Wes Johnson of Buckhead's. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Wes Johnson of Buckhead’s. | Photo by Steve Coomes.

Here we sit with restaurant personalities for chats over their restaurant’s favorite dishes and drinks. What better way to learn about their philosophies of food and beverage than over a meal of their choosing, right?

At 50 years old, Wes Johnson has logged more years in the restaurant business than many invest into two careers. At 13, he began working with his father, a multi-state Blue Boar cafeteria franchisee. The experience taught him the valuable basics of guest engagement and wholesome food prepared from scratch.

Those lessons never left him, even when he turned to a career in electrical engineering. But he soon realized the job lacked the daily variety of the restaurant business and returned to that industry.

Fast-forward to 1995, when he and business partner Mike Kapfhammer bought Buckhead Bar from Kent Taylor (who then was developing a new concept called Texas Roadhouse). The two men wanted a restaurant more than a bar, so they opened Buckhead Mountain Grill in Bardstown Road’s Gardiner Lane Shopping Center that same year.

Three years later, they opened the sprawling riverside Buckhead in Jeffersonville, followed by another in Bellevue, Ky. A second Louisville outlet opened on Westport Road but since has closed. The duo also bought the once-humble Rocky’s Sub Pub and moved it into another expansive riverside facility next to Buckhead. A smaller, fast-casual Rocky’s operates near the Bardstown Road Buckhead.

Buckhead Management Group was doing exceptionally well when its original Jeffersonville restaurant caught fire, forcing a lengthy shutdown that left Johnson and Kapfhammer scurrying to find work for 350 employees. It was one of the toughest challenges of Johnson’s life, yet it may have been the most rewarding because of how his employees helped their peers. That spirit of generosity, Johnson said, is largely why he’s still excited about the restaurant business today.

But the current Ohio River Bridges Project … that’s a new challenge.

Insider Louisville: So your family operated Blue Boar here? I bet you get lots of stories from locals.

Wes Johnson: Most are positive, but some people think, “Blue Boar,” and have this concept of cafeteria food, as if that’s only negative. But in the beginning of it, there was no pre-made anything. Everything was made from scratch. It’s what we do here (at Buckhead).

My family had 13 Blue Boars: six here, five in Memphis, one in Lexington and one in Nashville. We were busy.

IL: I suppose that influenced the simplicity of the food at Buckhead?

WJ: We’re not fancy here, but we don’t need to be. We work hard to make our food really good and price it attractively. When you take care to do the little things, people notice and the food tastes better.

This chicken pot pie is a great example: all hand made. There’s no frozen stuff thrown into a mold. We just put fried chicken on the menu because it was popular (as a special). All fresh, never frozen, and I think you can taste that. “Comfort food” is an overused phrase, but we do a lot of it.

And that margarita you’re drinking: I’m more a beer drinker, but if I’m sitting down with a friend at 2 in the afternoon to have a drink, this is a good one. All the juice used in that is fresh squeezed.

IL: It sounds like view your restaurants as well positioned in their niches.

WJ: Nobody’s going to write about us being cutting edge with our food, but that’s OK, because it’s not what our customers want. And we’re busy. That says something. We can seat as many as 650 people in the summer when we’re open outside. This is a big restaurant, and we’ve got to fill it. So we buy good food and craft beer and price them competitively. Here, we make money $15 at a time.

IL: From value- and quality conscious customers, I assume?

WJ: Yes, and that’s why I’m really concerned about the new bridges. Are people really going to come here from Louisville anymore and pay a toll each way when the average check is $15?

We’ve got traffic congestion because a million people live around here. Just a fact of life. Compare us to any big city, and they’re so much worse off. So is a new bridge going to solve that problem? It could help. But we’ve got two coming, and the one in the East End won’t even be convenient to use for the people who live out there.

And how will tolls pay for the new bridges when people are just going to take the free bridges already in use?

So, do I think it’s going to hurt business for us? Yeah, I do. How could it not? I shouldn’t even get started on this.

IL: Ever make you think you wished you’d stayed in electrical engineering?

WJ: No. No! Once I got into electrical engineering, I figured out that it’s not a very people-oriented field — and I like being around people a lot. So I started working for my dad (Gene Johnson) again, and a few years later, he retired and I was running that business.

Oh, this business is harder than it’s ever been, but mostly because costs are so much higher than they were 20 years ago. But the challenges with customers and employees are all the same, and I think I have a knack for that part of it. Especially the service aspect. Overall, you have to have a passion for restaurants; it has to be in your blood.

IL: Especially to come back after such a terrible event as the fire here in 2011.

WJ: The fire was devastating. We were closed for 18 weeks, so our employees were out of work at Christmastime. Plus, we had lots of holiday parties scheduled that we had to cancel.

We were very fortunate to find spots for a lot of long-term employees. Some moved to Bellevue to work at Buckhead, or they worked at Bardstown Road or Rocky’s. We had some bartenders and servers who gave up shifts to help others, and we had present drives and donations to make sure our staffs were taken care of. I was so proud of my employees for what they did then.

IL: How bad was the damage?

WJ: The night of the fire, I walked inside with a flashlight, looked around and thought, “This isn’t too bad. We’ll be open in a week.” It was so much worse. We had to peel off every surface because of smoke and water damage. Rebuilding was all hands on deck almost 24 hours a day for 18 weeks. To get that done was a minor miracle.

IL: Is it fair to say craft beer has become a calling card for Buckhead and Rocky’s?

WJ: Craft beer is a big thing for us. When we put 18 on draft at our place in 1995, that was the largest draft selection in the city. Now we have 42 on tap (at Buckhead Jeffersonville) and 34 next door (at Rocky’s). That’s a major difference between us and casual dining chains. We’re a craft beer destination.

IL: The beer app tablets are fantastic. I’m surprised others aren’t copying it.

WJ: I’m really proud of them because they solved the problem of curating the number of beers we do and keeping up with what was new and what ran out. We knew there was this number of beer aficionados who wanted to know everything about their beers, and there was this larger group that wanted help picking a beer. It’s really enhanced the service experience.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQj5PRhJHj0]

But I’m most proud of my employees. Most of them are longtime employees, and some have been here since we opened. They’ve come up with some of the best ideas, like the beer app and our Thunder Over Louisville parties. You’ve got to be creative to differentiate yourself in this business.

Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.


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