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Vox Voice: Podcast Episode 8 - Dave Johnson

David Johnson has been working at The Broadway Diner since the age of nine, growing to love the community while serving classic diner food

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  • 12 min to read
Diner Show Notes Cover Image.JPG

This photo was taken inside the diner in 1998. Dave Johnson was working the night shift then, when times were quite different. Featured in the photo is Eunice McCaleb, in the front, Thomas Couch in the middle and Johnson in the back. 

David Johnson, owner of The Broadway Diner, began working at the diner with his dad at the young age of nine. With rich history, and even better food, Johnson has continued to honor his father's work by running this Columbia staple. While he's been at it, he has been able to meet, see and experience many of the ever-changing things in the Columbia community. Hear about Johnson's journey of family, friendships and running a business in this special episode of Vox Voice. 

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Episode Transcript

Lauren Polanski, 0:45: Dave, welcome to the show.

Dave Johnson, 0:47: Thank you.

LP, 0:48: Tell me about your upbringing. Where did you grow up? And what did your parents do? 

DJ, 0:52: So I pretty much grew up here in Columbia. We moved here when I was six in 1972. My mom was a schoolteacher, elementary school teacher, who had taken some time off when we moved to Columbia, to raise myself and younger brothers and sisters. She eventually went back to work full time. When I was a kid, she was a substitute teacher, though. We moved to Columbia, my dad was transferred here, he worked for Best Westerns. And came to Columbia, worked briefly in Mexico, Missouri, and then started buying diners here in town.

LP, 1:31: Was there something specific that kind of drew your dad into the food industry? Did he always have a love for, you know, cooking and stuff like that? Or?

DJ, 1:41: I think so. My dad was one of 11 children, and so cooking was a necessity. He was one of the older kids and left home, relatively young, he was still in high school. And left home, got an apartment, got a job, still went to school. And those jobs were in butcher shops and restaurants. And I think he just gravitated to that I'm not sure why. He later on joined the Navy, was a cook in the Navy, came home and just stayed in the in the restaurant business.

LP, 2:17: Crazy to think that he kind of bounced around like that and ended up you know, where he was with the diner.

DJ, 2:22: Yeah.

LP, 2:23: When the Broadway Diner was originally purchased by your father, it has later been passed on to you. Why did your father decide to buy this diner after he had previously owned a different one earlier in his life?

DJ, 2:39: Well, he sold the first one. He was approaching middle age. This is me looking back. It seems like he was approaching middle age he was, had worked his whole life. He wanted to take it a little easier. He just, had just been diagnosed with mono or something. And his kids were getting older, he wanted to spend some more time at home. So he sold that diner. And for the first time in 30 years he was working for somebody else. Absolutely did not like that. And knew of the other diner, The Broadway Diner now, being for sale and decided to jump back into it.

LP, 3:21: I believe you started working in your dad's diner starting at about age nine. If I'm correct?

DJ, 3:27: Mhmm, that's correct.

LP, 3:29: What was it like working in your dad's diner as a kid? And you know, did you love it? Did you hate it? And did you I mean, when you were working in it, what did you do?

DJ, 3:40: Well, it was a much smaller diner. And I just really enjoyed spending the time with my dad. When he was working in Mexico, Missouri, he was gone for a long period of time. So, I don't want it to seem like I was raised by a single mother or something, because we're really talking about a year or two. But he was gone. And so I wanted to spend a lot of time with my dad. Plus, it was a very small operation. It was designed that way. So just having an extra set of hands really helped him out. So, was I working? I wouldn't say that now. But you know, I was pouring water and taking food out to the possibility of 10 people.

LP, 4:25: Right.

DJ, 4:26: That's all the place sat was 10 little counter counter seats. 

LP, 4:31: Is there something that you learned when your dad was running the diner that you continued or continue to use? Now that you've taken over and you're running the diner? 

DJ, 4:43: Yeah, my dad was always an amazing boss. Far better than me. He really took care of his employees, as well as his customers. But the employees have always developed into part of our family. We still have, we had two waitresses that worked at both restaurants. It seems like yesterday that Cindy stopped working for us after her second win over cancer. But it's probably been close to 20 years, but she still checks in and she's still part of our family. Eunice is legendary. We worked together for almost 15 years at night at The Broadway Diner, and, you know, I talk to her still a couple times a week. I learned that and and I learned the value of really respecting everybody and listening to all points. Respect, is one of the most important things I learned from my folks. 

LP, 5:52: You went away to college, but then you decided to come back and ended up taking The Broadway Diner as your own. And what inspired that decision?

DJ, 6:04: When I lost a brother, and my dad was just unable to work, so I kind of had to step up, rally the family together and decide to go with it, you know. Dad and I continued to work together eventually. But it was a real struggle for him. So I, well, I didn't always envision running this diner, and that was never my life's goal. I did want to make it mine and continue what we had begun what had always begun but just bring my own feeling flair to it, I guess. Whatever that might be.

