By Sarah Pridgeon
It’s all hands on deck right now in the old Aro building as new owners Joni and Bob Latham transform it into Joni J’s Sports Bar and Restaurant. Once renovations are complete, the couple hopes to swing open the doors and start serving food in May.
It’s a brand new look for the restaurant, which once sported two similar dining areas. As Joni J’s, it will be split into two sections, each with its own distinct feel.
“There will be a 22-foot bar so that, if you’re eating alone, you can eat at the bar and don’t have to sit at a table. There will be a sports bar with televisions,” Joni says.
The bar side of the restaurant will be sports-themed but rustic, says Latham, with décor celebrating everything from basketball to football as well as, in the near future, tributes to local EMS and fire volunteers. On the entry side of the building, the smaller eating area will continue to be a quiet, family-oriented dining room, she adds.
“That way, we’re still catering to the people who want to come in, sit down and eat,” she says. “Where we removed the front part, we have even more room.”
The menu will focus on traditional, home-cooked favorites such as chicken fried steak and burgers with brown and cream gravy both available all day.
“Everything will be homemade. There will be soup and chili every day and also specials that aren’t normally on the menu,” Joni says.
Personal pies will be available for dessert – “You can have a whole pie for yourself,” Joni grins – while cinnamon rolls and other treats will be available for diners with a sweet tooth. The breakfast menu will meanwhile include items such as biscuits and gravy, eggs, French toast and pancakes, while free coffee will also be served.
“It will be breakfast, lunch and dinner every day,” she says. “We’ll be open from 6 o’clock every morning.”
The focus is on creating a restaurant with familiar, down-to-earth choices, Joni says.
“We didn’t want to compete with the Longhorn, where they have a specialty menu. We want to just do regular food,” she says.
“The specialty food is wonderful and they do such a great job up there, but we needed somewhere where you could just eat a regular cheeseburger and fries or a chicken fried steak.”
The Lathams have received plenty of interest from potential staff members and its family is already starting to come together, Joni says. The team will be headed up by cook Laura Newell, who has previously worked at the Log Cabin, Higbee’s and the Aro itself.
“I’ve got the best cook in town and a pretty good crew started already – it’s exciting,” says Joni.
“We’ve had several people apply already for jobs. We’re still in need of some waitresses but we have cooks and dishwashers and a really good staff going on.”
Alongside the family, some of those staff members have had a hand in the restaurant’s transformation.
“Everybody who’s working on it is going to have so much invested in it that they’re really going to want it see it to succeed. Renee, our head waitress, has been cleaning and scrubbing like a crazy person,” Joni smiles.
Before opening day, the ceiling must be finished, the bar added, coolers installed and the fire suppression system completed. Hoping that all these items will be ticked off the list soon, Joni expects to start ordering in food next week.
As far as an opening date, the Lathams have yet to pin down a precise day, but are definitely aiming for May.
“We’re going to put a big sign up that says, yes, we’re open once we can open the doors and let people come in,” Joni smiles.
The Longhorn Saloon and Grill
When a business changes ownership, it’s good to know you’re in safe hands. That’s certainly the case for the Longhorn Saloon, where co-owner Charity McLaughlin has been a familiar face for many years.
“I’ve been here since Jay and Resann owned the place – I worked for them from the very beginning. I guess it was my turn,” she smiles.
McLaughlin took over the restaurant along with husband Josh. While the Longhorn will retain its familiar menu and ambience, one or two small things will change along with the owners.
“We’ve changed up the menu a little bit. We’ve changed a couple of sandwiches and we have a new buffalo sirloin steak,” McLaughlin says.
“We may try to do a couple of bands out on the patio in the summer, keep that going, and we’ve added breakfast on the weekends.”
The breakfast menu will be available from 8 to 11 a.m. on weekends and includes such choices as omelets, biscuits and country gravy and breakfast tortillas, each with its own Longhorn spin.
The saloon will also now be offering berry wine and has added a new computer point-of-sales system that is more user friendly for the staff and makes it easier to add and change menu items, McLaughlin says. Other than that, it’s business as usual for the eatery, including its participation in community events such as the Christmas raffle drawings.
Transitioning from staff to owner was unexpected for McLaughlin, but welcome.
“It just kind of came about. We are really good friends with the Pixleys and it just came up and we said sure, we’ll give it a shot,” she says.
It was a strange feeling for those first few days, McLaughlin says, walking into the place she has worked for so many years and knowing that, now, it’s her very own business. Stranger still to walk into the boss’s office and see her own chair and computer waiting for her.
“It’s something you’ve got to get used to a little bit,” she laughs.
For Josh, the feeling was rather different, she continues.
“My husband is going to keep his job at the Buckskin coal mine, but he usually has half the month off with how their shift work goes,” she says.
“I think he’s probably more excited than me! For me, it’s normal to be here, but for him it’s new and exciting and he’s definitely jumped in with both feet.”