Jess and Jim’s, RC’s, Martin City Brewery, Pizza + Taps. This Thanksgiving, we tell a story of food and family: the VanNoy story.
For the Love of Family and Food
Jess and Jim’s and RC’s accept their “destiny” to succeed
By Lysa Allman Baldwin
By now you’ve probably seen the TV commercial where the Van Noy brothers—Mike at Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse, and David at RC’s Restaurant & Lounge—jab at each other through blow horns in the middle of the street about who serves the best food.
It’s a cute play on a non-existent sibling rivalry between these two long-time Martin City entrepreneurs where passion, love and gratitude run deep.
We are Family
When best friends Jess Kincaid and Jim Wright opened their small bar and grill at 135th St. and Holmes in 1938, they probably didn’t envision a place earning high praise as one of America’s top steakhouses in A-list publications such as Esquire, Travel + Leisure and Playboy, just to name a few.
But that just goes to show how hard work, perseverance, a love of family, and an authentic desire to provide “good food, good service, and fair prices” can stand the test of time.
Over the years, a 1957 tornado moved the restaurant to its current location, Wright retired, and Kincaid’s health began to fail. So operation of the wildly popular restaurant was left to Kincaid’s much younger cousin, R.C. (Raymond Charles) Van Noy, a strict, former Marine with a strong sense of family.
It wasn’t long before he drafted “his three lieutenants,” says son Mike, along with brothers David and Chuck (now retired) into the business. “We did what we were told—our beds had to be made, shirts tucked in … but it was all with love.”
Starting as young kids, they worked their way through every position in the restaurant, enduring not only the business ups and downs, but those of everyday life as well.
“Dad was good at starting a business, and left it up to us three boys to keep it running,” says Mike. “So we had to have the fortitude to keep it going, reinvent ourselves, and try new things.”
That drive to succeed included the 1973 opening just down the road of the elder statesman’s namesake—RC’s Restaurant & Lounge—specializing in homemade, family style, pan-fried chicken dinners. Breakfast was added four years ago, and the upstairs banquet room is now a nightclub.
David and Mike eventually took the full reins and have co-owned both restaurants since 1990.
The Fruit of Their Loins
Although David is king of his roost, and Mike the steer in his herd, you’ll find several family tree “branches” at both locations.
At RC’s, David works side-by-side with two of his four children. Daughter Gina (Leo) is the manager, daughter Heidi the chef.
At Jess and Jim’s, Mike’s wife Debbie runs the front of the house, Mike Jr. is the day cook, night bartender, bread baker, and pickled beets maker, and daughter Rachel helps part-time. Oldest daughter, Ashley (Fancher), handles the parties and creates their homemade desserts, while her husband, Scott, bartends on the weekends.
Despite the huge personal sacrifice the restaurant industry demands, the brothers are grateful for their loving, long-lasting marriages; Mike to Debbie for 32 years, and David to, also a Debbie, for 36 years.
“I started as a busser at 16, worked the cash register, banquets, waited tables, baked the bread, and made the salad,” says Mike’s Debbie. “Everything except cook.”
Their romance started, “The first day I saw her,” Mike says without hesitation.
“After our first date, Mike sent me five dozen roses and two cartons of cigarettes to the bar service window at RC’s original location across the street (now KC Running Company),” Debbie laughs. “I knew then he was someone special, and was more excited about the cigarettes than the roses!”
Being married almost 33 years, she says, is unheard of for restaurant families. “I don’t know anyone, besides David, who’s been married for such a long time, to the same person, in this business,” Mike says.
Another branch on the family tree is oldest sibling Jana (Moore), the bookkeeper for both restaurants, and her son, Matt, who opened Martin City Brewing Company just a stone’s throw away in 2011.
“We both love working with our family,” says Mike. “David and I even live on the same property (three miles away) and visit with each other, including our sister and mom, daily.”
David adds, “Even though we’re together so much, and might be stressed out at home, as soon as we walk in the restaurant doors, all is well.”
That love enfolds their employees as well.
“The restaurant is my home,” David says, “and when you’re in my home, I want to know your birthday, wedding anniversary … all of that stuff, because you are part of our extended family.”
The True Meaning of Thanks + Giving
Although most businesses close on Thanksgiving so their employees can celebrate with family, the Van Noys’ holiday sentiment didn’t start out that way.
“In 1975, it was against the liquor laws to drink in an establishment after 1:30 a.m., but we had some employees throwing back a few much later than that,” David recalls. “So the place was raided, and the sheriff in charge said that from now on we had to pick a day to be closed. So we picked Thanksgiving. It’s too bad because we used to feed the poor and homeless that day.”
Nevertheless, that sense of gratitude and desire to support the community never waned.
For the past 20 years they have donated food and participated in the annual Deron Cherry Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament, benefitting Score 1 for Health, and provided financial support for St. Thomas More Parish.
“When Dad was alive (RC passed in 2002),” David reminisces, “we used to do 4th of July parties where 5,000 people would come and pay $5 a car, and all the monies were donated to the children at Ozanam (multi-service treatment center).”
Like all families, there are those non-harmonious moments.
“There was a time, off and on, that we didn’t get along,” Mike says. “But you can’t drive up the same driveway every day and flip each other off for too long. There are many people who thought for years that we never got along. But nothing could be further from the truth.”
Beyond Steak and Fried Chicken
Many people don’t know that their mother, Lois, was her own “restaurant royalty” back in the day. An Italian-born Chiarelli, she once owned Chiarelli’s Pasta, located in the old RC’s building (a placard from the restaurant hangs in RC’s nightclub).
Her specialty? Spaghetti and meatballs, and her offspring have carried on that tradition every Christmas for decades.
“On Christmas Day, Mom goes around to each of our houses and judges our spaghetti and meatballs,” David explains. “At my house, I win first prize. At his house (pointing to Mike), he wins first prize. At Jana’s house…”
Today, at 87 years young, Lois is a vivacious woman with 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren (with two more on the way!). David jokes, “She’s on a ‘fixed income.’ If she doesn’t like something, Mike and I have to fix it!”
Spaghetti and meatball contests aside, the brothers remain tight, at home and at work. They even sell each other’s specialties—David’s fried chicken at Jess and Jim’s, and Mike’s steaks at RC’s.
Love Makes the Restaurant Go-Round
The brothers say they’ve been told the third-generation, an affectionate nod to “Uncle Jimmy” Wright who regarded David, Mike, Chuck and Jana as his own, is destined to fail.
“Dad always said, ‘You better like what you’re doing for a living, because you will do it for the rest of your life,’” Mike recalls. “We might not do it right all the time, but we still do it.”