Austin staple Johnny’s Skillet still new to somePublished 11:25am Wednesday, March 14, 2012
It’s fascinating to get insight from someone who has been in the Austin restaurant business for more than 50 years. If you have a half hour, John Clark could highlight the local restaurant business history, some of it fondly and some not so much, but all fairly accurately. Yet while he has been here for decades, some Austinites are still discovering him for the first time.
Most people in Austin remember Clark’s longtime staple, Johnny’s Main Event, but he said if you ask around town, some still don’t realize it’s alive and well, operating as Johnny’s Skillet across the street from the original. And even fewer know that as of three weeks ago, the former strictly breakfast-and-lunch operation is open for dinner Tuesday-Friday, 4:30-7 p.m. and closed all day Sunday.
He realizes part of the reason it’s somewhat unknown — although others will argue that point — is he doesn’t have a website and didn’t use to advertise much (although he’s doing more of that, now). In fact, you can’t even find his address or phone number if you search for “Johnny’s Skillet” in the most recent local phone book. (It’s 107 11th Ave. NE and 507-433-8875.)
But all that is perfectly fine with him, as he has more business than he can handle from his many loyal patrons. Although the name, menu, hours and location have all changed several times since 1982, the one constant has been Clark. As owner and manager, he does everything from cooking, washing dishes and bussing, to banking, payroll and accounting.
Business has been up and down for him over the years, but recently it’s been up. While he admits he took a pretty big hit after the 2008 recession, he estimates he’s doing 40-50 percent more business since he moved to the smaller location, while amazingly dropping from six full-time employees, counting himself, to three. While he doesn’t have an exact reason for his success, he guesses it’s a combination of things; from the excellent service of full-time waitress Linda Miller and part-time waitress Briana Clark, his daughter, to the added advertising, new location and closure of several other restaurants in town.
While Clark has never worked at Hormel, his connections to the company run deep. He has always served Spam entrées and his restaurant is the place many go after visiting the Spam Museum, which is a couple blocks away. Of course, as most people who were born, raised and have lived their entire life in Austin, he has many family members and friends who have worked at Hormel. But most of all, his mom, Inez (Oscarson) Honderich, who passed away Feb. 8, was Hormel Foods’ original “Spam Queen.”
He admits hesitantly that he was a bit of a celebrity when the national media converged on Austin in 2008 to visit the Spam Museum and by chance “discovered” his Western Spam Melt and other original Spam dishes. It was then, he said, that he decided to change the name of his diner from Johnny’s Main Event to Johnny’s Spamarama. But as of April 1, 2011, he’s across the street from his original building, running it as Johnny’s Skillet, as it’s in the former home of the Savory Skillet.
While the fame was good for business, he said it was a double-edged sword, as his small staff had to pick up the slack. He welcomes new customers, but when he gets really busy, he says it can be exhausting. Still, he likes the change the new hours and dinner menu bring. For now, he’ll take the extra business and try to keep up.