My favorite breakfast place in the world is The Coffee Pot. What’s not to love? The food is fabulous, the menu interesting, the location full of character and charm, and the service is dependably friendly and efficient. So, I decided to meet with owners, Julie Zorn and Janis Barnhil to find out the secret of their success.
I followed them through the kitchen to their cluttered little backroom office to listen to their stories punctuated with free-flowing laughter.
The original building, constructed in the 1920’s, first served as a haberdashery, becoming a restaurant in the 1930’s. It’s not hard to picture what a busy little place it must have been back when factories and warehouses lined the lakeshore.
The iconic neon sign which still hangs on the front of the building today was made by a Milwaukee company and is believed to be the first neon sign in Kenosha and one of the very first in the entire state.
Janis and Julie both came from large families and have known each other since high school. They have had several jobs together, including being cooks at Camp Nicolet, cleaning homes, and running their own cleaning business. Not surprisingly, they both like to cook and their families often shared meals together.
In 2004, when Julie was a mental health tech and Janis was doing clerical work, they were toying with the idea of doing something different. That’s about the time Janis’ dad saw the for-sale sign in the little diner’s window.
When they opened the diner under new management on December 13th, 2004, several people warned them about becoming partners, fearing that it would ruin a life-long friendship. But they forged ahead with a keen appreciation of how their individual skills complement each other.
I asked how many disagreements they have had in the last twelve years, Julie quickly replied, “Two, one early and one recently”. Neither of them could remember what the first one was about, but it lasted five minutes and it was over.
Before opening, they enlarged the dining area and reconfigured the counter. It’s hard to believe the original little diner used to also contain a living room and bedroom.
After a hard day at the diner, they used to go outside, out of sight, and relax with a glass of wine. One day it occurred to them maybe they could do something with the little unsightly side lot so other people could enjoy eating outdoors, too.
The appropriately named, Garden of Eatin’, began on an uneven surface with an ugly green bar out of someone’s basement and some plastic tables. They purchased garbage cans and horse troughs for planters, because whiskey barrels were too expensive. Today it is a truly lovely and popular place to dine in the warmer months.
About a year ago, just as Julie and Janice were both considering how much longer they wanted to continue as business owners and managers, Janice ran into the owner of the adjacent building out on the sidewalk. She casually mentioned that she was selling the building.
By four o’clock that evening their offer was accepted and they closed on the property within a month. That is how The Kenosha Room and The Coffee Pot Inn were born, both of which were extensively remodeled. Now their seating had tripled from the original dining area and they became the proprietors of a three-bedroom, single apartment B & B.
Julie and Janis repeatedly mentioned that they are making it up as they go and the business seems to have a life of its own.
The Coffee Pot ladies, both praised their staff because they know how hard the work is. They agreed their most difficult management responsibility has been having to let an employee go, even though it has been a rare occurrence. One of their basic requirements is treating both customers and fellow staff members with kindness and respect.
In January, the diner became the setting for a CBS Inauguration Day special, a Norwegian Public Television news show, and a Milwaukee TV station segment covering Restaurant Week. They were totally surprised by all the attention.
I almost forgot, here is their recipe for their success, equal parts: quality food, good service, and treating people with kindness. Pretty simple, but very effective.
This post was a originally a column in the Kenosha News a few months back.