Abbey-Jo and Josh Eans sip coffee in Happy Gillis. Photo courtesy of the Eans family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted society in ways that may not be fully understood for years to come. It has many reconsidering what makes them happy and encouraging them to seize opportunities. For the Eans family, that means leaving the business they’ve poured years of hard work into behind and moving to Valencia, Spain.

Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans purchased Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout from Todd and Tracy Shulte more than eight years ago and moved into the apartment upstairs with their three young children – Elliot, Henry and Caroline – hoping to bring their family closer together.

“Josh and I started coming here right after they opened,” Abbey-Jo said. “We sat at a little table over by this tile wall and I’ll never forget, I had this little sandwich on a baguette with a little salad.”

Their first visit reminded them of a café in Europe, and they fell in love with the atmosphere.

“I should have seen it in the stars,” Abbey-Jo said. “We just loved it and it happened to be that Josh was at an event with Todd and he said quietly, ‘If you know anyone who’s interested in buying Happy Gillis…’”

Josh thought he was crazy. Why would anyone want to get rid of Happy Gillis? It was always popular and fun.

“Josh came home and told me and I said, ‘Tell him we’ll buy it. Like, I don’t even know what it’s going to cost. Just tell him we’ll do it,’” Abbey-Jo remembered.

When they got to the neighborhood, restaurants like Vietnam Cafe and Garozzos had been around for years. The Eans family settled into the cozy apartment, which they’ve since converted to an Airbnb. The neighborhood embraced the Eans family during their first year as they were adjusting and taking it slow.

“I think our goal the whole time was to respect what was here, but to just have a new vision for it, and a fresh vision,” Abbey-Jo said.

Over the years, they’ve made changes – painting, swapping out furniture, creating more seating. The tiny restaurant, which was always busy, now seats 28.

“In some ways, Columbus Park has changed a lot, but in other ways it stays pretty consistent,” Abbey-Jo said. “The people that own property here, they’re very protective of this little neighborhood. I don’t think that we realized what we were really coming into when we came, but what we realized quickly is we had this built-in community, which was awesome, and everyone was just really kind to us.”

Happy Gillis’ coffee mugs are made – with the original logo – and sold by local ceramicist Paul Mallory, a way for visitors to take a piece of their favorite hangout home with them.

“We’ve just changed the logo a couple years ago, and that was kind of a big step, like we’re doing away with this little potato man that Todd’s children had drawn, and it was just time,” Abbey-Jo said. “So even after like six years, we finally decided to change the logo.”

“It’s still a neighborhood place, like last week and one of the neighbors Jo Marie – her dad is the one that used to have the sundry shop in this – she lives a few doors down and they had a neighborhood breakfast for her,” Abbey-Jo said. “So there were like 18 neighbors that all came for breakfast to celebrate another neighbor and I was like, ‘This is what I love about this place.’ It’s a give and take. I think why we have done so well here, partly, is because we’ve respected what this space is and its worth to people.”

Regular customer Jo Marie Guastello – whose now 99-year-old father owned Gillis Sundries, before she was born – has lived in Columbus Park in her family home her whole life and has naturally become a local historian.

“I love Abbey-Jo and Josh, they’ve been a mainstay, they’re honest, they’ve done so much for me…” Guastello said. “They’re just amazing human beings and very family-oriented, and that means a lot to me.”

Carmelo “Chee-Bay” Guastello is happy with what they’ve done with the place, and Jo Marie knows breaking this news to him will be bittersweet. Jo Marie is sad they’re leaving, but is glad they decided not to sell and can’t wait to hear about their travels.

“Everything they touch turns to gold, everything,” Jo Marie said. “That makes me happy. If not now, when? I’m grateful that they can do it, it’s the perfect opportunity. I love their children. It’s a good opportunity for the kids and for them.”

When asked, “Why now? Why Spain?” Abbey-Jo replied, “Why not? And why not?” 

The family traveled to Spain in 2018 for the first time with friends who have a family home there.

“Just something about it, we just felt like, ‘This is so great,’” Abbey-Jo said. “I mean, as you know, we use local farmers and we try to do our best to keep in constant awareness of where our food comes from and how we treat it. We make things really simple around here. We try not to do anything crazy. I think when you look at the food structure over in Europe, it’s just much more connected to its roots than we are here.”

The simplicity has been a major draw for them, and Abbey-Jo envisions her family going to a market and buying a fish that came out of the water that morning or having bread delivered to their house that was baked fresh that morning.