LP, 6:51: Yeah, no for sure. Okay. Something else that I did want to talk to you about was your dad has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and how has his diagnosis affected you and your life?

DJ, 7:12: Dad's Parkinson's affected our whole family. Diseases that incapacitate aren't anything new in my family, my aunt has multiple sclerosis. My grandmother had MS as well, my dad's father had a stroke. So, all those people also have, none of them had an attitude that gives up they all continue, my dad to this day, my aunt to this day, my dad would be at the diner right now working if if he could. So, it was just me personally, it affected me. I had, I was newly married when he stopped working at the diner. I wasn't really high in anticipating going into a marriage. Christie was awesome as, as ever and we adjusted, and I adjusted my hours, we changed the hours around at the diner a little bit. But we got through it we adapt, we accepted and we go on. There's no sense in blaming or, or trying to be a victim or looking for excuses. You look for reasons to to get up and go and trying to make things better.

LP, 8:37: Well, I appreciate you for being so open and honest about that. I know that's not the easiest thing to talk about. Since running the business. You were able to meet your now wife,

DJ, 8:51: Yes.

LP, 8:52: Through one of your actual workers. And so do you want to kind of explain that backstory because I think it's really unique.

DJ, 9:01: So, homecoming weekend of 2010 I had a server not show up on a Friday night. And it was horrible. And my dishwasher just happened to know this kid, it was a student who kept weird hours, and he might be available and he might just want to come down and help. I said, Leroy, I call him up. And that's how I met Cooper. And Coops worked for us, I don't know a couple, three months? And I really didn't get to meet his mom initially, but I really don't meet my employees parents usually. But he, the whole time was telling his mom you really need to keep come meet this guy, Dave, I really enjoy him, etc.

LP, 9:57: Yeah.

DJ, 9:58: Coops eventually had an accident at another one of his jobs and cut his finger he wasn't able to drive. So his mom started bringing him to and from work, and I met her. And it was just magic. And a couple months later we were married.

LP, 10:17: That's awesome. And so how long have you guys been married now?

DJ, 10:20: So it will be 10 years May the first. 

LP, 10:24: Oh, that's awesome. Congratulations. I know that's coming up here pretty soon.

DJ, 10:27: Thank you.

LP, 10:28: So, most people know you for owning the diner. But I know that you really enjoy being in the outdoors. You mentioned fly fishing, bicycling are all sorts of things that you enjoy doing in your free time. What kind of got you interested in those hobbies?

DJ, 10:49: My grandfather always took me fishing. And although he wasn't a fly fisherman, those are my earliest memories of fishing with him. And I don't even think we did it often, but it was just something that was based on that relationship. And it was just something that was that important. And I've always thought that. I don't like to fish alone, I like to fish with a friend, usually just  one other person. But I don't really have time to fish now. And it's pretty rare that I get to do that. I do like to be outdoors, either hiking or most often biking, I have a goal of of hitting the entirety of all the trails in Columbia. I'd love to see that happen soon. And I know that there are plans to have it completely go around the city. And I think that would be great. I tend to ride the Katy Trail, I tend to probably drive more than I actually ride getting to the place to the trailhead. But that quiet time is good too. I really like to see myself as a commuter cyclist, I'd love to see that developed more in Columbia. Unfortunately, we live just a little bit too far out. So I'm not able to, and my hours, it just wouldn't be feasible to commute to work. But if I'm not biking somewhere, I'll if I need to go downtown like today, I walked from the diner here. It's just easier than driving. That exercise that activity does me good.

LP, 12:37: Definitely, I think it's important for people to keep that in mind too just if you're able to walk, you might as well and you know, helps the environment and also just during COVID, I mean.

DJ, 12:49: Absolutely. And it's I don't do these things to try and get in shape. That's the least of my worries. But they're more for my mental health and just the clarity of my soul. I think the trail system in Columbia is one of the greatest things that this town has going for it outside of parks. And I think it's also one of the most underutilized things, I see more and more folks on it, especially through COVID. That's great. I'm hoping it continues and probably even builds, I would love to see Columbia close down some streets for just pedestrian and bike traffic. That would drastically change my my business, were blessed with a huge parking lot. But I'd love to fill it with bike racks.

LP, 13:45: Yeah, no, that's awesome. So if there was one thing that you could change about the diner right now, what would it be?

DJ, 13:58: If there were one thing that I could do differently at the diner, I truly believe it would be to go to a pay whatever you'd like kind of model. And if you can't pay, you don't need to pay. But I don't know how to do that. But that's how I get my my pleasure. My greatest achievements and happinesses from life are through feeding folks and developing those friendships, those relationships building that community. And so much the community is left out of that, simply because they can't afford that. And that's not right.

LP, 14:45: I think that's a really good, a good thing you could change if you were able to. So, kind of jumping more into that too. I know you have a long history of volunteer work in the community, would you want to kind of elaborate on that for me.

