James “JJ” Johnson stopped by during a recent run behind the bar pouring Bernese and Mamaguana. Photo by Miles Danhausen Jr.
Last Tuesday, JJ’s La Puerta was filled with familiar faces.
The groups were there one last time – Bruce, David, Jane, Rhonda, Dave and Timmer.
There was the next generation of restaurants inspired by JJ’s dream, too. Chad, Travis, Randy, James, Mike, Paula.
And there were those of us who just grew up with JJ, who only know a scientist with JJ stumbles out of that kitchen. J Mitch behind the bar. Jeff. dew. Los Angeles. I.
It’s all there for a Bernie, a margarita, or just one last look before the reins of one of Door County’s leading restaurants change.
After years of talking about the sale, James “JJ” Johnson and his wife Kristen finally sold their child to Brett Unkeefer of Wild Restaurant Concepts (Wild Tomato, Skip Stone, Clover & Zot).
JJ and Kristine bought the cottage in 1978, a few months before I was born. I’m not important to their story, but JJ’s story is my story, so I include this fact that I’m dating, but more importantly, JJ’s dates.
For nearly 45 years, the narrow strait has roamed between these tables, bumped the speed behind that bar, and flipped burgers with Timmer on that line.
“He’s the star of the show,” Chris says. “I just keep working.” In some ways – certainly not all – they are Sister Bay’s answer to Elaine and the late Bob MacDonald of Bayside in Fish Creek. It was a facial bob. Eileen was and still is the glue.
“I’m ready,” Kris says, acknowledging how difficult it can be as she looks around for friends, friends’ kids, and friends’ kids kids at the bar. “You’ll still be here, but we’ll have to get away for a while.”
They’ve talked about selling for years, but only over the past year or so, she says, has JJ taken it seriously.
Tonight JJ is still working with the crowd, his usual black compression stockings pulled to his knees under his shorts and gray Team Cream T-shirt. His blonde blonde locks are mid-length now, and he’s not exactly a surfer. He trades punches, meets children, and nods at those for whom this is a sad night, the end of an era.
JJ and Kris raised four children while running this place. They were all a part of it – cooking, waiting tables, lending their names to the burgers on the menu. Jesse, now a cheesemaker and former goat herder behind Door County Creamery on the road. Kendall, one of the region’s leading wine connoisseurs, runs the adjoining bar at The Waterfront. Kaija, an elementary school teacher who still fills duty shifts on weekends and during summer. And Kelsey, a nurse in Milwaukee.
Not a bad outcome.
Kendall, who came home several years ago to run the bar in The Waterfront, described the sale as bittersweet.
There are no great retirement plans for independent restaurants. You work, you pay the bills, you work, and you hope to have some extras after the bills are paid. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll stay in business and one day get old and have to figure out how to get out, or pass it on without leaving your kids with crushing debts. Or if you think everything is wrong, much like during the 2008 crash, and you have to sell at the bottom.
Now JJ and Kris, in their 70s, can sell out in the good times.
“But how about just a place he is Someone?” Kendall asks. “And they should let her go.”
JJ’s, well, JJ. He came here from Milwaukee as a teacher and artist, but it’s not just about making the backlit stained glass behind the bar and the stained glass hanging above the tables and at the front door. It wasn’t the mannequins he bought at random that became a staple in his bar. Or the bolts he ran for sellers to get the best deal and the fact that he can tell you the running price of everything at Pig. It’s his jerky spectacle, his tinkering, his research. JJ is the vibe.
The banner is still hanging while Unkefer and his Wild Tomato crew take over, and it will be pretty much the same for now. But it won’t be – it can’t be – same.
JJ and Kris don’t go a long way. They live near the corner. Their attention is now turning a few feet south to the waterfront, which they still own. And JJ continues to hang out at Egg Harbor’s popcorn and gelato restaurant, Jimmy’s, which he’s been hoping to open for several years.
Speaking of popcorn. Late nights at the bar, JJ disappears from the bar to go wherever JJ goes, only to reappear with a bag of homemade popcorn, and passes it to judge her. It does happen tonight, of course, but it’s not much of a taste test when several shots of Bernese and Mamaguana are deep (if you don’t know, you’re fine).
I live across the street from what is known to one generation as JJ’s Farmhouse, and to another as JJ’s Goat Farm (goats were sold last winter). Two years ago, I asked JJ a question, the answer of which shows how seriously a man takes his popcorn. JJ grows corn on that property, and I asked him how the crop was doing on the goat farm.
He leaned over and looked me in the eye. “Those goats on my popcorn farm.”
I did not click to answer my question.
Anyway, back to Tuesday. The bell rang, and it was ringing with more heart and enthusiasm than ever before. Many times, perhaps. As the night goes on, and the bell rings again, the sombrero comes down to take pictures. Tears shed on the sidewalk outside.
JJ saunters around so he gets out and a few souls stay at the bar. I’m thinking slipping into my mid-40s. About having this family in this place for each of those years. About changing hands at The Viking Grill, The Alpine, The Cookery, and Fred & Fuzzy’s. About change, period.
Sometimes, good things can be sad. And sad things can be good.
Like JJ’s last call.