JOPLIN, Mo. —
Justin Rushing gets a lot of questions about the tattoo on his left wrist. No one asks about the other ones on his left arm -- a collection of things that are important to him, from song lyrics to a friend's band name. They always ask about the one that features the logo of Mojo Burger Co., the restaurant where he works.
"The second question I get asked the most is whether (the owners) paid me," said Rushing, 20. "But the main question I get is what I'd do if the restaurant closes down. I don't think it will, but even if it does, I'm still going to like it."
If the restaurant closes down, it won't be for lack of experience. Mojo Burger Co. is the creation of Eric Gilbert, the son of Vern and Judy Gilbert, the founders of the Babe's franchises throughout the region. Gilbert, 30, grew up working in Babe's. In a way, Mojo Burger Co. is a grown-up babe, but not a Babe's.
The interior sports a clean design with modern rock posters, separated from the '50s- and '60s-era decor of Babe's. Designed and decorated by Katie Gilbert, Eric's wife, the restaurant is a renovation of the former Babe's at Seventh Street and Maiden Lane.
"We wanted something clean," Gilbert said. "My wife does interior design, and she handled the concept. She replaced everything from the room to the ceiling and lights."
Growing up in Babe's burned Gilbert out on the cruising era. But his connection to music remained strong, so he and Katie chose posters reflecting rock bands from Pink Floyd to Nirvana. Modern music plays over the restaurant's speakers.
Where Babe's offers a wide variety of menu items, though, Mojo is relatively simple. The menu includes hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, spaghetti red, coneys and Frito pies. The only side is fries.
"We're a burger joint," Gilbert said. "We wanted to do just a few items really well."
The variety comes from toppings for the burgers -- more than 20 of them, from bacon to pickled jalapenos.
The fries also have some variety. Instead of whipping up different sauces, Gilbert and others made some spice blends so that customers can order specialty fries, including sweet-and-salty ranch, lemon-pepper and cayenne.
The fries are hand-cut fresh from Idaho potatoes, and the burgers are made with ground chuck, processed locally and ground fresh daily. None of the ingredients are frozen, Gilbert said.
"I'm particular about our beef," Gilbert said. "We wanted to use ground chuck, from the good part of the cow. It costs a little more to get it, but it's the perfect combination of fat and lean."
Gilbert's parents owned a few Sonic restaurants around Joplin in the '80s, then moved to Kentucky to start more. Growing homesick, they moved back to the Joplin area. Vern Gilbert bought a place in Carl Junction called Babe's, originally founded by Janie and Carroll Sill.
Soon after, they built a restaurant at Main Street and Fountain Road, Gilbert said. After that, Vern Gilbert sold franchises and restaurants popped up in Joplin, Neosho, Lamar, Pittsburg and Miami. Those other locations eventually faded, becoming other restaurants. Vern Gilbert's original Babe's at Main and Fountain is the only remaining store, Gilbert said.
In 2003, Gilbert opened Iggy's Diner in Carthage, then sold it in order to work as a church planter for the Missouri Baptist Convention. He helped open Forest Park Baptist Church's Carthage and North campuses. But the restaurant business was too much to ignore, he said. And his time at Babe's gave him a strong foundation of how to open a restaurant successfully.
"We wouldn't be what we are without Babe's," Gilbert said. "They are fantastic. I just wanted to bring the concept up to a modern age, and focus on a new brand."
He purchased land on Main Street where a Sonic restaurant stood before the May 22, 2011, tornado and planned to build a restaurant there. But then the opportunity to buy a former Babe's restaurant proved too tempting to resist.
"This place came up for sale, and we bought it instead of building," Gilbert said. "This location is too great. I couldn't pass it up." Not wanting to veer from the building's history of burgers, the Gilberts ironed out their concept and started to renovate the building, which needed a lot of work, Gilbert said.
Training was also difficult -- unlike previous Babe's locations, there was no other Mojo restaurant to train the staff of 17. Gilbert said his father helped out the first two weeks as staff members trained on the fly. His father is always there for advice, too, he said.
Rushing was Gilbert's first hire and part of the crew that helped renovate the building. He and Gilbert had met while working at a local telemarketing company.
"I was his boss for about a week," Rushing said. "We met at the old job, and we clicked."
Rushing said he became like a part of Gilbert's family. A foster child, Rushing said that the Gilberts took him in, invited him to events, helped him financially and made him feel like part of a family. The restaurant opened in late April. About a week after it opened, Rushing pitched the idea of the tattoo to the Gilberts.
"(Katie) tried to talk him out of it," Gilbert said. "He said he didn't want to think about it, and that he would just get it. I still joke with him about changing the logo's design up."
The staff of 17 works well together, Gilbert said, and that staff could grow into future locations.
Gilbert said he still owns the land on Main Street. Though he has no timeline established, he plans to build another Mojo at the site. And he said he'd be open to making the restaurant a franchise opportunity in the future.
"There is a plan, but we're taking it a step at a time," Gilbert said. "We don't want to have a mushroom effect. We're trying to be strategic with the growth."
The logo of Mojo Burger Co. features colorful letters in front of a large mustache.
Owner Eric Gilbert said the logo was one of the first things developed about the new restaurant -- it was created two years ago.
"A friend of mine does graphic design, and he came up with a cool logo," Gilbert said. "My wife came up with throwing the mustache behind it, and we hit on this one."
Want to go?
Mojo Burger Co. is located at 702 S. Maiden Lane. Details: 417-624-4232.
This report has been corrected. A previous version contained inaccurate information about the founder of Babe's.