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At Jacks N Joe, A Family Overcomes Tragedy Through Joy Of Food

Johnie Freatman |
July 3, 2011 | 7:59 p.m. PDT


Five years after Mark and Vianney Bednorz lost their 12-year-old daughter Myckala to a viral heart infection, they decided to start a new life. It would be a new adventure that would remind them every day of Myckala, affectionately known as “Roo,”and pay tribute to the girl who loved chocolate chip pancakes. 

Mark quit his day job as an architect and used the family’s savings to open a restaurant specializing in pancakes.

“I was creating places for people’s dream homes and businesses,” said Mark. “But never our dream.”

Instead of a trendy part of town, they settled on South Figueroa for their dream. While it was not a glamorous locale, the restaurant, which opened last summer, stands out from the fast food joints and check cashing places that line the corridor.

More important, Jacks N Joe would be a few blocks from Mark’s alma mater, the University of Southern California, where they would cater to hungry students on limited budgets by serving up breakfast all day long.

For $6.75, a student can load up on their choice of buckwheat, blueberry, or every kid’s favorite, chocolate chip pancakes, garnished with fruit or granola, a warm cup of maple syrup on the side, and soft orange or coconut butters.

“We wanted Jacks N Joe to be further away to make it a journey,” said Mark in recalling why they picked a spot that is about eight blocks from campus. “We wanted students to feel like they were going to a home away from campus.”

The students travel to Jacks N Joe but it also feels close to home. The Bednorz have become surrogate parents to many of the students, giving out hugs instead of a handshake, greeting some by their first names, consoling them about broken hearts or a bad grade, and offering rides home after the 9 p.m. closing time.

“The atmosphere at Jacks N Joe reminds me of my own house,” said USC freshman Daniel Ghyczy. “Along with the pancakes comes love and smiles.”

The idea for Jacks N Joe came during a trip to the Grand Canyon during the summer of 2010. It had been four and a half years since Myckala’s death and the family knew it was at a crossroads.

“We always had the intention of doing something different,” said Vianney. “During the first four years we had fear about changing our lives, but then our attitude changed to ‘why not?’”

The family had previously discussed the idea of a restaurant when their son, Julian, came to them seeking an idea for a business plan for a school project. It also happens that he is a USC architecture student and saw firsthand the lack of quality, home-cooked food options around USC.

“I didn’t want to be old and sitting in a lawn chair one day and wonder ‘what if,’” said Mark. “My attitude was ‘I can do this, there’s no way I’m not going to do it.’”

The Bednorz’s immediately knew they would serve only breakfast.

“We love breakfast and frequently eat it for dinner. It takes you back to your family,” said Vianney. They settled on the name Jacks ‘N Joe because it was a catchy way of describing the restaurant’s two specialty items: pancakes, or “flapjacks”, and coffee.

However, after all the expenses incurred in buying the restaurant, the Bednorz family couldn’t afford formal advertising. So they settled on word-of-mouth.

“Our advertising strategy was to just open the door and get in business.” Vianney said. “Julian and his friends would post about it on Facebook.”

The low-cost meals caught fire with students by the first weekend.

“We had what turned into a two-hour wait,” said Vianney. “We didn’t have enough food and literally had to shut our doors. We were out of everything.”

Many of the workers at Jack’s ‘N' Joe are members of the Bednorz’s immediate and extended family -- including their 13-year-old daughter, Isabelle, who is often found behind the cash register. Others are friends but most are USC students.

Travis Dagdigian, a waiter and friend of the Bednorz’s son, said he tries to be more like “a mom” when serving.

“If a customer needs a refill, I want to be able to anticipate that and make sure they don’t have to ask for one,” he said.

Every menu item at Jacks N Joe has a story. The “Pudgie Elvis-three pancakes with peanut butter and bananas” is an homage to Myckala’s birthday (she was born the same day as “The King”) and her plump bulldog “Pudgie Elvis.” The “Pudgie Elvis” option concludes with the words “thank you, thank you very much,” Presley’s trademark.

At times, these creative names have led to humorous moments. A nun from the nearby Catholic church was once studying her menu and came across a three letter option that she had never before seen: “WTF,” or “six crazy-shaped pancakes.” The nun asked her waitress what the acronym stood for and was given the response “where’s the fruit,” recalls Vianney. The waitress was too embarrassed to disclose the real acronym.

The Bednorz have already been approached to start a chain. But they say they are not in it for the money.

“A dad once asked ‘will you put one in Beverly Hills? You could make so much money,’” said Vianney. “Our goal isn’t to charge more.”

Instead, they hope to use profits for charity.

“We needed a platform to be able to give back to the community and hold charitable events,” Mark said.

For four days at the end of March, Jacks N Joe gave 100 percent of the proceeds from the restaurant’s chocolate chip pancakes, or “Roo’s Favorite,” to Troy Camp, a philanthropic organization run by USC students who mentor local elementary school students and take them on a weeklong camp. Nearly $3,000 was raised, according to Carlos Garcia of Troy Camp. Ten more children were able to attend camp thanks to the fundraiser, said Garcia. Any sadness about Myckala’s death is tempered by the Bednorz knowledge that they took advantage of every moment with her.

“We’ve lived our whole life with our kids,” said Vianney. “We didn’t miss anything.”

And on that trip to the Grand Canyon, Mark had a realization.

“Death is not the worst thing that can happen,” he said. “The worst thing is not living.”

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