Newton, Features, Metro

Johnny’s Luncheonette Owners Keep Tradition Alive

On any given day, Johnny’s Luncheonette could have Boston College students slurping on milkshakes, an old married couple splitting the famous matzo ball soup, or a Newton resident reading a book by themselves while feasting on a burger. Owner Karen Masterson says that’s what makes Johnny’s such a great place to be. 

For Karen, owning Johnny’s has never just been a business endeavor. When she and her husband Kevin purchased Johnny’s in 2014, they knew they had a unique opportunity to foster a haven of community for the greater Boston area. She always knew she wanted Johnny’s to be a place where anyone and everyone is welcome. 

“People run into each other—run into friends, run into colleagues and coworkers,” Karen said. “It just feels like that good place to be, where we can kind of be our best in community together.”

For Kevin Masterson, the diverse population that comes to Johnny’s was one of the biggest appeals of purchasing the diner.

“We liked the appeal of the demographics of the clientele—it appealed to a lot of different people, whether it’s high school, college, or affluent people, it crossed a lot of boundaries so I think that was appealing,” Kevin said.

Johnny’s was opened in 1993, though the space has a long history in Newton before that—Johnny’s used to be Langley’s Deli, which was open for 30 years until John Furst and Neil Solomon bought it and transformed it into Johnny’s.

“They had been there 20 years. We brought experience and evolved the menu to be probably a little more healthier. They did a great job and it was just time for new energy to be in there. When we stepped in it was the right time for both parties, but I do want to stress the previous owners did a fantastic job of building that restaurant,” Kevin said. 

Something that’s never changed is the institution’s importance to the community.

“It goes back a long ways with people having a lot of memories here,” Karen said. “I mean, kids have come as children with their families and ended up working here, so it’s got a lot of history.”

Karen has been in the restaurant business most of her life. Growing up in Canada, she was a part-time waitress as a teenager and started working for Four Seasons in her 20s as a catering manager. When she met her husband, he was also in the restaurant business. 

“When I first went into the business, it wasn’t really a profession, it was more of a fallback if you were waiting to get a career … I found I love the restaurant business,” Kevin said. “I love the energy of it. [I loved] that everything was different on a daily basis. It’s a very social business, whether it’s with customers or employees.”

Karen says her favorite part about the restaurant business is how much potential there is to do good. 

“I’ve always been drawn to it, even though it’s a hard business, just because there’s so much good we can do,” she said. “And I really, really believe we need spaces where we can gather as humans and just be our human selves together and not have all these boundaries that we put up around the differences that we have. So I always go back to it.”

In the summer of 1997, Karen and her husband decided to leave Canada and come to the United States. They settled in Sherborn, Mass., where they decided to raise their kids. The two opened Big Fresh Cafe in 2003, which was the first fast-casual farm-to-table restaurant in the region, and owned Nourish in Lexington from 2009 to 2014. But when a restaurant broker approached them with an offer for them to buy Johnny’s, Karen said there were many signs that they should take the opportunity and run with it.

“Nobody was interested in maintaining the concept—there were some people who were just interested in the space,” she said. “But we have some funny kind of connections in that many years ago, I worked across the street at a place called Placewares when I was pregnant with my first child, my son.”

Karen also described another connection she had to Johnny’s, this one a little bit more unique. Karen’s sister, Wendel Meldrum, played the Low Talker on Seinfeld, a character memorable for her extremely quiet voice. Karen said Seinfeld’s infamous diner, where countless scenes are shot, is part of what inspired him to open Johnny’s.

“There was this funny Seinfeld connection too, which was hilarious,” she said. “So I asked the previous owner why he decided to open a diner at the age of 40, because usually people aren’t jumping into the restaurant business at 40. He said he was such a Seinfeld fan that he wanted to open a diner. And I said well this is perfect, because … my sister was the actress that played the Low Talker. And I thought, what are the chances that we have this bizarre Seinfeld connection? So it just felt like it was meant to be.”

When the Mastersons took over, Karen felt it was important to make necessary changes to the diner while not taking away what people loved about the place. To her, one of the most important changes she made at the beginning was sourcing.

