Dining With Denise Neil

Local restaurant owner has one last idea to save his business

Johnny B’s will close at the end of April, and in May, its owner will replace it with a new concept. But he’s asking customers to tell him what that should be.
Johnny B’s will close at the end of April, and in May, its owner will replace it with a new concept. But he’s asking customers to tell him what that should be.

Willie Lusk says he’s tried everything to keep his Johnny B’s burger restaurant alive in Haysville.

He’s tried adding breakfast. He’s tried adding Mexican food. He paid to air NFL games. He partnered with a local elementary school to offer freebie coupons.

But nothing has brought sustained business to his restaurant, which he’s run off and on at 240 N. Main in Haysville since 2007.

So now he’s trying a new approach. Lusk is asking his customers to tell him what kind of restaurant they want, and by late May, he’ll switch up his concept and give it to them.

Lusk, who grew up in Haysville, first bought Johnny B’s from the original owner in 2007. After going through a divorce in 2011, he had to close it. But when he married his current wife, Amanda, he decided he missed the restaurant and reopened in 2014, serving fresh-made burgers and hand-cut fries.

In December, Lusk warned loyal customers via Facebook that he may have to close if business didn’t improve. It did for a bit but then fell back off, and the additions he tried didn’t lure people in.

He’s facing two main problems, he said.

One is that Haysville is a tough town for restaurants. It doesn’t have a lot of shopping or entertainment destinations, so Haysville residents often drive to Wichita for that – and usually dine out while there, he said. That same issue keeps outsiders from wandering in to town and coming across new restaurants. Lusk said he was surprised how many of his loyal customers suggested he just move his business elsewhere.

“Haysville’s a very tough market,” he said. “It makes it hard. I don’t blame Haysville, by any means. I understand the dynamic.”

And it doesn’t help, he said, that several big burger chains operate right beside him. Bionic Burger is across the street, and McDonald’s is two doors down.

“I can’t compete on advertising budget. I can’t compete on price. I can’t make a burger for what McDonald’s makes it for, unfortunately. It makes it real hard to be competitive,” he said. “We decided that in order to be successful, I have to be something different.”

So Lusk has decided to put out a comment box, and during April, he’ll collect suggestions from customers about what type of food they’d like to have in Haysville. Then, at the end of May, he’ll remodel and change the concept.

Some of the leading contenders so far, he said, are a fried chicken/diner kind of place or a small buffet restaurant. But he’s open to other ideas, too.

The comment box will be out this weekend, when Lusk also will be offering a special: Single hamburger combos will be $3, doubles will be $4 and triples will be $5.

Lusk and his wife, who have eight children between them, love Haysville and want to stay. But if his new concept doesn’t work out, he said, they may consider moving their business elsewhere.

“We’re very connected to community,” he said. “We like the town, and we like the small-town feel.”

Johnny B’s hours through late May will be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

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