A restaurant is often at the heart of a small-town community, and servers provide the lifeblood that keeps that heart pumping. KJ Robinson, owner of KJ’s Restaurant in Judsonia, said it is a little different being a server when her name is on the door.

 

“Sometimes it’s stressful being an owner and a server, and I’ve had to learn to really breathe through some situations,” she said. “Still, as stressful as it is sometimes, I so love being out there with the customers.”

 

The mom-and-pop seats about 120 people and dishes up old-fashioned country cooking, serving breakfast, plate lunches such as catfish and fried chicken plates, and a lunchtime grill menu Monday through Saturday, as well as a dinner menu with offerings such as steaks, seafood and pasta Thursday through Saturday.

 

The restaurant’s home-cooked fare attracts customers from nearby Searcy and Bald Knob, as well as patrons from as far as Cabot, Jacksonville, Bradford, McCrory and Beebe, Robinson said. 

 

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“If you’ve been eating with us very long, we’re going to call you by name,” she added. “We probably already know what you’re going to order if it’s breakfast or lunch.”

 

Having moved to Judsonia about 30 years ago, Robinson and her family have become fixtures in the local community. Her sons, Craig and Ben, attended local schools, and her husband, Stan, serves as the town’s mayor. KJ also has two grandchildren. 

 

“White County has supported us tremendously,” she said. “I can’t even imagine having a restaurant somewhere else and it turning out like it has here for us.”

 

KJ and Stan started KJ’s Restaurant about 17 years ago. Prior to that, they ran a convenience store that sold breakfast biscuits and croissants. KJ said Stan became enamored with the food aspect and eventually expanded the offerings to include pizza, fried chicken and more.

 

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“Someone came in one day and said, ‘Gosh, if you guys add one more thing, you might as well just open up a restaurant,’” she said. “We already had land up the road from the c-store. It was a good piece of commercial property, and we had already been thinking about what we might want to do with that land, so that was kind of the brainchild of my husband thinking, ‘Huh, we need a restaurant here in Judsonia and White County, a good mom-and-pop.’”

 

Eugene Burgess, a long-time friend and part-time employee of the convenience store, whose grandmother taught him to cook, told the owners he would cook if they opened a restaurant.

 

“He’s been with us from Day One, so he does all our home cooking,” KJ said. “He has our chicken-and-dressing recipe, our fried chicken, our meat loaf, smothered pork chops — all the things that have been a mainstay for us on the plate lunch.”

 

Amy Johnson has also been a cook since the restaurant started.

 

“She’s another employee who has been with us since Day One,” KJ said. “She’s a vital part of the kitchen crew and one of the best breakfast cooks anywhere.”

 

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Her sons served as kitchen managers for dinner on the weekends before starting their own businesses, she added. Ben and his wife own Joyful Baking Co. in Searcy, and Craig owns nearby KJ’s Market, which sells specialty sandwiches, party trays, meat, seafood, heat-and-eat meals from KJ’s Restaurant, and sweets from WildFlour Bakery in Searcy.

 

“Both my boys have their own business. I’m pretty proud of that,” KJ said.

 

Stan, the CEO of the restaurant, does the ordering, inventory, scheduling and money management, she added. Although her initial plan did not include serving, KJ said she soon became acclimated to the role.

 

“You find out right away, you’re your most dependable employees,” she said. “Every time someone called in, I ended up waiting tables, and then I fell in love with it, and I thought, ‘What better way to be that person out here on the floor and the mediator between the dining room and kitchen?’ and my customers love it.”

 

She added that she has a server who has been with her for seven years, Amanda Curtis, as well as two who have worked at the restaurant for five years, Detra Kimball and Tiffany Ellis.

 

“To be a server and really enjoy it and do well at it, you have to have a servant’s heart because if you don’t … you’re going to burn out really quick,” she said. “What keeps those of us who do keep doing it [going] is just the love for people and a servant’s heart that makes you want to serve others.”

 

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Building a restaurant from the ground up can be rough, but after about five years, she said she and her husband started to feel confident financially. The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the toughest times in the business’ history, she added. 

 

“That was probably the worst thing we’ve been through because, you know, you sweat blood and tears to get a business where you want it, and then you have someone come in and tell you you’ve got to shut down your dining room,” she said. “That was scary for me and my husband both.”

 

She added that her husband’s quick thinking saved the day when he implemented a drive-in system in which staff would serve customers in their cars. She said the restaurant was a grounding force in the community during the tumultuous time.

 

“During COVID, we were a constant for so many people,” she said. “Even though they couldn’t come in and eat, they were going to come through the drive-thru and get a good home-cooked meal,” she said. 

 

She added that she has grown attached to many of her regulars, including a man who described KJ’s as a “beacon” in the community. There is a painting of a lighthouse in the restaurant in memory of KJ’s father, who died soon after the restaurant opened and had a fondness for lighthouses, and KJ said she hopes the restaurant serves as a light for people who dine there. A good meal and good service can turn a person’s entire day around, she said.

 

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“The very first T-shirts that we had, and my oldest son was responsible for the saying on the back of them, but it said, ‘KJ’s Restaurant: so much more than just great food,’ and he pegged that,” she said. “I don’t think he realized how special that was and how that kind of spurred who we’ve been through the years. I mean, we are great food, but we’re so much more than that for our community.”

 

After 17 years and countless interactions with customers, KJ has plenty of stories — stories she gladly shares at KJ’s.

 

“I say this all the time, but I would love to sit down and write a book about running and owning a restaurant and being a server in that restaurant because it has been an experience, let me tell you,” she said. “I tell people all the time, my people and my customers, ‘I’m going to write a book, and most of it’s going to be a comedy,’ because I have had some of the funniest experiences.”

 

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