DJ, 15:00: I believe in doing the right thing all the time. And I try to live by faith every day. And I'm always asking the universe, God, whatever, for more empathy and to be a better human. And my faith compels me to take care of folks and to love everybody. And so when we first started hearing about a lockdown, I was concerned about kids that weren't going to be able to go to school, kids that depend upon breakfast and lunch at those schools. And I offered to feed what I was afraid would be leftover food if I had to lock down. I was just really trying to prepare, and feed as many as I could and empty my storehouse at the same time. I didn't anticipate being open, you know, I was just going to do as much as I could. And then quickly I realized that we could stay open as an essential business. And I also realized that hunger doesn't stop just because it's convenient for me to stop. So we continued, and we're going to continue. 

LP, 16:14: Right, right yeah. And kind of bouncing off the, you know, the impact the pandemic has had on the community, you know, what ways has it also affected your business. 

DJ, 16:27: The pandemic brought out my belief that people need to come before profits. The margins in the restaurant business are insane to make anyway. So there's a lot of times I'm probably not making money. So, I just feel like I need to share what I have in my abilities with these kids that need help.

LP, 17:04: Right no, for sure. Before you mentioned to me that you actually have the chance to go and volunteer in the wake of 9/11. Do you want to kind of tell the story of where you were and what the volunteering was, like, you know, at ground zero.

DJ, 17:25: 9/11 of course, sticks out to everybody that was around on that day as a marker in history. I was, of course at the diner, and have been blessed to know, the majority of my life through church, a couple of gentlemen that were veterans, one of the Army and one of the Air Force. And for some reason, they had been at the VFW, some event that morning. And we're coming to the diner when they heard the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and we hadn't had word of it yet at the diner. This was of course, pre-cell phone days, and we didn't even have a radio at the diner. So when folks started coming in and talking about it, I sent my dishwasher up the street to what is now Eat Well, Lucky's or whatever. It was a, Osco or some sort of store then, and they brought a radio back. And we of course, turned it on to the news. But I remember, Dewy Rein and Bruce Roll and their wives sitting there in uniform. And seeing the the utter horror on their face of knowing our country was under attack. And people were dying. And that we would soon probably be at war. And I felt a huge desire to give back when I could to our country and to support New York. So I sought out ways to get to New York and opportunities to serve and found a couple other folks through the church that wanted to go. And we went and joined with the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, and we helped distribute things. We were just a couple blocks off of ground zero. And we're at a building that had been abandoned but the government came in and all the all the federal all the state all the local charities could have rooms, so it was a central place where people could come and we had a feeding station in there, where people and employees or volunteers, whatever could could come and be fed and could get warm. And then we also had a distribution center, where gloves, mittens, chapstick, hygiene items, coats, whatever were being distributed. And then in off time we went down to to the pit itself and just kind of helped out in and worked and comforted and brought food and coffee to those people down there.

LP, 20:49: That's awesome. Thank you for kind of elaborating on that. Is there one night that specifically stands out to you throughout all of your time at the diner?

DJ, 21:02: Yeah, there's lots of really cool moments. I, looking back I remember crowds and big weekends and the basketball team coming down after games at the Hearnes Center, and all that, but I also remember the really quiet times and the characters that have been part of that diner for the for years. And it was a really quiet, dark December, I guess, December, it was snowy, and cold. Weren't any students in the place. And the waitress was in the back doing something and we had two customers. One was John Fry, and he is no longer in Columbia. He'd often just show up in the middle of the night down there and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes in there at the time. And he was at one booth and clear on the other side of the diner was a lady named Deb D'Agostino, and she has a beautiful voice. And I don't know which one of them played the jukebox. But they put a couple bucks in the jukebox. And they were both singing along oblivious to the other being in the place. And I was just in awe, and sat back and I can almost bring myself to tears thinking about it now but just sat back and enjoyed that moment.

LP, 22:36: Definitely something I wish I could have been there to see. Okay, so your family has owned the diner for over 30 years. Do you see yourself ever doing anything different in the future? Or do you always plan to stick by the diner?

DJ, 22:51: I don't see myself doing anything different in the future. Even if I were to retire, I'd want to do exactly what I'm doing. I love what I do. I love the interaction with folks. I love seeing people enjoy their food. I love figuring out how somebody enjoys their bacon the best you know, I love it when somebody comes up and says those are the perfect eggs. But, um, that doesn't happen so much through COVID. So I miss that. I miss being able to pat people on the back and lift them up and see if they're having a bad day and it still happens. But it's harder through a window and through a styrofoam box. It's more difficult.

LP, 23:41: Definitely, definitely.

DJ, 23:43: So we are open every day, seven days a week, seven o'clock in the morning till two o'clock in the afternoon. On a rare occasion, I'll have a doctor's appointment, or something will come up and cut out a half an hour early. Sometimes on the weekend, we're going to do that just because we're tired and I'm old and I'm worn out. And I apologize. I wish we could be open more. I wish we were open inside, but COVID. We're small and we're gonna do what we have to do.

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