We go out for a late lunch on Sunday, trying to decide between our two favorite places for what has become almost a weekly ritual.
We make our choice, walk in the front door — and the owner happily greets us with menus, shows us to a booth, comes back to re-wipe the table because he didn’t think it was clean enough, then takes a drink order to pass on to our server.
Yes, all this on a Sunday, even removed from football season that would have brought in a bigger crowd.
He hangs around for some conversation, but not long, because more customers come in and he has to take care of them. All around the big room, other employees go about their work, happy and relaxed but energetic, following the example of their boss.
By now, many readers probably have figured out the place — and the proprietor, who would get my vote year after year as one of the hardest-working, most dedicated small-business owners in Colorado Springs.
The place: SouthSide Johnny’s, which has anchored its evolving block of South Tejon Street (between Cimarron Street and Moreno Avenue) since opening in a superbly restored trolley car warehouse in 2002.
And the owner, as hordes of his longtime customer friends know so well, is Johnny Nolan.
Every city as large as Colorado Springs has its success stories. Among that group here, nobody’s light shines brighter than Johnny’s, in no small part because of precisely the scene we encountered Sunday — as we’ve seen and appreciated countless times over the years. He’s the epitome of what a dedicated and engaged business owner should be: always upbeat, always glad to see you, always making customer service the top priority.
And that hasn’t changed in the past three years, since Nolan opened his second “project” up on North Nevada Avenue, almost to Fillmore. With help from investor partners, Nolan resurrected the historic Navajo Hogan, now with the same iconic sign but known as Johnny’s Navajo Hogan, a thriving restaurant/bar and music venue, 80 years after its first life began. (And yes, it’s our “other” option on Sundays.)
He’s the epitome of what a dedicated and engaged business owner should be, always upbeat, always glad to see you, always making customer service the top priority.
But it’s never been just about Johnny. He came here after graduating from the University of Wyoming, starting at the old Bennigan’s in 1991. Within a year, he caught on with the Ritz Grill on Tejon, where he ran the bar for a decade.
Then came his opportunity to move from employee to partner, joining with Luke Travins and Dave Lux of Concept Restaurants to make SouthSide Johnny’s become a reality. Nolan put it all together, from the historic atmosphere and big-screen TVs to the menu that was always clearly well above typical bar food.
Even then, in 2002, Johnny verbalized his philosophy in a newspaper interview with the same words he would use today: “You gotta treat people well on a consistent basis, whether they’ve got five bucks or 500 bucks in their pocket.”
That approach, along with his willingness to jump in and help everybody who works for him, whether filling drink orders or clearing tables, has made Johnny Nolan the presence that he is.
And he might not be stopping at two local establishments, either.
After our lunch, he came back to visit more, saying he had been trying to buy the recently closed Metropolis Supper Club at 1201 W. Colorado Ave. That attempt hasn’t worked out, though Nolan still is hoping it might. If not, though, he made it clear that “I’m looking around for any opportunities that might come up on the Westside, because I really believe there’s room for more there.”
And when it comes to pass, that third venue wouldn’t be just a bar. Nolan stressed he would do more to serve the Old Colorado City neighborhood, providing another distinctive version of a wide-ranging food menu that has worked for him twice already, with such choices as grilled mahi-mahi or ahi salads plus pasta and sandwiches at SouthSide Johnny’s, and unique pizzas as well as broasted chicken and more at the Hogan, and beer cheese soup at both.
So the story of Johnny Nolan’s business life here might begin another chapter in the not-so-distant future.
And you know the most likely name he’d choose, of course. How could it not be Westside Johnny’s?