Johnson’s Corner

In more than 50 years of business, Johnson’s Corner has always moved forward, integrating more services to comfort and help travelers along Colorado’s I-25 corridor. Located halfway between Denver and Cheyenne, it was the first rest stop on the interstate and has never closed its doors.

“Since it opened in 1952, Johnson’s Corner has welcomed travelers of all sorts seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Chauncey Taylor, president and stepson of founder Joe Johnson, said proudly.

Johnson’s Corner even remained open during a two-year complete remodel, starting in November of 2003. Taylor, who took over the business at the request of his mother in 1995, said he understood immediately that changes would have to be made.

After Joe Johnson’s death, Johnson’s Corner was leased to third-party management group that Taylor said neglected basic maintenance and made no investments toward upgrading or improving the building. And, after 50 years of piecemeal expansion, the building was a labyrinth of amenities that often confused guest and employee alike.

“There was no cohesive flow,” said Taylor, who once worked as test and configuration manager at HP measuring the effectiveness of computer processes. “I could see right away that the business wasn’t going to grow and survive if it was hamstrung by logistics.”

At the same time, the region of I-25 was one of the fastest growing areas in the country, and the state government was planning on adding more lanes to the highway. With much more perceived competition along the route and the possibility of more traffic, Taylor decided the time was ripe for a big investment in the business.

The $7 million remodel project was completed in December 2006, featuring an expanded restaurant and c-store; a separate site for truck fueling stations and improved amenities for truckers; and more restaurant parking, more gas pumps, and more space for both to avoid traffic in the front.

“We look at Johnson’s Corner as a great restaurant that also sells fuel, but some people had no idea we had a restaurant at all. Now that they know, we’re seeing between six and eight times more business,” reported Taylor.

Since he took the business back into the family, Taylor has also emphasized the importance of communication and continuous, honest assessment of practices. He said everyone at Johnson’s Corner wants the company to continue to be the standard others measure themselves against. That’s why, for example, the restaurant staff conducts internal health and safety checks, which mirror the criteria of the annual state checks, at the start of every shift. Taylor said that kind of dedication in one area spills over and inspires excellence in everyone.

“I tend to be more of a process person: defining what we do, measuring, assessing, and looking for ways to improve on everything. I think that approach has helped to both streamline our operations and improve quality,” he said.

Expanding beyond the interstate

The recent remodel went a long way to grow Johnson’s Corner, but Taylor cautioned that they could only add so many booths or tack on so many different amenities. Today, he and his team are looking at growing the company in a new direction.

“We’re moving, albeit slowly and cautiously, toward an online storefront for Johnson’s Corner, starting with our newest product, CinniMinis,” he said, referring to a miniaturized, microwaveable version of Johnson’s Corner’s famous, plate-sized cinnamon roll. Taylor explained that he took a hiatus between 1998 and 2000 and returned to the technology world in time to see how the Internet was going to revolutionize business and communication. Realizing there was no reason his company couldn’t take advantage of this trend, Taylor set the company bakers to work.

He said he is also looking into selling CinniMinis, and other popular menu items at the restaurant, through national retailers. To do so requires the careful cultivation of production capabilities. The challenge comes from adapting Johnson’s Corner’s food products to mass production. Most menu items at the restaurant are made on site from scratch and all the recipes are unique to the restaurant. To bring these much-loved baked goods to the rest of the country, Taylor said everyone at Johnson’s Corner needs to be able to handle a much higher demand.

Taylor is confident that such an endeavor will be a successful growth strategy for Johnson’s Corner, and he has the data to prove it. In 2004, the Food Network highlighted the company as one of the top five truck stops in the US. In 1998, Travel and Leisure said the restaurant served one of the best breakfasts in the world; Johnson’s Corner was the only North American business listed.

Since being honored in Travel and Leisure, Taylor said Johnson’s Corner has become a favorite meeting place for everyone. “We get everything from cowboy boots off the dairy farm to Gucci dress shoes for business meetings, which gives our restaurant a unique atmosphere,” he said, adding that the company has become a frequent rest stop for foreign tour groups on their way to Rocky Mountain National Park because the tourists want to see that kind of egalitarianism.

“This is where America meets,” explained Taylor. “One of the best things about working at Johnson’s Corner is that it isn’t a business unto itself, it’s a part of this region and it’s iconic of this country.”