It’s a relaxed Wednesday afternoon as people, conversations and craft beer make their way around Eastside.
Some patrons mill about, sharing drinks with friends, while others try their luck at the dartboard in the corner. The line to belly up to the bar is full of people, but they don’t mind. Instead, they share drinks and crack jokes with the staff behind the bar. They’re okay with waiting at Eastside.
Through the commotion of clinking glasses and jumbled conversations walks a man with a big red beard and an even bigger personality. He strolls in wearing a baseball cap, grey jacket, shorts and flip-flops even though it’s chilly outside.
“What’s up, Big Chief?” a regular says, embracing the bearded man.
“Nothing much, man. You?”
“Just living the dream, baby,” the customer says.
“Living the dream,” the big man echoes as he turns his baseball cap backwards. “Living the dream.”
The moment John Williams walks into the building, he starts mingling among local regulars and newcomers, making sure they feel at home with a beer and a friendly face. Between checking on customers, running drinks out to patrons and just having a good laugh, John wants to make sure everyone inside Eastside’s doors gets a big Denton welcome.
To some, 36-year-old John is one of the kings of Denton’s bar scene. He owns both Eastside and Oak Street Drafthouse, as well as a couple bars in Florida with his brother, one in Austin, another in College Station and his newest in Deep Ellum. To many others, John is the friendly face you can usually find hanging around the Denton Square.
Whether he’s behind the bar, sharing a drink with his buddies or browsing through new stores in the city, John is always immersed in and giving back to Denton. Born and raised here, it matters to him that the city stays its unique self.
And for John, opening a bar and giving back to those who make Denton Denton is his destiny.
“It is something I had always planned to do,” John says.
John began working in bars when he was 18 years old. He went from bar backing to managing Lucky Lou’s, a popular Fry Street destination, while studying entrepreneurship at the University of North Texas. He wanted to take what he learned at UNT to create a business where he could achieve his real goals.
“Supporting other businesses and doing charitable things for the community is just a big part of my business model,” he said.
Although owning a single bar may be more than enough for one person, John thrives on having a lot on his plate. His employees back him 100 percent.
“He’s involved in the community when it comes to giving,” says bartender Aaron “Catfish” Anttila.
Catfish has learned a thing or two from his busy boss and friend. A bearded entrepreneur-turned-bartender, Catfish started serving drinks when he was 42 years old, turning in the 8 to 5 grind for a shaker and a tap. Under John’s system, Catfish is doing more good than he says he could have ever done in his previous occupation.
“I don’t miss corporate work at all. They can have it,” Catfish says.
Together the two local bars, along with their staffs, bring in multiple opportunities for good throughout Denton. John is a volunteer member of the Holiday Lighting Festival Board, serves with the Denton Kiwanis and is also the co-chair of the promotions committee for the Denton Main Street Association (DMSA). He puts on various charitable events in order to raise money for these and other organizations.
John hosts Monday Night Charities at Oak Street, where he picks a different local charity each Monday to give 10 percent of the night’s proceeds. John also plans and takes part in crawfish boils, food truck events and more.
“Some [events] have been for local charities and some for folks down on their luck and in need of some cash,” John says.
He takes time out of his already hectic schedule to be there for the groups when they need him most. The organizations with which he volunteers share the same mission: keep Denton, Denton.
“They support me, so I’d like to support them as well,” John says.
Christine Gossett, the DMSA events coordinator, says that John is a big reason why they are able to run some of their events. He’s the first there to help set up an event and the last one to leave. And when he can’t make it, he sends as many people as he can to help out.
“He’s always willing to sponsor. He’s always ready to pass out stuff. He’s just there, helping in every way he can,” Christine says.
While it may be John’s dedication to helping others, Christine says that growing up in Denton brings out the best in a lot of people.
“He pays back Denton because, well, he’s a home-grown boy. He cares about the community because it’s his hometown,” Christine says.
John’s goodwill doesn’t end with just organizations, however – it’s just as important to make sure Dentonites are cared for too.
“He’s always ready to help anybody out,” says bartender Kitty Holt.
Kitty has firsthand experience of John’s impact not only in the community, but among their bar family.
John and other staff members invite employees over for holidays when they don’t have any other family. Kitty says he extends his time and energy in the hardest of times like it’s no issue.
“I’ve witnessed his generosity extend from large-scale charity events to pulling a few people together to help someone replace a blown out tire,” Kitty says. “He cares about people and he’s not afraid to let them know it, which is why I think everyone that works for him loves and respects John Williams.”
“Just giving back to those who give to me,” John says.
While owning a successful business is important, taking part in preserving Denton’s culture motivates John to be the community-serving guy he is. He doesn’t like to boast about his contributions, but his actions and ideals show just how dedicated he is to this place. When he’s not at one of his establishments, he’s helping out a neighbor. When he’s not serving on a board, he’s finding ways to help out other organizations.
He doesn’t follow all the ideals of a “traditional” business owner. He’s original and independent – just like Denton. John Williams is the truest kind of Dentonite.
“I think just being involved with the people that make the bar what it is, is most rewarding,” John says. “The business owners, the customers, just being around those guys and being involved in the day-to-day operations of what’s going on in Denton, what makes Denton cool, is great.”