Paul Jean’s Cafe, located at 16th Street and Osage Avenue, is still open and has been for 30 years, said owner Paula Cook, fondly known as Paula Jean by her faithful patrons.
Home-style simplicity and homemade food is the key to what’s been bringing customers to her cafe for three decades. So naturally she was startled to find someone was telling customers she was closed for business.
“I’ve been in business for over 30 years, so it was like really you know,” she said on Tuesday. “If I ever go out of business everybody will know. I had a gentleman come in yesterday about 1 o’clock and say ‘well when did you open it back up?’ I said ‘I’ve been here for three years.’ He said ‘you was closed down’ and I said ‘I’ve never been closed.’ You know what I’m saying?”
Before moving to her current location three years ago she was located on Thompson Boulevard and before that at Main Street and Grand Avenue.
Cook bought the business from her 82-year-old aunt, Jean Lange, in 1990 when it was at Main and Grand.
“I went to work for her as a waitress in ‘82” Cook said. “I think she bought it in 1980, and then she had a stoke and I ended up buying it from her. And the ‘Jean’ my middle name is not really Jean. But because of her, I put her in there — Paula Jean.”
Basically she’s kept the menu full of the same hearty home cooking as her aunt did before her.
“I do home-style cooking,” she said. “Mainly breakfast and lunch, we’re open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., then closed on Sundays. But I do everything from scratch, potatoes, meatloaf, tenderloins and hamburgers all fresh — nothing frozen.
“I’m just trying to get me back out there, and the winter was tough,” she added. “We had a bad winter with all the weather. And about 75 percent of my customers are older people, that’s been supporting me about 30 years.”
A customer favorite is Paula Jean’s fried chicken — a deep fried delight that comes with three sides.
“I used to just have it on Wednesdays but the last two years I’ve been doing it on Mondays and Wednesdays,” she said.
It’s a favorite because many of her customers’ wives don’t like to fix it, she said.
“I told them all my secrets is just in how you cook it,” she said. “I deep fry it. I used to skillet fry it in an iron skillet, but I deep fry it. And my seasoning is only flour and Lawry’s Seasoning. There’s just a knack to it. It’s moist, it’s not dry you know. And it’s done.”
Customers also favor Paula Jean’s breakfasts.
“I’ve got what’s called a Hungryman’s Special,” Cook said. “It’s got bacon or sausage with eggs and hash browns and a half of biscuits and gravy.”
People also like her fresh tenderloin served at lunch.
“The fresh tenderloin I order it from Bing’s,” she said. “And they run it through the tenderizer and all I do is the same thing with it, I use flour and Lawry’s Seasoning and breadcrumbs and then deep fry it.”
Paul Jean’s does have some desserts, such as homemade fruit crisps.
“I don’t do a lot of pies anymore,” she said. “A lot of people don’t eat a lot of desserts. It’s kind of like bread they don’t eat a lot of bread anymore with their meal. But I do cakes and cherry crisp or apple crisp.”
Cook, true to her name, is the main cook and also the only wait staff.
“I start doing my main meals about 8 a.m.,” she said. “A couple hours into it for lunch.”
Helping her in the kitchen is her son, Chris Klein, and Jay Crum.
Cook is the oldest in her family and the recipes she uses at the cafe are handed down from her mother, May Sprinkle, who taught her to cook so she could help with the family of six. Roast beef was a family favorite and it is served at the cafe.
Specials during the week vary but she does have one set special each day along with a cook’s choice.
“Tuesday is meatloaf and whatever else I decide to run as a second,” she said. “I do pork cutlets on Thursday, and catfish on Friday. I usually do two specials.”
The thing she finds the most pleasing about being a restaurant owner is the people she meets everyday.
“I’m a people person,” she said. “And I love the customers. Especially that one in there he’s pretty awesome — Jim Mathewson, and John (Meehan) too.”
Eating at the cafe on Tuesday were former Missouri State Sen. James Mathewson and Pettis County Presiding Commissioner John Meehan, who are frequent and longtime customers of Paula Jean’s.
Mathewson has been going to the cafe since it was at the Main and Grand location. And said he came to the Thompson Boulevard location every morning for breakfast when he was in town.
“I ate lunch in there probably two days a week,” he said. “The great thing about Paula is this, Paula recognized a long time ago that she wasn’t in this business to make money,” he said laughing.
Mathewson loves to tease Cook when he comes in, saying she loves to start fights and he loves to laugh with her. He usually comes in on Tuesday because her meatloaf special is one of his favorite meals.
“… as we’d say down in Benton County ‘I’ve been knowin’ her for a longtime,’” he added. “She used to make on Thursdays, an excellent Salisbury steak. At any rate, those two things are my favorite. A lot of people appreciate her fried chicken, I’m not a fried chicken eater, but I have eaten her fried chicken. She does fix good fried chicken, no question about that.”
“This is just a great place to be,” Meehan said. “As Jim’s already said, you know, Paula Jean’s been around at several different locations and we just tend to follow her all over wherever she goes. I don’t have a favorite, I can do it all, whatever Paula Jean’s is going to fix we eat it.”
“The reason why, the food is fine, she does a good job, but I love her personally, OK?” Mathewson said. “She is fun to pick on, and I love to pick on her and she kind of loves picking on me back. But when I get ready to leave here she comes and gives me a big hug and says ‘thank you Jim.’”
“I love my customers,” Cook added. “I enjoy seeing them.”
At the end of the day on Tuesday Cook smiled and voiced that she and her home-style cooking would be around for awhile.
“I’m no quitter,” she added.
Paul Jean’s Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. She is closed on Sundays.