“When you buy an existing business it’s important to be very respectful of what people are coming for,” she said. “So I definitely wanted to maintain what people loved about Johnny’s and a lot of the items that they come here for, but then over time change up some of the sourcing.”

Karen came from a farm-to-table background, so she wanted to bring some of her expertise in that field to Johnny’s. They started sourcing white fish from Red’s Best, a supplier of about 1,000 local fishermen. Johnny’s also started sourcing meat from Pineland Beef, a Massachusetts supplier, and offered customers an organic maple syrup from Charlemont, Mass. for a 75 cent upcharge. 

“Some of these are more costly decisions to make, but I feel really, really passionate about getting the best source that you can at whatever price point works,” she said. “So we can’t do everything that I’ve done in other restaurants but I would say for a diner space, we’re doing really well.”

For Karen, the greatest reward of owning Johnny’s is being able to facilitate an environment where all of her customers feel welcomed and supported.

“I think it’s so important these days to have spaces that everyone is welcome at,” she said. “And I love that. I love everyday seeing the most diverse clientele you could ever have—age wise, income, culture, and gender. And that just gives me hope for humanity, really, because it’s just everybody coming together to share a meal.”

Karen said she views Johnny’s diverse clientele as one of the largest signs of success for Johnny’s. Having a place where anyone, no matter the challenges life is throwing at them, can gather is her ultimate goal, she said.

“We get everybody here,” Karen said. “Sometimes people are isolated because they have mental health challenges. Sometimes they’re isolated because they have health challenges in other ways, or they may be new to the area and just don’t always meet people. Life transitions can create that. So, I just love having a place where people truly feel welcome whether you’re on your own, whether you’re with friends, colleagues. That to me is the sign of success.”

At Johnny’s, getting to know the customers is a regular occurrence for Karen—Johnny’s has more regulars than any restaurant she’s ever owned. Karen said there are many customers who she gets concerned for when they don’t appear for some time.

“There’s a lovely woman who’s away for the winter and her last meal was with us before she went to the airport and her first meal back will be with us,” she said.

Karen said one of her favorite customer stories is about an elderly gentleman named Leo. Leo was a customer who came to Johnny’s on a regular basis—over time, he started coming in with a nurse, and Karen said it was clear that there were some health changes happening. One day, she said, she noticed something off about Leo.

“It was a spring day, and it was nice outside, and he was in a downfield coat, which flagged me a little bit,” Karen said. “He was by himself, and he came up to the front and asked me to call him a Veteran’s Taxi, and I said absolutely.”

Leo told Karen he had a number she could call for the taxi. He pulled out a piece of small cardboard from his jacket which he had written his most important contacts on: The Veteran’s taxi, the YMCA, a doctor’s address, his daughter’s number, and, written at the bottom, Johnny’s.

“It’s those little points of matter and knowing that you matter to people—so we definitely have a lot of that here where people know that we want to know that they’re well and okay,” Karen said. 

She also told stories of local celebrities coming to visit Johnny’s. She explained one instance in which she didn’t recognize Boston Bruins goaltender Tuuka Rask when he came for dinner.

“In my defense, it’s hard to recognize goalies when they’re out of their mask. On a busy weekend, we were running a waitlist, and this gentleman comes up to me and I said, ‘There’s a bit of a wait, can I take your name?’. And he said, ‘Tuukka.’ And I said, ‘Can you spell that for me?’ … A few minutes later someone came running in the door and said, ‘Is it true? Is Tuukka Rask here?’ And I was like, ‘Oh! That’s who what is!’”

You never know who you’re going to run into at Johnny’s, and for Karen, that’s one of the most gratifying parts of owning a diner. 

“On any given day, you could have students who had a half day, you could have a senior and a caregiver, you could have a business meeting, you could have two women who just had babies meeting for the first time, you could have parents and their grown child, you could have parents with their kids heading off to BC and they’ve come on break,” she said.  “It’s mind-boggling. I think it’s just the nature of the place—everybody feels like it’s their spot.”

Featured Image by Aneesa Wermers/Heights Staff

February 17, 2020