. And we were close to major farms in the Northland and could get anything we wanted.”
The name was also one of their “bold moves.” It paid off when the state pharmacy board later ordered the couple to remove the word “drugstore.” The ACLU took up the restaurant’s case, and it made national news.
The couple also backed the restaurant with a story. The property had been in his family since 1840, and the drugstore was founded by Justus’ grandfather in 1914. He was the pharmacist there for nearly 47 years, followed by his daughter-in-law, Justus’ mother, who was a pharmacist for 41 years. Justus said he practically grew up in the building, circa 1955.
In its decade of operations, Justus Drugstore has been featured in such national publications as USA Today, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and The New York Times, and its recipes published in The Wall Street Journal. Justus even roasted a woodchuck and feasted on it with the Travel Channel's “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern.
Unlike Justus Drugstore, Black Dirt will come with foot traffic. 51Main is a mixed-use project that consists of 176 luxury apartments, fully leased, near other office buildings and residential neighborhoods.
“I didn’t want to have to fight to get people to come see us,” Justus said. “This is a real corridor. Urban, walkable, on a street where you feel like something is happening.”
Justus Drugstore fans need not worry.
The restaurant will temporarily close a couple of weeks before Black Dirt opens and the staff will relocate to Black Dirt to “get it on its legs,” Justus said. Justus Drugstore will then get a quick facelift.