It’s the slow season in the county. Not much is happening—it’s quiet as far as the eye can see. But when JJ’s doors open at 5 p.m. sharp, people begin to pour in. Some sit at their favorite tables; others make themselves at home at the bar for a cocktail first.
You’d think it was a busy August weekend.
It’s clearly the place to be, any time of year. And for good reason. The restaurant’s motto, “Fast, friendly, fun,” is pretty telling and explains the happy vibe.
Then there is the staff—long-time loyal employees, a fourth “F” left off their motto: Familiarity. And while we’re thinking of it, how about: Family? More on that in a minute.
It’s the kind of place where everybody knows your name. And newcomers are welcomed into the fold like old friends.
Located on the northern stretch of Sister Bay, JJ’s La Puerta is popular among locals and visitors alike.
It’s the “Home of the Bernie,” a German-inspired version of a tequila shot; it’s a place for high-quality Mexican-style food; it’s a stop for homemade pub grub.
It’s all made right there, on site. Gallons of salsa are created daily (“People eat it by the spoonful,” says JJ), the hamburger is ground fresh, refried beans are homemade and the French fries and potato chips are hand-cut, sourced as locally as possible.
“You know how all these people are talking about “farm to table?” We’ve been doing that all along,” says Kris.
Their path to becoming restaurateurs started in the 70s. Kris is from Milwaukee, JJ from Viroqua. Both worked as school teachers, Kris an elementary teacher and JJ an art teacher, and found their way to Door County after meeting people who hailed from the peninsula. “I had a Door County friend from college, and I waitressed here at the Sister Bay Bowl,” says Kris.
As for JJ, in addition to his teaching job, he worked as an artist and had a seasonal pottery shop in the county (a pursuit he might take up again someday, if retirement is ever in the cards, he says.)
The two met in Door County, married in 1977 and continued to teach in the Milwaukee area.
“We knew we wanted to live in Door County,” Kris remembers.
One of the ways to make a go of it in the county was to open a business.
They started with the Alibi Restaurant in Fish Creek. Then, in 1978, the couple bought the building in Sister Bay that would become JJ’s La Puerta. For a while after that purchase, both the Fish Creek and the Sister Bay restaurant businesses overlapped, making it an extraordinarily busy time for the couple.
That building had previously been a different restaurant and a beauty shop, and many other things during its century-old life. But the Johnsons didn’t start out with the idea of opening a second restaurant. At first, they tried a confectionery, the Good Ship Candy Shop. But candy sales require spontaneous walk-up traffic, Kris says, and their new building was a little off the beaten path in Sister Bay.
So they changed course and started JJ’s.
About that same time, they also purchased the building neighboring JJ’s and opened a T-shirt shop. Today, that building houses their upscale Waterfront Restaurant.
With Kris running the Alibi in Fish Creek and JJ at his restaurant in Sister Bay, they needed to cooperate—in unexpected ways. “All our French fries were always hand cut—we were always doing that,” says Kris. When she’d run out of ingredients at the Alibi, she would call JJ in Sister Bay. “So, by boat, JJ would bring me more fries or hamburgers.”
Was a boat actually easier? “It was faster,” remembers Kris. “It was an excuse,” says JJ, laughing.
At the time, both restaurants were seasonal businesses, so the couple continued to live in Milwaukee during the winter. Kris taught school until 1983 when she had her fourth child. “I had four kids in three years. I was teaching, working at the Alibi...I don’t know how I did it,” said Kris.
In 1983, they made their permanent move to Door County and focused their attention on their Sister Bay location.
In the early 80s, JJ’s had a popular Wednesday special: Mexican food. “It was so popular, we decided to make this half into a Mexican restaurant,” says Kris.
At the time, Mexican food was non-existent in Door County. So the question is asked: Was it inspired by vacations and trips to Mexico? “No,” says JJ with his infectious laugh. “It was inspired by trips to South Milwaukee.”
In 1985, that new restaurant venture became La Puerta, “the door,” in Spanish.
The two operated as different and distinct restaurants—with a wall dividing them and separate lines in the kitchen.
But realizing that some groups of patrons might be divided as to whether they wanted American food or Mexican, the Johnsons decided to combine the two restaurants in 1989.
“It took us until…how will we remember the year we knocked down the wall?” they ask each other. “It was the year the Berlin Wall came down...” says Kris, looking to JJ for historical help. The reporter helps: yes, 1989.
Today, the original restaurant signs are still up, the menu is combined, and a comfortable bar wraps around. The restaurant is open year round, now “to keep our people working,” Kris says.
“All four kids grew up in the restaurant, working,” Kris remembers. “When they were young, we named hamburgers after them...and the (pet) dogs.” And also themselves. The popular JJ Burger, with green olives, mushrooms, onions and Swiss cheese is a popular menu item, along with the Kristi, Kelsey, Jesse, Kendall and Kaija burgers.
Even though the kids are now grown, the family connection continues. Today, son Jesse is the executive chef at the Waterfront, in addition to running his own business with wife Rachael, The Creamery in Sister Bay. The Creamery specializes in high-end goat milk products from his own local farm. His business has been featured on Wisconsin Public Television’s Wisconsin Foodie, in Door County Magazine and other publications.
For more than 20 years, things were going great. Patrons returned annually, becoming familiar friends, locals supported the restaurant year-round and everyone was finding JJ’s familiar, friendly face at the helm.
And then came the fire of 2009.
It happened in August, during the height of the tourist season. The early-morning fire started in the kitchen, but was thankfully extinguished before destroying the entire building. “But it had to be gutted,” said Kris. “We lost many of our artifacts.”
The restaurant had been decorated and populated with an eclectic mix of exotic and quirky finds, antiques and memorabilia. “People would come in after the fire and look at the walls and say ‘That wasn’t there before.’ It was so odd. The customers missed the art and stuff on the walls.”
The Johnsons did rebuild. And customers remained loyal—so much so, one a loyal fan, pro hockey player Ruslan Fedotenko of the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, stopped in with the coveted Cup prize. (Individual team members are given a day with the actual cup to tour and enjoy for themselves.)
“But that was the year of the big fire, so we had the celebration outside on the patio because the restaurant wasn’t open,” said Kris.
The Secret Sauce
During the interview, JJ jumps up a few times to check on the kitchen. He’s like a ship’s captain, worrying that he isn’t at the helm when he’s needed.
“We still work seven days a week from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. at times,” says Kris.
But there are also trusted, long-time employees on staff, like bartender Dave Johnson and kitchen manager Tim Iding, year around. Several seasonal employees are added for the summer. But still, JJ is often in the kitchen or behind the bar.
It’s a hand-on affair for the Johnsons—one they clearly love.
So, we ask: What makes a business—especially one so enduring—successful ? What is the secret sauce?
That’s easy, Kris explains: “We’re here.”