By beer joint and upscale dining, Rick & Nancy Renfro continue to serve the community
Rick and Nancy Renfro have been serving the Lawrence community cold beer, good grub, modern cuisine, and lots of love and support for many years.
We were curious how it all came to be. So we sent them some questions, and we are sure glad we did! Learn about their interesting history here in Lawrence… including where they met .
How did it all begin?
It started in 1953 when Johnny Wilson turned his dad’s farm implement store into a local bar. Folklore has it that Slim had already started the process when he set up the backroom for cards and booze. More Johnny’s Tavern history can be found here>
In 2001, we branched out to finer dining and opened Mariscos. It was set up as a Southwestern seafood restaurant which ran its course, as restaurants do. We decided to give it a facelift in 2016. At that time, our food came “back to Kansas” with Modern American cuisine focusing on sustainability and local resources.
The hardest thing about updating a restaurant and its brand is coming up with a name. We made list after list. We asked our staff, friends, family, and remembered the faraway restaurants we loved over the years. What we did know was that the name had to have a reason and a story. With a history dating back to 1953, and a founding father named Johnny, it became obvious. J. Wilson’s was born.
How did Rick and
Nancy get their start?
Prior to any of these adventures, Rick and Nancy started with teenage and college jobs in the industry. Sprinkle in Topsy’s, the Burger Basket, the Eagles Club, Sargent Preston’s, Harbor Lights and Bullwinkles (the disco not the bar) and you’ve got a mish mash of experience and a lot of love for hospitality. With the KU rugby team needing a place to go after the matches, Rick bought Johnny’s in North Lawrence. He met Nancy right there at the bar after a rugby match in 1979.
We like to say that as we grew, so did our tastes and entrepreneurial spirit. We went from a beer joint with a speakeasy upstairs to opening true sports bars to enjoying finer dining over the years. By the way, our son Spencer is now in charge of our beer joint in North Lawrence. He actually started his career at 9 years old, he had to stand on a milk crate to wash dishes. Funny how the little dive bar where we started is his favorite of all.
What is different between Johnny's and J. Wilson's?
At Johnny’s, you get the ’78 Classic cheeseburger, a true classic. At J. Wilson’s, you get the Filet Burger, ground in house from trimmings of our hand butchered steaks. At Johnny’s you get an ice-cold bottle of Bud. At J. Wilson’s you get rotating, local, craft beers on tap. At Johnny’s you get Franzia in a box, at J. Wilson’s you get sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines picked and poured by Bruce Owens, sommelier extraordinaire (and a very fun and entertaining guy).
What is the same at both Johnny’s and J. Wilson’s are the people who keep the food on the tables and the drinks flowing. We can’t do any of this alone. As someone said to me once, “There are a lot of moving parts in a restaurant.” It is literal plate spinning at its best. Rick and co-owner Doug used to be their only employees, sleeping upstairs between shifts. Over the years, Johnny’s has embraced more partners and their families into the Johnny’s / J. Wilson’s family. We blur the lines between family, friends and business every day.
We all love what we do, and hope it shows in everything we do. We’ve learned throughout the years that family and friends are the most important things in our lives. Everyone who wants to be with us is welcome. Everyone gets a chance to grow with us. And we owe it to our community to give back. These are traits we grew up within our own families. Our family kitchen tables were always full of food, drink, conversation, and laughter. It is a value we share in the rugby community and one we carry on into our work lives.
How do you support the community?
We love being a part of Lawrence. We all have fun meeting people in our community, sharing and creating memories, providing great food & service and sharing (currently behind a mask) a big smile and a few laughs. We are glad to provide in-person dining and have redesigned our dining rooms and patios to accommodate guests in the healthiest, safest, and responsible manners possible.
Over the years, Johnny’s North has provided a community place for people meet, raise funds, and to discuss the issues that concern us all.
This year Johnny’s and J. Wilson’s will miss our in-person events like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Taste of Lawrence, Just Food’s Harvest Feast, Imbibe, Margaritas for Margarita, Rev it Up!, Late Night at the Library and many, many more. We look forward to seeing the creative ways our community partners will come together to provide support to those who need it.
We love supporting local charities and being a part of those events inside our doors and out. We’ve been a part of Lawrence for 42 years and look forward to many more.
Support them back!
Both Johnny’s locations and J. Wilson’s are open for business with a commitment to keep you healthy and safe. Not only have they publicly made that commitment by signing the Lawrence Promise, but have been diligent in training their staff, enhancing their cleaning procedures, configuring their dining rooms, opening up more outdoor space, and more! If dining in is not your jam at the moment, they do have to-go options available as well.
The purpose of Unmistakably Us is to share the stories of the people and places that make Lawrence unmistakable. So what is unmistakable to us? Our brand manifesto wraps it up…
Lawrence is your quirky, cool friend who brings fun to the neighborhood. Lawrence works hard and plays hard. Lawrence is both outgoing and welcoming, creating an atmosphere of acceptance and innovation. Its eclectic personality is reminiscent of the proverbial “Renaissance Man,” whose expertise spans a broad range of areas: Education, Arts & Culture, Sports & Social Accomplishments. Lawrence is a catalyst for organic creation and original thought, a lightning rod for cultural change. Its energy is contagious. Like a great film, it leaves you wanting more.
Do you know a Lawrencian or a Lawrence organization that fits that description? Nominate them to be featured on the blog by emailing Andrea Johnson.