“There’s just something special about that that we don’t have here in the same way, specifically in the Midwest,” Abbey-Jo said. “It’s a lot harder to get all that stuff and there’s a work-life balance over there that’s different than here. I don’t know if it’s better or not. I’m going to find out, I guess. I have a passion for cooking, but I’m ready for it to be for me and for my family, and not just for everybody else because when I get home I don’t want to cook, I don’t want to do that stuff, and that’s a bummer because I love doing that stuff. I love having parties and hopefully now I’ll be cooking by the beach or something.”

Running a restaurant during COVID, while homeschooling, pushed the family to a point where they felt like they were putting it before their family. 

The young family moved into Columbus Park and purchased Happy Gillis eight years ago. Photo courtesy of the Eans family.

“When we came to Happy Gillis, it was because we needed to choose our family first,” Abbey-Jo said. “We were working crazy hours, our family was kind of just really falling apart at the seams, and so we came here like, ‘We can do this together, you know, family business, we’ll be together every single day. We’ll live upstairs,’ and it was awesome.”

Then as it grew and it became more comfortable and they were able to expand and do the ramen shop, it became evident that those seams were starting to really stretch again.

“I hated having the feeling of every time the kids asked about something, ‘Could we do something or could we go here? Could we afford this thing?’ It was just this response of like, ‘Don’t you understand that the restaurant’s needs are greater than all of our needs?’ And that feels bad, and there’s no really nice way to put that. I mean, we’re grateful for Happy Gillis and all that it’s given us in every way, but also just time for us to choose our family again.”

After closing Happy Gillis for more than six months during the height of the pandemic, they didn’t know if it would survive upon reopening. However, when they reopened their doors, the customers returned in a big way.

“I think it speaks of what really has been built here, not just in our time, but like with Todd, and now with us,” Abbey-Jo said.

They’re set on getting rid of every single distraction because they’ve realized that what is important is family first. 

“We’re in a great place where we have staff members that are amazing and we can trust, and it’s time for them to grow, and so I feel lucky that we have a place that can even offer the opportunity because many people want to grow so they have to leave, and I think it’s cool that we get to do all this,” Abbey-Jo said. “And then why now? I mean, I just feel like if we don’t do it now we’re going to miss the opportunity to show our kids something bigger than just here.”

The Eans know that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. She remembers the weight of deciding to let her staff go in March 2020 so they could collect unemployment when they could no longer operate safely. Although it was hard to predict at the beginning, there was no denying that COVID-19 would have an impact on their small business.

“That just made us realize, we’ve always asked what we would do next or how would we stop what we’re doing,” Abbey-Jo said. “You’re stuck in this hamster wheel of constantly going and having to achieve the next thing, and it just kind of stopped, and so we have a choice to make. Are we going to jump back in and just be content with our whole lives? Are we going to try something new? I’m jumping.”

A young Elliot snacks on a Happy Gillis Cookie. Photo courtesy of the Eans family.

Elliot, who will be 16 in May, Henry, 11, and Caroline, 9, are in for an interesting challenge when they arrive in Spain – school in Spanish. While Abbey-Jo speaks a little, she’ll be all out of her comfort zone. Josh speaks the most Spanish, so they plan to rely on him in the beginning, but hope they’ll pick it up quickly.

They plan to live a much cheaper lifestyle and give themselves more opportunities to travel.

“Our goal is to travel with our kids as much as possible and just say, ‘Here’s Italy, here’s Germany, here’s France!’” Abbey-Jo said. “We have a Paris trip planned in November that we will be going to, there’s a concert my husband wants to see and they’re playing in Paris. So it’s like we can go to Paris, like, so crazy. That is insane.”

They will live in Spain for a year and then decide the next step – home or somewhere else. 

“We would love to stay over there long-term, really because college is free –that is a huge one – health insurance is free,” Abbey-Jo said. “There’s a lot of things about our country that don’t work and that don’t work well.”

Abbey-Jo acknowledges her family’s privilege to be able to do this, and encourages anyone who can to make an effort to interact with people – and places – that they’re not used to.

“It can’t hurt you, because anytime you get out of your comfort zone and you see somebody else and you live in their perspective for a little while and you experience their lifestyle and their culture and their everything, if it doesn’t change you, you must not be human because it inevitably will change you no matter what,” Abbey-Jo said. “Every time you meet a person, even in the United States, you have something to learn, something to be changed by.”

She says, if anything, she knows her kids will come away learning a second language, and hanging out on the Mediterranean Sea and going surfing. 

