The tiny building off Broadway Diner has been a part of the Columbia community since 1938 and under the ownership of David Johnson's family since 1989. The retro restaurant is probably familiar to anyone who's lived in Columbia. As important as the eatery is to the town, the town itself is even more important to Johnson and his family.
Johnson says by trying to make people's days just a little bit better, he's made himself better . Johnson talked with us about his history with the diner and why his relationship with customers is so important to him.
How did you start running the diner?
My dad had another diner, so it seems like my family’s always been involved in the restaurant and hospitality business. So I grew up doing that. It wasn’t what I had wanted to do my whole life, but I certainly enjoyed it. I was away at school, and I was working at the diner part time, — working nights and going to school at Lincoln in Jefferson City — and my brother was killed in a car accident. My dad was unable to come back to work, and a few years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and so through a series of life events this became my calling. A part-time gig to get through the winter turned into a 40-year career.
What does that mean to you to have the diner be a family business?
It means the world to me. Especially in a community like ours that’s so compassionate and so caring, so welcoming and affirming. So many major life events for me and my family happened through that diner and included the generosity and compassion of mid-Missourians. They are such a source of strength, and by they, I mean not just customers but customers who have become friends, become family — and that’s pretty much anyone who’s ever walked in that door. As many times as they’ve shared great sadness — and more importantly happy times with us — we’ve been able to do the same with others. I think that’s really what makes this world go round, is looking out for each other.
What are some of the little, daily things about working at the diner that you enjoy?
My customers not only are there regularly, but at a certain set time if they’re considered a regular. It’s probably a daily and an hourly arrival that we’re looking for. So it’s not that they’re scheduled, but I can kind of plan my day on who I’m going to see next. So that’s kind of fun. And of course if someone doesn’t show up, or if you don’t see someone for a day or two you worry and wonder, you check in on them. You get to be a community.
So it sounds like you’ve developed a lot of friendships with your customers.
Certainly. I don’t think that’s anything new in my business. My dad’s been in the hospital for the better part of four or five months and the customers have been fantastic. He also hasn’t worked for about seven or eight years. So he has a small handful of friends that he used to sit and visit with at the restaurant that still check in on him at the hospital. That’s just pretty awesome to see, and to be a part of.
Can you tell me about one of those life events?
We, at one time, we had to move the diner. We had lost the ground under the diner, the whole location. It meant so much to me and my family to see the community come out. We had to pull the building off the property and cross Providence Road in the middle of the night because Providence is a state highway. The community came down and walked the diner parade style to the new location and were there during the three months it took to get us up and running again. People were bringing us coffee, or pie, whatever throughout the day. Just stopping by and visiting and making sure we would be reopening. But there have been many instances of that.
What’s it like running a diner in a college town?
Homecomings are always incredible. Part of the cool thing about being in a college town is there’s always a dad’s weekend, there’s always an alumni weekend, there’s always someone coming back to Columbia for some odd reason who graduated 30 years ago and stops in. It happens almost every day. It’s really cool to hear old stories, or reconnect with students you were close to 20 or 30 years ago. Or better yet, I’ve seen it happen now, a couple times now, where students that were graduating or getting close to graduating when we first bought the place are turning up with their own kids who are legacy kids at Mizzou, and they want to bring them in and introduce them to the diner and staff.
Is there anything you want to say to the people of Columbia?
I am completely awestruck and humbled to be nominated. This is shocking. I don’t know who else is on that list but this community is full of people who are way more deserving than me. I’ve never been part of a better community than Columbia, Missouri. There are good folks here — the best.