By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jun 03, 2004 at 5:43 AM Photography: Andy Tarnoff

{image1} Stop into one of Scott Johnson's businesses and inhale. Kids, that's the smell of success.

Yep, every one of Johnson's ventures is a cornerstone of local leisure. The fun started for Johnson -- and partner Leslie Montemurro -- 10 years ago when the duo opened Fuel Café, light years before the coffee craze hit Brew City and long before Riverwest was fashionable and condo loco.

Then, The Comet crashed Milwaukee's East Side, as did the Hi-Hat Lounge, and most recently, Palomino stormed Bay View.

Johnson's visions have shaped modern Milwaukee over the years and now, the 37-year-old is returning to his first "baby," Fuel, and making major changes. But don't worry, The Buttafuoco will still be on the menu.

OMC: Tell me about the renovation plans for the Fuel. What are you doing?

Scott Johnson: First of all we are finally buying the building, or I should say, the owner has finally decided to sell. We have been trying to buy it since we started there 10 years ago, but he wasn't ready until now. The renovations will be pretty comprehensive -- the entire first floor of the building, including Fuel's current space, possibly the other two store fronts, the back garage and the parking lot behind the building, which will be an indoor/outdoor seating area. All of this space will become a "greater" Fuel, which will include full breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, a juice bar, a larger and separate spacious dining area, a bar area (pending a liquor license of course) and again, a three-season heated indoor/outdoor seating area. Fuel will still be Fuel, but a bit more grown up.

Just as we're not the same people we were when we opened it 10 years ago, Fuel is ready to mature. The design will be original and comfortable and in a similar vein to the design that Fuel was founded with: reusing and recycling building materials but keeping it funky. We're having a blast designing the new changes with our architect Kurt Young Binter and have been brainstorming lots of new ideas for windows, skylights and our patio, interior furniture, art, etc. It's pretty exciting and we're very stoked. I'm sure that all our regular customers who are used to the "old" Fuel will love it as much as I hope our new and "returning" customers will. Of course, since everything will be new, it will feel brand new. But it won't be fanciful and "frou frou." We promise.

OMC: Have you started construction? When will it be completed?

SJ: Construction will begin in December, and will be completed, hopefully, by next summer. In the meantime, Fuel will continue to operate. We anticipate very little closed-door time for the cafe while we're under construction.

OMC: Does this have anything to do with Alterra coming to Riverwest?

SJ: Everyone has been asking us that. No, this has nothing to do with Alterra coming to the neighborhood. We would have done this development if they had moved in right next door. I think that Alterra and Fuel both offer something unique to their/our customers, and that there is plenty of room for all of us, Alterra and Mondo Bros. and Fuel.

All of our close friends know that we've been through a lot of ups and downs with our landlord, and were very reluctant to put money into and develop a building that was owned by someone who was very volatile -- it was too risky. You can imagine our frustration. This has been on our minds since the Hi Hat was built. But you can't force someone to sell you something, and we've always been in love with that building. We couldn't see moving, but we also couldn't see dropping a ton of money into someone else's building. So, we waited.

Fuel and Alterra actually started at the same time -- in 1992. We were all friends and residents of the same floor of a big warehouse building on the near South Side. Paul Miller and Kevin Callahan were running Pride of Milwaukee out of one-half of a space that Leslie and I shared with my brother and Bill Rouleau, who is an owner of Rush-Mor Records. Lincoln and Ward Fowler operated a high-end audio speaker manufacturing company down the hall. When Leslie and I decided to start Fuel, we went next door to tell Paul, who I was working for at the time, and we walked into a meeting in which those three were planning on starting a coffee roasting company! So, we were their first customer and they were our first vendor and helped us a lot when we were starting out.

OMC: Is it true the renovation will include a smoke-free environment? If so, why did you decide to do this? Do you think Riverwest is supportive of smokeless joints?

