Turning lemons into vodka lemonade: Liquid Johnny's spruces up during closure
Every year since Brian James and his wife Marie Street purchased Liquid Johnny's – a West Allis pub and grill that's been around since 1981 – the couple have invested 5 percent of annual sales back into the building.
"It's always been important to us that we make the place better and better for our customers," says James.
The couple bought the business in 2015 and since then, have put in a new parking lot, new kitchen appliances including a low-energy deep fryer and purchased new bar stools, table tops, patio furniture and more.
2020 was going to be the same as previous years: James planned to work on designated upgrades during his off time, which falls between 2:30 and 10 a.m. But then COVID-19 hit requiring the bar to close and suddenly James had plenty of day and evening hours to make improvements.
"We made the best of it and we got a lot done," says James.
Since March, James, with the help of a couple of friends and contractors, has completed multiple year's worth of projects. The bar has a completely new look after James and friends ripped the carpeting off the front and replaced it with different types of wood. They also built a step around the bottom and placed moveable plexiglass on the bar top to create a safe barrier between patrons and bartenders.
The back bar was partially refinished and James plans to do more restoration in the future. For now he added new mirrors, upgraded the original coolers and added two vintage Schlitz lamps / statues.
Liquid Johnny's also recently received new entrance doors, a tin-like ceiling and circulation fans. Both the rest rooms were remodeled with new sinks and handmade beer tiles on the walls crafted by Street. There's also a new urinal in the men's room that's constructed from beer kegs.
James also masterminded changes to the layout of the long-and-narrow space. He added a collapsible partition and fold-down tables to accommodate all of his customers which range from early evening diners to late-night dart players and drinkers.
After the mandatory shutdown was lifted, Liquid Johnny's reopened for only a few hours at a time and has slowly expanded its hours as the staff feels more comfortable. The current capacity is 19 people, but they also have patio seating.
"During the shutdown, the community bought so many fish fries that our Fridays met last year's numbers – and that's without selling alcohol," says James. "It kept us alive."
Liquid Johnny's once again offers its full menu, except on Fridays when they focus on fish fries and often sell 400 or more in a single evening. "Considering our kitchen is probably smaller than your closet, that's pretty impressive," says James.
James, a fan of the Star Wars character Yoda, has both obvious and subtle references to the wise green guy throughout the bar. The Liquid Johnny's logo is abstractly shaped like Yoda's head, there are Yoda masks hanging above the door and there's even a Yoda beer tapper – made by a customer – that dispenses special "LJ's" beer.
James says he inherited both his appreciation for Yoda and many Yoda items from his stepdad after he passed away. "I brought in a couple more Yodas during the shutdown," says James. "It's fun for the customers."
James already has big plans for his 2021 projects, but for now, he's ready to shift his focus.
"I'm tapped out on remodeling and now just happy to have a safe and slow reopening," says James.
Liquid Johnny's is currently open Monday-Thursday from 2 to 10 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is expanding hours in phases and will soon be open until midnight and eventually until bar time. Liquid Johnny's offers dine-in, carry-out and has a patio for outdoor dining.
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