Archive for Thursday, April 23, 1998


April 23, 1998


Johnny's isn't the sleepy little north-of-the-river tavern it used to be.

A lot of things have changed about Johnny's Tavern since Rick Renfro and his crew took over 20 years ago.

But Edith Wilson is still the same.

``She came with the place,'' Renfro said of the woman who's been opening the popular North Lawrence bar and grill every morning since her grandfather owned it.

In that 20 years, Johnny's has changed from a neighborhood hangout for blue-collar types to a Lawrence institution with annual sales approaching $1 million. It even has a location in Kansas City.

A lot of bartenders have come and gone, too, and Renfro is throwing a party for them this week.

``We're billing it as a reunion,'' Renfro said. ``I've just been sort of the caretaker here for the past 20 years.''

He can't call it an anniversary, he explained, because the history of Johnny's goes back much further.

Excepting Prohibition years, when the building was turned into a grocery store, it's housed a tavern since the 1910s.

The upstairs space has been used as apartments and a boarding house for railroad workers. Now, it's part of the bar, too.

Renfro and a partner purchased it in 1978 from John Wilson -- Johnny -- who had run it for 25 years.

Edith Wilson is his granddaughter.

Though she works a shorter week these days, Renfro said Wilson still shows up at 6:30 a.m., just like she did when Johnny's opened at 7 a.m. Those days ended when liquor laws changed and the bar started opening at 9 a.m.

But old habits die hard.

``It's been 10 years since that happened,'' Renfro said, ``and she still gets here about 6:30 a.m. and has her coffee and reads the paper.''

Johnny's may seem just a quaint old bar catering to the beer-swilling college crowd, it's steadily grown into more than that.

In 1984, a renovation added 2,000 square feet to the original location, which now has about 7,500 square feet. It's a popular lunch spot, live music venue and patio bar. Renfro said it has annual sales between $500,000 and $1 million.

In 1992, Renfro and partners Doug Hassig and Louie Riederer opened a new Johnny's in Overland Park to cater to Kansas University grads and fans who live in Kansas City. In 1996, it moved to a new building in Shawnee. Business is booming there.

Another expansion -- a drive-through at Ninth and Illinois streets serving Johnny's burgers and fries -- fizzled in the early `90s.

But the focus of the reunion will be the original Johnny's.

Renfro went back over employment records and came up with the names of 425 bartenders he wanted to invite. He found addresses for about 200. He thinks as many as 125 will show up.

Wednesday night and today, Johnny's will have specials on beer and cheeseburgers.

Bands were set to play both nights. Friday, there's a cocktail party for the returning bartenders. Saturday, Johnny's will have its annual employee picnic at Burcham Park. There will be another party at the bar that night.

After 20 years, Renfro said he feels like he's had two lives at the bar: One as the 20-year-old KU graduate who owned the place and was a contemporary of the people who worked there and today's.

``Now, instead of being their older brother I'm their father figure,'' he said, reminiscing about how times have changed.

``First, we had to add food. Then we had to add coffee and tea and Sweet `n Low, now we're down to where we have to have high chairs for the kids.''

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