By Annie Fowler
Tucked away in a small building at 1505 W. Kennewick Ave. is one man’s dream.
Just Joel’s, a small diner that features homemade breakfast and lunch, had a banner first year, which nearly brings owner Joel Watson to tears when he talks about it.
“When you come here, the food is made with love,” he said. “There is an emotional connection between me and my customers. I care. My employees care. This is the hardest I have ever worked in my life, but it’s the most fun I have ever had.”
Watson, 40, with the help of friend Marcus Hoffman, rented the building last year, made some needed renovations and opened the doors Nov. 14, 2017.
“A buddy bet every dollar he had on me,” Watson said of Hoffman. “He told me he believed in me. He’s the greatest friend you could ever have. He said find a place. I found this place. I wanted small. I want the waitresses to know the customers’ names.”
Just Joel’s is in a former drive-in, that has seen numerous eateries and other businesses come and go faster than they could get signs made.
It’s hard to find success in an industry where 17 percent of restaurants in the western U.S. close in their first year of operation, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study cited in Forbes magazine.
Watson knew opening a diner was a gamble, but it’s one that has paid off — every single day he has been open.
“It is the scariest business venture to go into in this day and age,” Watson said. “The scariest thing in my life was when those doors opened. You don’t know if they will come, or if they will come back.”
Hungry people come in droves. They wait for a table in the main building that seats 24, or they just park themselves at a table out front, no matter the weather. There also is a heavy takeout crowd.
“Our taste is bigger than our building,” Watson said. “Every day someone asks when I’m getting a bigger place.”
Just for the record, he’s not.
Patrons come for the homemade biscuits and gravy, breakfast burritos, chicken fried steak and a variety of other foods that you may find elsewhere, but not of the same quality or quantity, according to Watson.
Nothing comes out of a bag or gets cooked in a microwave.
“We make everything from biscuits to fry sauce, salad dressing and soups,” Watson said. “That separates us from a lot of places. You won’t leave hungry. My prices are fair and you get a ton of food. We don’t count calories — we create smiles. This is where you come for your cheat day.”
And for a 69-cent bottomless cup of coffee. Watson has his own blend.
Watson also offers a variety of pies — homemade from the crust to the whipped cream — for dessert. He has to-go containers if you are out of notches on your belt.
They also offer pie for breakfast. They don’t judge.
On a recent Friday, Watson’s deep-fried carne asada burrito — he only makes 50 — sold out quickly, as do most things. Included on that list are the French dip sandwiches, and the street taco soup he created with Felix Sanchez, the owner of El Fat Cat Grill, for the annual Safe Harbor Beggars Banquet in November.
The soup won first prize, and he proudly serves it at his establishment — but not every day. His specials are listed daily on Just Joel’s Facebook page.
“There are no slow days,” Watson said. “This matters to me. I’ve given it my all and I set the bar high. We made $600,000 our first year in this tiny hole in the wall that was supposedly cursed.”
What you won’t find at Just Joel’s is a wide variety of vegetarian options. But there’s salad and a few other offerings, as well as gluten-free bread.
“This is a blue-collar, hard-working crowd,” he said. “I cook 15 pounds of bacon every day.”
Watson said he has been down on his luck several times in his life, mostly because of his own poor decisions.
That life now is behind him, but he knows others need help, and he’s doing his part to make his community a better place.
He has supported youth baseball, fun runs and the like.
He had a pie drive during Thanksgiving week. He was going to limit the amount to 200, but ended up making 246 pies.
One hundred of those pies were horchata, a drink typically made with rice milk, vanilla and spices.
Watson got help in the kitchen from his dad Tommy Watson and stepmom Zarinah Watson, and members of his staff.
After materials and labor were paid, he took the proceeds — about $1,100 — and bought coats for men, women and children. He then took them to the Union Gospel Mission in Pasco, accompanied by his girlfriend and their kids.
“I wanted them to see where they were going and who they were helping,” Watson said. “This is my attempt to make amends to the community I spent 15 years taking from. I know what it’s like to be cold and hungry and have no place to go. Now, I’m in a position to help others and give back. I’m blessed. No doubt in my mind God has his hand on this.”
He plans to do the same around Christmas. Customers already are bringing donations to add to the coat collection.
Being a pie master, Watson also spent a day at Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick, teaching the culinary arts/pastry and baking students to make pie crust.
“They are the future of this,” he said of the restaurant business. “It was a lot of fun.”
Watson loves having his dad come and cook with him. It was his dad who inspired him to cook.
“I wanted to be like my dad,” he said. “That’s what I dreamed about as a kid. I think he is proud of me. He was a cook for 30 years, but never had the opportunity to have his own place.”
Now that his dream has come true, Watson has one more thing that would make this whole adventure come full circle.
“My dream is to be on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,’ ” he said of the Food Network show with Guy Fieri.
Watson said he’d whip up a Sir James omelet, a deep-fried carne asada burrito, French dip and horchata pie, among other things.
“One bite of each,” he said. “I’d break down crying the first I see him for real, in person. He’s more than a man and less than a god. Just an idol for any real cook in the industry.”
Just Joel’s is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. It is closed on Tuesdays.
Daily and Monthly NewsSign up now!