JJ’s restaurant had been one of the city’s most popular places since its opening in 1985, but it suffered mightily in proximity to the troubled former West Edge development looming across the street.
The brick restaurant with the tile roof at the corner of 48th Street and Belleview Avenue was founded by Jimmy Frantze in partnership with his brother, lawyer David Frantze. It was renowned for its wine list and won the coveted Grand Award from Wine Spectator magazine. In 2005, the second time it awarded the honor, it was just one of 84 around the world that had won the award.
The brothers also owned the property.
Jimmy learned of the explosion while out of town in Oklahoma and said he was concerned about his employees.
“It was 28 years of a great restaurant, and then it has to end like this,” he said.
Tuesday night, while still at the scene, David Frantze anticipated he and his brother would rebuild.
“It would be hard for me to imagine that location not being the home of JJ’s,” David said. “We’ll go through the insurance process and whatever other process you go through, and you’ll see JJ’s back there.”
David learned of the disaster watching television at home.
“I saw the fire and we hopped in the car and went there,” he said. “It’s pretty devastating. My brother spent 28 years of his life making it one of the top restaurants, and to go there and just seeing it gone is numbing and mind-boggling.”
The fiery explosion was the catastrophic ending to a string of difficult years for JJ’s. Its troubles began when a massive project called the West Edge broke ground in late 2005 immediately to the south.
The office and hotel complex was developed by Bob Bernstein to be the new home of his advertising agency and other businesses. In the playful spirit that was part of JJ’s charm, the wood construction fence separating the restaurant from the construction site across 48th Street was decorated with a cheery mural.
Then things went sour.
A rock hurtled by blasting to excavate the West Edge underground garage struck a JJ’s server in 2006, and she had to be hospitalized. The project then stalled in 2008 and was left unfinished, with weeds and concrete barricades for the next couple of years.
Jimmy Frantze, who was named Restaurateur of the Year in 2007 by the Greater Kansas City chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said his business dropped 40 percent.
But when the West Edge development revived a year ago under new ownership, Frantze was looking forward to the day when the lawyers from Polsinelli Shughart, the major new tenant, would begin patronizing his place. The complex, renamed the Plaza Vista, is scheduled to open this November.
Kevin Fossland, a server at JJ’s, usually works Tuesday nights but was off. He spent most of the early evening on the phone with manager Matt Nichols trying to account for employees who were known to be working.
“It’s a bizarre, surreal feeling,” he said.
“Tomorrow morning, I don’t have a job, so that is kind of bizarre, but that is the last thing I’m thinking about right now. We are trying to confirm how our co-workers are doing. They are like family.”
Fossland said his phone and social media accounts started “blowing up” at 6:07 p.m. with people checking to see if he was safe.
“The outpouring of concern has been unbelievable,” he said.
Mark Ebbitts, whose business, Shelton Travel Services, is around the corner from JJ’s at 4800 Belleview, had been at the restaurant’s bar shortly before the explosion. He was one of many JJ’s loyalists who had sustained the place during its lean years.
Now, looking out over the smoky scene from a vantage point about a half block away, the flames licking the gutted restaurant and the smell of gas still hovering in the air, Ebbitts lamented the whole tortured history of the West Edge development and JJ’s.
“It’s like a sacred burial ground for Indians,” he said. “There’s something cursed about the project. I don’t want it to be that way, but it is.”
The storefront windows of Ebbitts’ business, along with its neighbors in the small retail strip along Belleview, were shattered by the explosion.
There appeared to be little harm, however, to the Plaza Vista office building directly south of JJ’s. In fact, the fire consuming what was left of the restaurant could be seen reflected in its intact windows.
Dave Harrison, vice president of VanTrust Real Estate, the firm that’s completing the Plaza Vista development, said it was too soon to evaluate whether any damage had occurred to that project.
“Right now, we’re just 100 percent focused on what happened at JJ’s,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by this. Our focus right now is on them.”