SJ: Yes, significant portions of the "new" Fuel will be smoke free. This has been an issue that we've grappled with for a long time. Non-smoking cafes and restaurants are not only a consumer trend that we tried to buck for a long time, but now that Madison and several other Wisconsin communities have voted to ban smoking in restaurants, the writing is on the wall.

However, we will have both a three-season heated outdoor seating area and bar area where smoking will be allowed. I think segments of the community definitely will support a non-smoking restaurant/cafe, just as there is a segment that would support a cafe where smoking is allowed.

It's hard for Leslie and I, because we've traditionally been occasional smokers. However, I don't feel, and I know a lot of other smokers agree, that separating smoking and dining is that big a deal. It's only fair. Bars, I think are totally different, but that's an entirely separate discussion.

OMC: What else is in your hopper? Opening anything else in the near future? What are your goals for the future?

SJ: Well, big changes at Comet, too, but I won't go into that just yet. We also have a big new project on the drawing board, but all in good time. We love our jobs, but don't want to push too hard. There are other things in life besides work. Balance is important. Plus, we feel really lucky to have made it this far. We've made a lot of mistakes, and we've learned a lot. But we don't feel like we've gotten to the bottom of this restaurant business stuff yet -- there is so much more to learn. Everyday is a challenge, and though it can be frustrating sometimes, ultimately it's great and we love it. Plus, we've got the best staffs that anyone could wish for. Without them, we'd be nowhere.

OMC: Is Fuel your "favorite" business because it was first, or do you see it as the business that taught you how to launch other businesses that you like better/are more proud of?

SJ: Fuel opened in 1993 and in some ways, yes, it is our favorite business because it was our first. We worked there every day, open until close, for years. But things change, and that would be impossible to do now. We took what we learned there and tried other concepts, other venues, but always opening places that we loved and felt strongly about. Comet was different from Fuel, which was different from Hi Hat, Palomino, etc. But the things that were important then are still important now-taking care, to the best of our ability, of our staffs and customers, and setting things up so that our staffs can enjoy, to the extent that you can enjoy your work, their jobs, respect their work places, and hope that that attitude and not "baditude" gets conveyed to our customers.

OMC: Did you grow up in Milwaukee? Do you like Milwaukee?

SJ: I went to high school in Menomonee Falls, and I love Milwaukee. I love how the city is growing, in very visible ways, every day. It's what I/we always dreamed of.

OMC: Anything else?

SJ: I would like to address an issue, which is the sometimes disconnect between businesses, neighbors and the city. When a neighborhood is in the midst of a revival, as Riverwest is, as more new residents move in and buy homes, they want consumer-level services. They want restaurants and hardware stores and dry cleaners and banks and bars and record stores and cafes.

But what they also must understand, is that more people bring more businesses, which bring even more people, who bring more cars, more garbage and more noise. Then you get a few neighbors who feel that they dictate to all the responsible as well as irresponsible businesses that they have to curtail their business, keep people off the sidewalks, close earlier; basically, to stop being popular and inviting customers to frequent your neighborhood, which is becoming a recurring theme for a lot of new business owners. And I'm not advocating that business owners' rights trump those of homeowners or renters. But residences in "entertainment" districts, or in busy commercial areas cannot unreasonably expect a pastoral existence.

The point is that everyone in a city must be tolerant of another's right to enjoy a certain standard of living, but a standard that exists in an urban environment, not a rural environment. Many people are buying homes or renting apartments in highly populated areas of the city: Third Ward, Brady Street, Downtown (on) Milwaukee Street, KK, Center Street, but then expecting the rest of the world to go to sleep, stop eating, drinking or slamming car doors after 9 p.m. This is an unreasonable expectation that the city is going to have to start dealing with. If people want neighborhood development, and I mean specifically hospitality businesses: cafes, bars, restaurants and small retail, they are going to have to come to terms with the added noise and congestion that may accompany them, and not allow one or two unreasonable neighbors dictate whether or not they have the right to be busy or not.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.