By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Emily Knight is picky when it comes to jobs. A server at Jim Bob’s Steak and Ribs in Joplin, she prefers to work for locally owned restaurants instead of corporate-owned chains or franchises.
“I can be myself,” Knight said. “Other places, there are just rules, rules, rules. We have rules here, too, but the owners want us to be personable and relate with people more, instead of acting like a robot.”
Knight said that her bosses, owners Steve and Stacey Gamble, also stick up for their employees and have their backs when dealing with difficult customers. There’s a feeling of mutual loyalty, she said.
So much so that when the May 22, 2011, tornado destroyed the restaurant’s building at 20th Street and Range Line Road, she just knew they would reopen.
Knight isn’t the only employee who waited to get his or her job back. Manager Casey Welch, who was a server at the old location, said most of the staff was just waiting to get a chance to work at Jim Bob’s again Ñ even when the owners themselves didn’t quite know how to reopen.
“That was the sense I got, that a lot of employees felt that way,” Welch said. “We all love this place and love the Gambles, so there was a hope. But it was nerve-racking.”
Knight, a mother of three, lives near Carl Junction. She and her family were out of the tornado’s path on May 22, 2011, but she and her boyfriend drove into the damage zone to help out. She dropped him off at Parr Hill Park and didn’t see him again until after 10 p.m. at Ozark Christian College.
While she was unable to see Jim Bob’s, he was, and he later told her that the restaurant had been badly damaged.
Knight and other employees met at the wreckage soon after the tornado, where they helped with cleanup efforts. She said they salvaged as much as they could, including the restaurant’s legendary taxidermied animals.
Welch said employees got paid for cleanup shifts whenever they wanted to work. But eventually people started finding work elsewhere Ñ Welch started working behind the bar at Applebee’s in Joplin.
Knight got a job at a corporate-owned restaurant, but it didn’t work out. She took a seasonal job with UPS making deliveries and picked up occasional shifts at Butcher’s Block Banquet Center.
Her next job was a position assisting the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After volunteering at Forest Park Baptist Church’s Mission Joplin, she received an appointment of 1,040 hours through the agency.
“I started volunteering there, and that got me to one of the FEMA jobs,” Knight said. “I was in the clothing house where there were clothes, clothes and more clothes.”
Though she said she was lucky to find work, bills got tighter in the months after the tornado. Though she didn’t know what to do, she held out hope that the Gambles would reopen.
“It was a horrible waiting game,” Knight said. “Considering I wasn’t used to living paycheck to paycheck, if I needed money I could always pick up a shift. We made pretty good money.”
Welch said the Gambles told employees that they would reopen, even though they were in as much shock as everyone else. But as the months went by, uncertainty grew.
“They told us from the beginning that they would rebuild, but they didn’t know exactly when,” Welch said. “We just waited on them to give us the go-ahead. But then they put the land up for sale, and a lot of us thought they wouldn’t reopen.”
The Gambles didn’t rebuild. They instead moved in to an empty building at 3219 E. Hammons Blvd., a building that was the home of the former Cabo del Sol. The restaurant is closer to the highway and hotel district. It has much more room than the previous building, and it’s close to several other restaurants.
Welch said employees kept in touch through Facebook and text messages. When word got out that the Gambles were interested in buying that building, excitement grew.
Many of the employees found work at other restaurants, Welch said. When the Gambles announced they were hiring, Welch said there was a “mass exodus.”
“Steve said he ate at Applebee’s one time, and the manager talked to him and begged him not to take me from him,” Welch said. “I know that happened at a lot of places.”
Knight’s program hours ended very closely to the reopening of the new restaurant, so she didn’t go too long with out a job. Gambling on the Gambles paid off, she said.
“This is a big relief,” Knight said. “I feel like I’m back home, back in my comfort zone. Like I can breathe again. I was holding my breath for a year and a half.”
The restaurant has been busy since its August reopening. After a ribbon cutting ceremony, which was attended by Gov. Jay Nixon, regular customers have flocked back.
Knight still remembers their regular orders, she said.
“I’d say about 80 percent of the people coming in I recognize,” she said.
Cooks appreciate the bigger kitchen, and servers like all the floor space, Knight said Ñ even though they walk farther now. And all the staff members appreciate seeing so many familiar faces, she said.
“It was like a family reunion. When we started training here, we were all whooping, hollering, having a good time,” she said. “Even the cooks. Most of us had done this before, and we stayed friends outside (work).”
The reopening completed a major phase of tornado recovery for the Gambles and their employees, Knight said. Business is steady and includes many regular customers, she said.
Before Cabo del Sol, the building was home of the Marketplace Grill. Welch had heard from others that the building was “cursed,” and nothing could work there.
“But they all also said that if any place can make it here, it would be Jim Bob’s,” Welch said. “Jim Bob’s has been here for so long. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll do nothing but flourish.”