When paddleboarding at the lake on Thursday I heard an unmanned sailboat was found on the lake on Wednesday morning. They were still looking for the owner. Because I know exactly one person on the lake who owns a sailboat, I immediately thought of him. This friend, John, is a new friend. He and his daughter took four of us out on his sailboat over Labor Day weekend.
Immediate questions about the situation assured me it wasn’t him, so we went out to paddle.
Besides the rescuers looking for the sailor, we had the lake to ourselves. We paddled for two hours. I thought about John often on the paddle.
When he knew I was interested in paddle sports, he encouraged me, suggesting we go kayaking together sometime; letting me in on the best places to launch kayaks if you’re new to the sport.
John is well-known in Johnson City. His pizza restaurant is decidedly unique. At Scratch, you BYOB, listen to records and trust the chefs to make you a delicious pizza with any of the toppings they chose. We’ve been going for 5 years and had many fun times at his restaurant.
I thought of John frequently throughout the day and found myself checking the Facebook page and website of his restaurant several times. While doing so I thought about our Labor Day sailing trip.
The circumstances that had us sailing with John and Maia on Labor Day weekend were quite random. My friend Samia was moving from NYC to LA and on her way to New Orleans, where she is from, for a respite on the journey. Her friend, Melanie, was with her to make the ride more fun. They were spending a night in Johnson City with plans to go to Asheville, Charleston, Savannah and Montgomery on their way to New Orleans.
After looking at the websites for the recommended restaurants Samia and Melanie chose Scratch because the website proudly boasted that the pizza and experience is "not for everyone.”
When eating at Scratch, John would come around and talk to all of the customers. His conversations were far more interesting than the usual “how’s everything” conversations you get from restaurateurs; the interactions were noteworthy and fun. From previous conversations I knew he wanted to close up Scratch for the winter so he could sail to Homestead, Florida and he wanted to have a big business of ferrets.
Up until that night, those were the only types of interactions I’d had with John.
That Friday night our conversation with John turned into an invitation for an outing on his sailboat on Saturday. Samia and Melanie decided to delay the rest of their trip so we could go.
When we arrived at John and Maia’s “Addam’s Family house” we caught a glimpse of the father and daughter riding their tandem bike to complete their Saturday errands. John warmly invited us in and showed us the in-progress renovations and discuss future plans. He showed us the mobile brick oven he was building so he could franchise Scratch.
While sailing we discussed his business philosophy, among other things.
When John started Scratch he was only open on Friday’s, Saturday’s and Sunday’s or as he said, “the good days of the week.” He only accepted cash or “good” checks so if you didn’t have either you would sign your name in an I.O.U. book and promise to return and pay when you had cash. Over the years those policies have changed. He’s now open 7 days a week and he accepts credit cards but the restaurant remains a very special place.
While we were sailing he talked about those changes. He wished he still had the I.O.U. book because the fees he pays for credit card processing are much higher than than the money he lost when I.O.U.-ers didn’t return to pay their tab. Scratch was open that Saturday and since he was on the lake he occasionally checked his phone to keep an eye on the happenings at the restaurant.
John runs his restaurant with no managers; instead he instills a sense of personal responsibility in his staff, pays them well and has cameras installed to monitor the goings on. The cameras have a live feed allowing him to keep track of current activity, but also go back nine weeks in case an issue crops up later.
Over the years John experimented with cheesecakes, breads, sandwiches and pizzas but decided to settle on pizzas only. The scaled back menu makes it easy for him to train his staff to create a product like he would make.
While sailing with John he proudly showed us the places he loved on the lake. We stopped at the Watauga Dam; one of the largest loose rock dams in the US. He encouraged us to scale the dam. Once he was at the top he incentivized us with colorful descriptions of the view and fact that he, Maia and Ariel were now scampering on the Appalachian Trail, later admitting to Ariel the scaling of the dam, while fun, was much harder than he thought it would be.
While on the lake we encouraged John to give tours of the area. As I thought about John on Thursday, I vowed to go to Scratch for dinner so I could tell John how good I am getting at paddle boarding and kayaking thanks, in part, to his encouragement.
Johnson City lost a notable, sometimes controversial, character when we lost John.
I’ll be at his celebration but I also wanted to write this to remember what he taught me in our brief friendship.
Push yourself to do things you don’t think you can do
Create an environment where you can trust people to do the right thing
Put the safeguards in place so you’re not blindly trusting people who don’t deserve your trust
Celebrate small moments
Embrace who you are, especially if it is not like everyone else
As I prepare for another day of paddle boarding on the lake that took John’s life, I know our brief friendship found a permanent place in my memory.