Surviving Shutdown

Surviving Shutdown

Hospitality still thrives in Homewood at Johnny’s Restaurant 

Words by Lucy Graves

Johnny’s Restaurant is a Southern and Greek meat ‘n’ three located in the heart of downtown Homewood, Alabama. It was standing at the top of the Birmingham food chain holding four James Beard Foundation Best Chef: South nominations in 2020. The restaurant community would soon face a pandemic-induced shutdown that would close dining rooms and the service industry for months.

The Johnny’s dining room would remain closed for almost eight months, yet owner and chef Timothy Hontzas figured out a way to remain open.

“The easiest thing to do in life is quit. I'm not saying it's always hard, but it's not always easy to keep going. A lot of people did quit, and a lot of people were forced out. So, it was my way of saying, ‘I'm going to do what I want to do. I'm gonna try, I'm gonna be creative, and I'm gonna plug away,’ ” said Hontzas.

Johnny’s fully closed for only two days during the pandemic.  

“I came to my staff and said, ‘If y'all wanna do this together, and you wanna do this with me, I'm gonna take care of you,” said Hontzas. The pandemic brought them closer together as a staff and as a family. Only four of Hontzas’ employees stayed with Johnny’s during this time.

“I cooked lunch every day, and we all sat right there,” said Hontzas, pointing at a nearby table in the dining room.

Hontzas switched gears from made-to-order meat and hot vegetables and started making pre-packaged meals to take home and reheat. He had them labeled in different “packs,” such as the Greek pack, the meatloaf pack, and the pot roast pack.

“I carried that Point Of Service system down those stairs every single day, and I sold cold family packs,” said Hontzas. Staff would run meals up and down the stairs instead of their usual table drop-off of hot plates. 

What sets Johnny’s apart from other meat ‘n’ threes, as well as the reason for the many James Beard nominations, are the recipes and commitment to not just good food, but great food. 

“Who else’s meatloaf has 32 ingredients in it? Who else’s BBQ sauce has 28 ingredients in it? It’s very different and chef-crafted from a fine dining experience background,” said Hontzas.

In addition to his Greek upbringing in the kitchen as a cousin of Greek-owned Niki’s West, a historic meat ‘n’ three in North Birmingham, Hontzas also trained in fine dining under legendary chefs John Currence, Chris Hastings, and Rick Kangas.

The Homewood neighborhood supported the small business with open hearts through donations of money, gift cards, and food. 

“I always tell my customers, ‘You’re the reason that I'm here. I'm not here without you.’ I have a relationship with almost all of them. If I don't know your name, I sure as hell know where you sit, and I know what you eat.” 

Right outside the Johnny’s entrance, there’s a piece of blue tape marking how far people could go during the shutdown, blocking it off from the public. It’s fading but still visible.

“It’s emotional when I see that blue tape right there, what we went through, and those people that came out in that time. I try to block all that out until I leave every day, but then I see that tape, and it all comes back.” 

Without the Homewood community, there’s no Johnny’s.

“They're the same reason that we were here before COVID and after and during. They support me. My neighbors support me,” said Hontzas.

As of now, business is booming. There’s a line out the door extending down the street before opening on Sunday mornings, going all the way up to Savage’s Bakery. “I don’t know if it’s a God thing, I don’t know if it’s a James Beard thing, I don’t know if it’s all of the above,” said Hontzas.

“Maybe it was because of how hard we tried. We weren't gonna quit. As Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit sing in their song called Outfit: , we just kept ‘dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.’”

The James Beard Foundation skipped two years of nominations due to the pandemic. In early 2022, Johnny’s was nominated for Best Chef: South for the fifth time and newly nominated for best in Outstanding Hospitality. “That's why the James Beard nomination to me is very different. The nominations were very different this year because we weren't forgotten,” said Hontzas.

Johnny’s will make you feel right at home–the food in your stomach and the hospitality in your heart. If you’re looking for tasty Southern classics or delicious traditional Greek dishes, Johnny’s is the place for you and your family. Just make sure you get there early—the chicken pot pie sells out fast.