Most fans of Jeff Spencer know him as the owner of Just Jeff’s. In 2013, the truck driver started selling cheeseburgers and Vienna Beef hot dogs out of a cart on the University of Missouri campus part-time, and now, he has two brick-and-mortar locations in Columbia, Missouri.
But what you might not know is that the origin of Just Jeff’s beloved burgers dates back decades to the tiny kitchen of the sale barn in Boonville, Missouri.
“Back in the early 80s, my dad owned that sale barn,” explains Spencer. “I was too young to go back in the back and work with the cows, so I got stuck in the kitchen – that’s where I learned to make this cheeseburger that I’ve been making [at Just Jeff’s] for the last eight years.”
This year, Spencer is returning to his roots. In early March, he announced that his team would begin operating the sale barn’s kitchen under the moniker Boonville Sale Barn Cafe, bringing the cheeseburger back to where it all began.
The new owners of the sale barn, brothers Chris and Eric Jones of Jones Brothers Livestock Auction in Marshall, Missouri, offered to build a new kitchen and to waive the rent. It was an offer Spencer couldn’t refuse. “I couldn’t say no,” he says. “It just fit like a glove. It felt like home right away.”
The Boonville Sale Barn Cafe is open during scheduled livestock auctions on the first Tuesday and the second Wednesday of every month. The kitchen’s first priority is to serve auction attendees, but it’s open to the public from 6 to 9pm on those days as well.
The response to Spencer’s new venture has been astounding. “The first two nights were both out-the-door crazy,” he says. If things continue at this rate, Spencer says the café’s hours might extend beyond those of the auction.
Although Just Jeff’s started as a one-man show – hence the name – today Spencer works with an incredible team to keep up with customer demand. They’re all used to cooking in small kitchens for big crowds, but the sale barn’s kitchen is the tightest yet, and the dining room only seats approximately 20 people. In a Facebook post, Spencer asked everyone to “come prepared with your patience, a little extra time and cash” – there will be a 3 percent upcharge on payments by card.
The menu has also shrunk – sorry, no Chicago-style hot dogs here. But you can still snag a regular hot dog, a single or double cheeseburger and a rib eye sandwich with fries or tots at the Boonville Sale Barn Cafe.
Soon, diners will also be able to order a fading Missouri classic: a brain sandwich. “I know this is going to sound crazy,” says Spencer, “but the sale barn has been known for having a brain sandwich; it was one of [the] specials when my dad owned it.” Spencer plans to source the calves’ brains from local supermarket Boonville IGA and serve them breaded and then fried.
Whether you’re participating in the auction or not, the Boonville Sale Barn Cafe is a unique setting to savor Just Jeff’s classics, or maybe even discover a new favorite.
Boonville Sale Barn Cafe (at the Boonville sale barn), 14747 Old Highway 40, Boonville, Missouri, facebook.com/JustJeffsCOMO