“I don’t want to live my life through my fears anymore because I’ve always been afraid, like, ‘What if we do this wrong and then it affects the restaurant negatively and the restaurant doesn’t survive?’” Abbey-Jo said. “I think during COVID, I realized the restaurant, a lot of it is what we put into it, but it is so big and it’s not the end of everything.”

Abbey-Jo is originally from upstate New York, and Josh is from Phoenix, but they met on middle ground in Kansas City.

“We decided to go to culinary school together after we got married,” Abbey-Jo said. “That took us to Georgia, then we had a baby, which moved us here because my mom had moved out to Kansas City. We’ve been here really ever since, we’ve been in Kansas City for almost 16 years because Elliott was only seven days old when we came out.”

She realized as she told the story of their move – with a tiny baby just days after a C-section – that they’ve always done crazy things.

Since attending culinary school, Josh has expanded his restaurant experience. Photo courtesy of @happygillis on Instagram.

After their move, Josh built up his resume, working at some of Kansas City’s most elite restaurants. They started a place at Martini Corner called The Drop, then all the Blanc Burgers, among a list of other culinary destinations, where they met Shulte.

“My mom and I were sitting outside having breakfast one day and our lives were kind of a mess and falling apart and she said, ‘You know, you guys need your own Happy Gillis, I’m going to pray and ask God to give you your own Happy Gillis,’  and I was like ‘That’s a dumb idea, Mom, like the last thing we need to spend time together.’ We don’t like each other very much right now.”

A week later is when Shulte shared his plan to sell with Josh.

“We saved our marriage, saved our family, and we created something amazing in the process and we have all these relationships and all this stuff,” Abbey-Jo said.

She hopes Columbus Park is a little different, a little better, when they return. 

“I know Cafe Cà Phê, Jackie is like a hustler to her core,” Abbey-Jo said. “She is going to figure out a way to make something awesome. I know she’s Vietnamese and she’s wanted to be in here – there’s a big Vietnamese community in Columbus Park – so I know that she’s wanting to be here for a while so I’m super excited about that. That is one thing that Columbus Park could really use is a great coffee shop.”

Elliot has helped out at Happy Gillis since they started, and now Henry pitches in every once in a while.

“He runs food, he does the register, he helps us prep,” Abbey-Jo said of her older son. “Sometimes we come and get him after school and do dishes. I think we just need a couple good people. We’re looking for at least one really good cook because Chris is going to need some support in that way, and Jeff has always worked at the register and headed that up, but he’s going to kind of slide into what I normally do on the weekends.”

Abbey-Jo usually spends her weekend “in the middle,” making coffee, answering questions, talking to tables, filling water, doing dishes, and working the expo station.

Abbey-Jo covers “the middle” each weekend behind the counter. Photo courtesy of @HappyGillis on Instagram.

Caroline was 10 months old when they moved in, Abbey-Jo often carrying her around on her hip while serving breakfast before she eventually learned to walk, weaving between the tables at Happy Gillis.

Before they set off on their next adventure, the Eans family has several local restaurants they’d like to visit and many friends and customers to say goodbye to.

“I think restaurants are our main entertainment, so we’re going to go to some of those,” Abbey-Jo said. “But honestly, it’s like I told Josh today, our calendars are filling up really quick and we should probably be prepared to be doing something almost every single night.”

Happy Gillis will be left in the capable hands of General Manager Jeff Gatton – who has been there for nearly seven years – and Sous Chef Chris Davis

“He is the perfect fit for this role,” Abbey-Jo said of Gatton. “Chris will be heading up the culinary side of Happy Gillis. We are excited to offer a place for them to grow and continue the legacy of Happy Gillis. We will continue to be involved virtually during this process. We know Happy Gillis will be in great hands with Jeff and Chris, along with the rest of our awesome team.”

Abbey-Jo knows Gatton has a vision for Happy Gillis, but he also understands the Eans’ vision. She describes him as reliable and honest.

“The goal is just to continue Happy Gillis,” Abbey-Jo said. “When we started this process, we knew that we didn’t want to close Happy Gillis down. We knew that we didn’t want it to end. We just didn’t know how it would work out moving forward, so I guess like everything else, you have to take a chance.”

Easter Sunday, April 17, will be the Eans family’s last weekend serving at Happy Gillis. On April 18 from 5-9 p.m., they’ll be at Alma Mader Brewing saying goodbye to friends and regular customers, and supporting another locally owned business. Happy Gillis is now open on Thursdays from, and Friday through Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.