Chris Johnston Brings His Loving Touch to Downtown Ferndale

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.


Photos:

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 – Ferndale

All photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.