Fire Closes JJ’s in Sister Bay

I was making my morning pot of coffee at around 7:10 am today when an Egg Harbor firetruck screamed past my house on Hwy 42 in Fish Creek. My mind flashed to the moment three years ago when I heard sirens at about 5 o’clock the morning of July 10, only to ignore them and go back to sleep.

An hour later I was wakened by my roommate, who told me that Ellison Bay’s Pioneer Store had exploded. A few minutes later I was at the scene, staring at what was left of a Door County icon, and getting news that a mother and father had perished.

Shortly after the sirens of the firetruck faded down the hill this morning I received a text: “JJ’s on fire.” I only hoped the scene wouldn’t be anything close to the tragedy of Ellison Bay. An hour later I was relieved to hear that nobody was hurt, even more-so when I caught site of JJ’s La Puerta, sign still hanging sturdy behind a squadron of firetrucks.

Around back, Jesse Johnson (JJ’s son and the chef at The Waterfront restaurant next door) stood about 30 feet from the back of the restaurant, where flames had ripped through the kitchen and sent smoke billowing into the rooms above. Jesse stood in stunned silence, and only a low murmur could be heard among the 20-some folks gathered on the lawn. Jesse’s Mom Chris walked up a few minutes later, eyes wide but in good humor. “I’ll cry when I get inside,” she said.

Nobody could even guess at the cause, though it obviously originated in the kitchen. JJ, who opened the restaurant in 1978, talked to firefighters as he peered into windows to examine what was left of the kitchen that has fed thousands upon thousands of diners over the years. I moved alongside him, and he barely took his eyes off the building as he spoke. “I don’t know if I have the insurance to cover all this,” he said, and brainstormed aloud about ways to get the place back open.

Like Chris, he joked, and though there were tears shed by a few who milled about, JJ and Chris managed to keep the air a little lighter. Maybe too light, I thought when I left. I arrived with my notebook and a camera, gathering information about a friends’ loss and tragedy. For a half hour or so, I made the mistake of simply covering a story. Since nobody was hurt, I merely gathered facts and reaction. But any business-owner will tell you that it’s but a thin line that separates the person and their business. Running a small business is hard, a restaurant maybe the hardest of all. It’s personal.

JJ, his wife, and their kids took a massive punch to the gut this morning, fortunately the fire was contained, and they dodged the knockout blow to the face. Hopefully they can salvage the dining room and bar, and preserve the memories and a much-loved feel developed over decades.

Whatever the next step is, you know JJ will bring the place back somehow. At 9 am, he was talking about getting his new Jacksonport location cooking for the evening, and Jesse was off to start prepping at The Waterfront.

“We’ve still got one customer,” JJ said, pointing to the roof, where a seagull perched unfazed by the swarm of firemen and ladders.

The rest, surely, will be back as well. Truth be told, they’d probably put up with the smoke.