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AUSTIN — For a man who loved Westerns, John Clark could sling hash as fast as an Old West sheriff could sling a gun.
That’s why friends and coworkers called him the “fastest cook in Austin,” and why so many customers returned again and again to the comfortable food served each weekday, mornings through lunches, at Johnny’s Skillet in Austin.
For 40 years, Clark owned and operated restaurants in Austin first opening the Main Event in 1982 and years later moving into the space that currently holds Johnny’s Skillet in 2009. Johnny’s Skillet is located at 107 11th Ave. NE in Austin.
Clark died unexpectedly on Oct. 26, at the age of 77 leaving behind a legacy not only as the quickest cook in Austin but a strong-hearted man of the community that provided a home away from home for friends and family with his restaurants.
“We would eat dinner there, we’d gather as a family to eat there, and we went to celebrate birthdays, and have get-togethers with other family members that came out of town,” said Briana Clark, one of John Clark’s two daughters. “My dad was always cooking for everyone.”
People had all different types of favorite dishes that John Clark made for them over the years, but he was best know in Austin for cooking fantastic breakfast meals.
Terry Plath, an Austin resident who had known John Clark dating back to his teenage years, became a regular at his restaurants over the years. Plath has made a habit being the first one in when Johnny’s Skillet opens at 7 a.m. each morning.
“John cooked the best sausage, biscuits & gravy, omelets, you name it,” Plath said. “Since I’m an early riser, I would always call around 6:30 a.m. to see if I could stop in before they’d open. John would welcome me in, I’d bring my own coffee and we’d sit out by the front entrance, talk about the day and watch the hummingbirds feed before the breakfast rush.”
“It’s the hidden gem of Austin,” said Walter Baldus, owner of the building that houses Johnny’s Skillet. “What makes this place so unique is the great service from Jen and the rest of the staff are as good as they are thanks to John’s compassion he shared with everyone in cooking and in life.”
Jen Johnson, a lifetime restaurant server who has worked at Johnny’s Skillet for over a decade. As the restaurant reopened this week for the first time since John Clark’s passing, Johnson has shared memories and stories with regulars as they return to the restaurant for the first time without John Clark present. She said it has been a helpful way for the community to heal from his loss for all he gave back to them.
“I’ve worked in all types of restaurants over the years and little cafes like this are the best because of the space and personality,” said Johnson. “I’ve always called this place ‘Cheers without the beers’ because the more people come in and they get to know each other, it just keeps them coming back where everyone knows your name.”
Johnny’s Skillet was and still is a gathering place for all types of people in Austin from plumbers, farmers, breakfast crews, and even a group of World War II veterans who still meet once a month at Johnny’s to this day. John Clark also embedded himself deeply into the Austin community.
According to Johnson, he would always be searching for local businesses to support, donating to local cancer research and the Austin High School baseball team as well.
After a long morning’s work at the restaurant cooking and serving all the people of Austin possible, Clark liked to unwind in the afternoons by going on drives and being in nature bird watching as shared by Johnson. But before he would go on these drives, he would sit down in front of the TV located at Johnny’s Skillet bar seating and watch old Western TV shows.
“That’s where we likened his fastest cooking in Austin to the tropes of being the fastest gun in the west,” said Johnson.
The future for Johnny’s Skillet remains certain as Briana Clark and her siblings, Brent Clark and Tara Aldrich, take ownership of the restaurant. Johnson and all other employees will remain at the restaurant to help keep the consistency of the establishment with John Clark’s passing.
“It’s been such a short amount of time. The three good employees that he trained and we will be keeping them and they’re a big part of it as well. It was his life and he just loved it and we’re so grateful that he had many years enjoying doing what he loved to do and having this family as a part of it,” said Briana Clark.
Johnny’s Skillet will remain open from its normal hours of 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and closed on weekends.
107 11th Ave NE, Austin, MN 55912