Published September 18th, 2015 at 9:00 AM
Six words changed Nick DeFeo Jr.’s life.
He was in the middle of his route, delivering spices for R.L. Schreiber. It was one of dozens of stops — a luncheonette run by a wily old cook. Jerry’s Café, 1209 W 103rd Street, was the second go round for Jerry Naster, the cook who once made Jerry’s Woodswether Café a destination in the West Bottoms.
“You want to buy this place?” Naster asked DeFeo.
“I said no and then I told him, ‘I’ll see you later,” says Nick DeFeo. “Then I went home and told my wife on a whim, ‘I might buy Jerry’s Café.’ And before you know it, I had done it.”
In the midst of the morning breakfast hustle, DeFeo laughs as he tells the story of the restaurant he’s owned for just over two months. He clicks on his smartphone and flicks over to a trio of black-and-white photos. Coffee arrives in mismatched cream-colored mugs at the next table over. A white-haired gentleman puts down his paper and eavesdrops as DeFeo begins to talk with his hands.
He grew up delivering fruits and vegetables for Defeo Fruit Company – the produce wholesaler that his family ran for five generations until his father, Nick DeFeo Sr., retired two years ago.
DeFeo Jr. picked a different path in food. He graduated from Johnson & Wales in Miami, Florida, with a culinary degree and earned a hospitality degree from Florida International University. He returned to Kansas City eight years ago to help open Mavi – a fast casual take that offered different versions of spiedini. After that, he spent time working on the line at M&S Grill on the Plaza. It was there that he befriended the spice salesman and learned that his route was shortly going to be for sale.
“I was getting married and about to have kids. I needed to go out and hustle,” DeFeo says. “Adding Jerry’s was perfect. I’m home at night and it’s small enough that I can see everything that’s going on with my two eyes.”
DeFeo stops by Jerry’s Café each morning before heading out on his spice route and then looping back in the early afternoon. On this Friday morning, oval-shaped green plates arrive at tables, punctuated with sides of ‘honey,’ and ‘dear.’ Men in suits and paint-splattered jeans rise slowly from the tables – white Styrofoam containers full of the breakfast their appetite could not conquer. It’s a standing joke with regulars about whether or not they got enough to eat.
“We can’t skimp on the food. We need to make a huge pancake, big enough that if you that thing to go, we’ve got to put it in a pizza box,” DeFeo says.
DeFeo spent a month shadowing the 74-year-old Naster. He learned the recipes for the corned beef hash and how Naster prepared his Italian sausage.
“Jerry had to be there at four-thirty in the morning because we open at six. He’s just a well-greased wheel that kept turning and turning. When you’re with him, you just try and keep up,” DeFeo says.
They dived into the omelets made with three jumbo eggs and the Reuben with house corned beef from Boyle’s, homemade thousand island dressing, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut on Roma Bread rye that is griddled on the flattop.
“It’s the best Reuben ever. I’ll put it up there against New York,” DeFeo says.
Naster’s last day was Friday, June 26. DeFeo opened the very next morning – it was important to him that Jerry’s didn’t miss a beat.
“We have a huge menu and big portions. The food is still the same. The name is still the same. I’ve got to meet those expectations,” DeFeo says. “I figured I could be successful if I didn’t change a thing.”
The head of DeFeo’s kitchen is Derwyn Cage, the cook that worked the line alongside Naster.
“All these employees have been here since Jerry opened. It wouldn’t have worked without them,” DeFeo says.
He has tweaked the Italian sausage recipe – adding a little more fennel and romano cheese to the mix.
“I’m Italian and I’m a spice guy,” he says apologetically.
Over the next few months, DeFeo may make a few more small changes. He’ll open again on Tuesdays for breakfast, starting next week. He’s also toying with adding eggs benedict to the menu and moving the specials from the whiteboards covering a bank of windows to tableside signage.
“People love this atmosphere and it’s an interesting little dive,” DeFeo says. “But a little more sunlight in here couldn’t hurt.”
When Naster turned over the restaurant, he told DeFeo to ‘watch out, that the people will keep coming once you open the door.’ DeFeo hopes so.
“I plan to keep this thing open as long as I can. I can’t wait until my kids get older and they can start waiting tables,” DeFeo says.
Catherine DeFeo is three years old and Nicki’s a year younger. Their pictures are in DeFeo’s phone alongside those of the former DeFeo Fruit Co. — a reminder of the next generation that might take over the next family business.
— Jonathan Bender writes about food trends for KCPT’s Flatland, and is the founder of The Recommended Daily.