Justus Drugstore Jonathan Justus

Jonathan Justus is the owner of Justus Drugstore and Black Dirt.

Justus Drugstore has left the building. Literally.

Last night, chef Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof loaded up the old soda fountain that had served as the bar of their 11-year-old flagship restaurant in Smithville, Missouri. Along with all of their kitchen equipment, tables, chairs and artwork, they put it into the back of a truck to transport it to a climate-controlled storage locker in the caves of Kansas City.

After much consideration, the couple has sold their flagship restaurant location to someone who made them a financial offer they simply could not refuse.

“We did not have the building up for sale; in fact, we were in the process of making some basic repairs with plans to reopen, after we had temporarily closed to focus on getting Black Dirt up and running,” explains Justus. “That’s when I got a phone call from someone who wanted to buy the building to turn it into offices, and I just told the guy he couldn’t pay me what I would need to get back out of the space now that I had converted it into a restaurant.”

The buyer then threw out a number that almost matched the price Justus had in his head. The two talked, paperwork was signed, and the building was sold within the past month. It was a quick business transaction that will allow the couple to pay off their remaining loans on the place, with money leftover to invest in looking for a brand-new home for his namesake restaurant.

“We will reopen Justus Drugstore somewhere in the Northland,” says Justus emphatically.

At this point, though, he doesn’t think that will be in Smithville. Justs says he doesn’t see the city progressively investing in the downtown area where his original restaurant was located. Instead, he says he sees the city offering financial incentives to people building strip malls with commercial restaurant pads on them that are closer to the highway.

“I don’t like where Smithville is headed right now. The development of strip malls along the major highways is regressive, an old paradigm that moves traffic away from the center of town, which doesn’t foster a sense of community or create gathering spots. Instead, it makes this city more automobile-dependent and less friendly to pedestrians,” he explains.  

Justus and Eklof opened Justus Drugstore together in 2007 after returning from France. The building, a former pharmacy, had been in Justus’ family for years when the couple decided to repurpose it to open their first restaurant.

Rave reviews quickly rolled in for the hyper-local food, the chef who famously touched every table and finally for the restaurant itself, which looked like something that belonged in a much bigger city.  

Justus Drugstore would go on to become a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist in 2007 for Best New Restaurant. Justus himself would be nominated for his work at the restaurant twice, first in 2011, and again in 2016, for Best Chef: Midwest.

It is a bittersweet ending for the couple, as this restaurant is where they got their start, struggled against all odds and eventually made a name for themselves. They are grateful the space will be converted into offices for a new business to thrive there, just like they did.  

“Not having a restaurant open up in that space, a space that Camille and I invested our hearts and souls in, one that is part of our mythology, our story, does make it a little easier for us to move on and look for a new home for this restaurant,” Justus says. 

At this point, there is no set timetable as to when Justus Drugstore will re-open. The couple plans to slowly start their search as they continue to run Black Dirt, their newest restaurant.

Anyone with a Justus Drugstore gift certificate can redeem it at Black Dirt, return it for a full refund, or wait and use it when the new location opens. The team will honor gift certificates regardless of their expiration date.

Late last night, with everything loaded up into the truck, the couple removed the Justus Drugstore sign from the building, wrapping it carefully to rest in storage until they find a new space to hang it.

Justus Drugstore, 106 W. Main St., Smithville, Missouri, 816.532.2300, drugstorerestaurant.com

Jenny is Feast's contributing editor for Kansas City. She brakes for chef's coats.

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