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In Memory of Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson wasn’t always a fan of Capitol Hill. He and I first met in 2018, shortly after he relocated from his beloved Florida Keys with a daunting mission: to patch back together a half-dozen restaurants that had just emerged from bankruptcy and were again back under original ownership. 

He wasn’t too sure about this “big city” lifestyle or the accompanying challenges of a workplace and workforce unlike any he had faced in his 30 years of industry experience. 

I’m still not certain how investor Bill Sport convinced Tom to take on the task of Managing Partner for a bunch of restaurants a thousand miles away, but some combination of adventure, challenge, and foolishness led him here. 

What is certain is that by the time he passed away suddenly on March 10, from injuries consistant with a fall, he had not only successfully restored the businesses and guided them through a devastating pandemic, but also become a fully invested and valued member of our local community.

During his too-brief time with us, Tom made it his mission to learn and to lead both in his own life and in the neighborhood around him. His smiling face and good-natured greetings became familiar sights up and down Barracks Row, around Eastern Market, and along Pennsylvania Avenue as he strolled among the restaurant venues which included at the time of his passing: on Barracks Row – Lola’s, Playa Ocho, and Opheila’s Fish House; The Hawk and Dove on Pennsylvania Avenue, SE; and Boxcar across from Eastern Market.

Bringing his creative talents, hard work, and extensive experience to everything he did, Tom also quickly joined forces with others in promoting Barracks Row Main Street, Eastern Market Main Street, and as a member of the Washington Business Journal Leadership Trust. Tom combined his unique vision with exacting standards for the operational side of the restaurants. He deftly adapted and enhanced each venue – all the while listening closely to the needs and desires of employees, neighbors and patrons.

Like any self-respecting refugee from the Keys, Tom was never happier than when he was out on the water. Accordingly, he brought his boat up from Florida and found both harbor and friendship on the Anacostia River, where he took the “helm” as elected Commodore of the Eastern Power Boat Club. In what was perhaps the most telling sign that Tom had fully adopted his new city, he recently moved from his Navy Yard apartment into a home in nearby Hillcrest.

Tom was a tireless advocate for what he believed, which sometimes brought him into the cross-hairs of political institutions and city officials, but he always approached each issue with integrity, honesty and a genuine desire to seek resolution not conflict. Faced with regulatory and systemic challenges, he worked cooperatively towards solutions, ending up as co-chair of the Capitol Hill Business Interest Working Group. He was a great storyteller – sometimes autobiographical, sometimes decidedly fiction – but also a great listener and companion with an enduring sense of humor and perpetual practicality.

Born on February 15, 1969, in Van Nuys, California, Tom moved to Panama City, Florida as a child.  He eventually settled in the Keys, where he spent over two decades. Talent and ambition enabled Tom to rise from washing dishes at a chain restaurant to managing a resort in Islamorada, never abandoning his wit and inspiration as a bartender and host.  Along the way, Tom established himself as a respected resource for hospitality clients, founding Core Hospitality Consulting and providing advice and support in development, brand management, and operations.

Perhaps most important, in every stage and aspect of his life Tom forged bonds and friendships with employees, neighbors, business owners, and others that truly enriched his community and made this neighborhood his own.

He is survived by his mother Sharon Johnson and stepfather Michael G. Bowman.

A memorial celebration of Tom’s life was held at Stadium Sports, 300 Tingey Street SE, on Saturday March 23.

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