Last Friday Johnny’s Bar and Grill new owner Peter Lago was on the road to Gilroy to buy two new filing cabinets for his new bookkeeper. One of his cooks was in jail. His credit card machine was on the fritz, and the replacement was lost in the mail.
It was a week that many bar and restaurant owners can sympathize with, but the restaurateur from Hawaii should be used to challenges, and a little bit of trouble, after four months of finalizing the deal to buy the iconic mecca of bikerdom that’s Johnny’s Bar and Grill.
On New Year’s Eve, before the calendar flipped, former owner Cherisse Tyson held a formal key transfer ceremony at Johnny’s, celebrating her end and Lago’s beginning as the bar’s owner. The ceremony, as it turned out, was a bit premature, but after four months of negotiations and some sentimental severing of ties, Lago became the official owner of Johnny’s Bar and Grill on April 1.
“Initially the purchase price was $500,000, which at the time, I thought included the building,” Lago said. “It was a big part of the deal and a large assumption to make on my part. I assumed that it was all included based on the condition of the bar. Eventually, we settled on $250,000 for the bar with $50,000 up front.”
What would Johnny’s Bar and Grill be without a little bit of trouble? For many of its patrons, those who ride and those who don’t, the mystique of trouble is mixed with the fun and charm of Johnny’s, and the mix of dive bar atmosphere, with cold beer, hot burgers and Bad Company on the jukebox keeps people coming back.
“It’s a dive bar full of history,” Lago said. “But there are mechanical aspects of the bar that needed to be repaired, like the plumbing and the refrigerators. The theme does not need to change much. We changed a few things around the bar, but I consider myself a custodian of history.”
In many ways, Lago personifies the motorcyclist drive for freedom. Lago was born in New York and moved to Las Vegas as a young child. He’s been in constant motion since birth. Lago has been many things in his life. He’s been a concert promoter, a forester, a recording studio owner, a firearms instructor, and now, a bar owner.
“I get bored easily,” Lago said. “Jobs get repetitive, and you only have one life to live. You can master most jobs in three months, and once you master it, it’s time to move on.”
The bar which becAme world famous as the Birthplace of the American Biker—the epicenter of the famous 1947 Hollister “Riot” that inspired the American Motorcyclist Association to coin the term “One-Percenters,” a designation of what they saw as the 1 percent of bikers who were outlaws.
A dramatized telling of the Hollister Riot was later chiseled into American folklore in the 1953 film “The Wild One” where Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Johnny Strabler helped turn the American biker into an oft-misunderstood cultural icon.
“I had a comfortable condo in Maui, and like lots of guys, I had a man cave,” Lago said. “I had lots of stuff on the wall, including some framed photos of the events that happened in 1947 in Hollister.”
As a motorcyclist, Lago dreamed of landing his Harley 215 Street Caster in San Diego for a tour of the Western United States. He planned to hit stops all the way from the coast to the annual Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis South Dakota. Hollister happened to be one of the stops along the way.
“I had a buddy hanging out one day, and he noticed the pictures; he asked if I had ever been out to Hollister,” Lago said. “He told me his sister owned the bar. He told me she needed some help doing security or the rally. I worked security for Cherisse in 2003, 2005, and several other times. I’ve known the family for 15 years.”
In 2015 Lago moved to Tiburon California, where he worked as post-production for the documentary Mayan Revelations: Decoding Baktun. While in the state he came back to Hollister to record Tyson’s audiobook. Then in 2017, Tyson broached the idea of selling the bar to Lago.
While Tyson initiated the negotiations when the time came to let go of Johnny’s, it was hard for her to completely sever ties.
“When she was ready to let go, she let go,” Lago said. “Before that, it was like fighting a horse.”