Fledgling modern rocker; successful restaurateur; adviser to one of Detroit's hottest young bands; husband and proud father of two. Ferndale resident Chris Johnston has worn so many hats that he's probably got permanent hat-head. But he probably doesn't mind showing off…at least a little bit.
As co-owner of Ferndale's Woodward Avenue Brewers (or the WAB, as it's known on the streets), sister bar/restaurant the Emory, ex-member of Lansing area coulda-been-huge alt.rockers 19 Wheels, owner of Redspot Management – home to Detroit-rock powerhouses the Hard Lessons -- and most recently a co-conspirator in opening the Fern's fancy new pool hall in the Loving Touch, the man sure does have a lot to crow about.
But Johnston is hardly the bragging, hard partying, wheeling-and-dealing, expensive-shirt-unbuttoned-to-the-middle-of-his-chest type of entrepreneur. Self-described as a quiet guy, Johnston's mornings rarely start with him nursing a hangover and applying the spray-on tan. Instead, he's up and at-em early, tending to his two daughters, Ruby, 6, and Mabel, just only five-months-old, and off to work by 8 a.m. Doesn't sound like the kind of guy you'd expect to own a bunch of bars with a six-string strapped to his back, does it?
"Our oldest daughter loves to come to work and 'help out.' She also loves to see the Hard Lessons. The fact that I don't work in a uranium processing plant makes it pretty easy to involve the entire family. I couldn't imagine a life any more fulfilling than the one I've got."
But like a lot of burgeoning, motivated, do-it-yourselfers, Johnston's road to that fulfilling life he speaks of wasn't cleared with handouts and trust fund checks. Indeed, unlike folks who just seem to be bursting at the seams with money, Johnston started at humble beginnings, and had lots of help from friends and family along the way.
Growing up in Birmingham (Okay, maybe he wasn't pandering on the streets for cash), Johnston's first love was racing BMX bikes. As he tells it, "I loved it; traveling all across the country racing. I was even sponsored by a bike company based out of California for a little while. My dad and my older brother began making frames, and I handled the business side of that small company and loved that, too."
By his freshman year of college, Johnston was racing and sponsored a team while studying Finance at Michigan State University. "I think I enjoyed the camaraderie and travel as much as anything else. It was good practice for being in a band," he says.
Yes, yes…that mesmerizing beast we call rock 'n roll. Like a lot of college kids looking for something else to occupy their time besides boring things like studying and writing term papers, Johnston was bitten by the music bug – and hard. He started his first band, the Hannibals, at MSU in 1988; six years later came the moderately successful 19 Wheels, and soon Johnston was sweating it out in a van, touring the country, livin' the dream.
Around the same time, after visiting a micro-brewery in Denver, the idea of opening one of his own started sharing some headspace with all of his new songs.
"The chances of starting a restaurant, and a band reaching any sort of critical mass are both probably in the 'less than 5% category.' Somehow I found myself holding onto both of them, not to mention a new wife." Chris and his wife Krista were married in August of 1996; Chris left for a tour a week after their honeymoon. In fact, he was in the middle of a two-month tour the day the WAB opened.
Located right on Woodward Ave., in the heart of Ferndale's bar and club scene, the WAB opened its doors on March 24, 1997, with the help of his wife, Johnston's brother Grant, and his business partner Brian Reedy. Formally a dance studio, and before that the infamous Loving Touch massage parlor, the WAB has since become one of Ferndale's most popular destinations for eat, drink, and good times. Getting it off the ground, however, wasn't so easy.
"Our legal name is The Eleven Mile Brewery Inc. We had found a building that we were looking to buy on 11 Mile in Oak Park. As we got moved along in the negotiation process someone informed us that Oak Park was a dry city. Scratch that. We were so bummed."
After some more searching, the young business partners finally settled on the WAB's current location, moved in, and issued not only an overhaul of the building's insides, but also a retooling of how to approach promoting their new venture.
Johnston says, "When we built it and got it running, we were the age of our core audience. That helped in lot of ways; we knew what we liked and we had a lot of friends who helped support us and spread the word. We also have extremely supportive families. Risky ventures like rock and rock and roll and the restaurant biz aren't the kind of things typical moms and dads high five you over. And like rock and roll, parents just don't understand microbreweries. But that didn't waiver their support one bit. My mother now drinks beer even."
Which is a good thing, because Johnston has given his mother -- as well as the rest of us – various options as to where to indulge our beer drinking tastes along Woodward Ave. March of 2006 saw the opening of the Emory, a sort of sister bar to the WAB (it's right across the street) that was, as Johnston puts it, designed as "a place we would hang out at." The Emory also encapsulates many of the themes that have become predominant in Johnston's life – family, community, and recycled goods. Johnston's wife Krista is seen regularly running the show at the Emory, the buns for their burgers come straight from Hermann's in Royal Oak, and the hardwood behind the bar was recycled from family owned woods harvested back in the mid-1980s.
Now, Johnston is set to open a new venture, again with wife Krista, brother Grant and Brian Reedy; a pool hall they call the Loving Touch – in homage to the WAB's former tenants -- located smack dab next to the WAB, furthering the Johnston family's growing empire along Woodward Ave.
On the day we visited Johnston, members of his family were, fittingly, seated in a booth in the Emory, enjoying a nice surprise lunch. Johnston excused himself and happily took us over to the still unfinished Loving Touch – which he hopes to open in conjunction with Ferndale's DIY Festival at the end of September -- to show us around a bit. Walking in, Johnston's attention to detail and his patented unifying themes became abundantly clear. Near the back of the bar is a living plant wall, and above it, a beautiful skylight. The bar-top is connected by jigsaw puzzle pieces; original pieces of furniture, designed and built by Reedy, lay about the floor in various stages of completion. Johnston tells us all the wood for the benches are from Ferndale trees, and that there will be booths surrounding the seven pool tables, to promote the community aspect of hanging out with friends, shooting some pool for fun. Needless to say, we're not surprised.
"Everything I'm a part of seems to fit together somehow," Johnston says. "Having a common ground is a great way to build new relationships. I'm also lucky in the fact that I try to do good things for people. With as many circles as I swim in, the jig would be up quickly if I had a bad reputation. My experiences help open doors, and that's about it. But that's about all I could ever ask for. I want to earn success on every venture I do based on performance not coat tails."
Not to worry Chris. Seems like you've got something of a loving touch around these parts.
Ryan Allen is a Ferndale-based writer, whose work has appeared in the Metro Times, Real Detroit Weekly, and Detour-Mag.com.
Another day at the office for rocker-restaurateur, Chris Johnston - Ferndale
Chris Johnston - Ferndale
Outdoor seating at the WAB - Ferndale
The Emory - Ferndale
The much anticipated opening of the Loving Touch pool hall - FerndaleAll photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.