Steve Johnson’s humble beginnings as a teenage dishwasher didn’t presage his career trajectory, but his success in the hospitality industry here and abroad amazed even himself.
Currently, Johnson owns Keegan’s Grill in Ahwatukee and co-owns four more restaurants in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
The Keegan’s Grill brand owns restaurants in Chandler and Phoenix at the Biltmore Plaza, under different owners.
On Thursday, Oct. 17, all three locations celebrate Keegan’s Grill 30th anniversary, with special menu items and brews like Keegan’s Anniversary Pub Lager. Raffles and prize giveaways will be held throughout the day.
Keegan’s Grill opened in 1989, at the Biltmore location and since purchasing the Ahwatukee pub in 2015, Johnson built on the brand’s ambiance and traditions established three decades ago.
Tradition plays a key role in his purchase of Zio’s New York Style Pizzerias in Omaha.
“I had a good friend from high school, Rick Ledwich, and at age 15, he and I started washing dishes at an Omaha restaurant,” Johnson recalled.
“When I went back for a high school reunion and learned the pizzerias where we’d stop in after football games were being sold, I wanted to save it,” said Johnson.
Johnson, who played right tackle for one of Nebraska’s oldest high schools, explained:
“So, we bought Zio’s in 2016, and Rick is my partner and manager though I try and get back there every six weeks or so.”
The pair opened their fourth Zio’s Pizzeria in west Omaha last November.
Coincidentally, it was in 1989 – the same year Don Weissmueller and Paul Burdick founded the original Keegan’s on Camelback Road – that Johnson left Omaha on a vacation to Hawaii that would be life-changing.
By this point, he was established in Omaha, managing several Kentucky Fried Chicken and Godfather’s Pizza franchises.
While in Oahu at a dinner party, he met the man in charge of KFC’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchises in the Pacific-Asia region. Impressed with Johnson’s acumen, he offered him a job.
Shoveling snow in Nebraska versus watching palm trees sway in Hawaii made the decision easier, and within 60 days Johnson arrived in Oahu, prepared to “give it a go for a couple years.”
He remained 26 years, serving as district manager for 63 of the three franchises in Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa. Johnson also helped open another 11 in Thailand and the Philippines.
And yet, visits to various family members in the Southwest wooed him from Hawaii, and with his only daughter Sydney, Johnson made the leap.
“The reason I left Hawaii was I really wanted to have something of my own,” confessed Johnson, 58.
Johnson often flies to Oahu to visit his daughter and friends.
And yet his heart is very much here, he said.
Since purchasing and then renovating Ahwatukee’s Keegan’s Grill, Johnson has maintained many of the traditions set by the original owners – much to the delight of the faithful following which has grown even more under his tenure.
And Johnson is very much a hands-on owner.
Most weekdays find him delivering pre-ordered Keegan’s Grill lunches to area business complexes.
Keegan’s Grill also offers catering to large groups, providing hearty hors d’oeuvres platters and an extensive selection of entrees and salads.
As Irish as Keegan’s Grill may sound, tradition says the original owners selected “Keegan” from a book on baby names.
Nevertheless, the Oct. 17 events are touted as an “Irish celebration” complete with Keegan’s Grill’s famous corned beef and cabbage served for lunch and dinner.
There also will be some nostalgic specials gleaned from 1989, including halibut tacos, feta and fresh basil pizza, tenderloin sliders and more.
With their regular bastion of craft beers on tap, the day also features Great Keegan’s Pub Lager and Irish Cheer. Other local specialty craft beers like Four Peak’s Pumpkin Porter is on this month’s rotating drafts menu.
“American comfort food” is how Johnson describes their lunch and dinner fare.
A special “football menu” is served for college and NFL games.
Brunch is available Sunday, and includes mimosas and their Nearly World-Famous Bloody Mary.
Besides corned beef hash and eggs, their extensive menu offers frittatas, eggs Benedict, quinoa and oat bran pancakes and huevos rancheros.
Ahwatukee resident Jill Gossett has been a patron of Keegan’s since she moved here 15 years ago. For her family, it’s the neighborhood vibe and tasty food selections that keep them coming back.
“Keegan’s is a great local place for a delicious meal that has options for everyone. my favorites are the char crusted filet mignon and grilled Atlantic salmon,” proclaimed Gossett, adding:
”Keegan’s large variety of burgers are always yummy and the selection of salads is so good. It’s the perfect place for a family meal, or to meet up with friends for drinks and appetizers.”
Johnson said he’s “very proud” of his staff who are selected due to their shared beliefs that client service is paramount.
Among long-time employees at the Ahwatukee Keegan’s Grill is Eusebio Diaz, who’s been with the restaurant 23 years; Kelly Clark, bartender and server for 20 years; Chealsea Zaft, 14 years; Julie Davis, 13 years; and Meagan Newbury, 12 years.
“We work hard to be the neighborhood to-go in Ahwatukee,” said Johnson. “Our from-scratch cooking, great food value, and attentive wait staff have helped us become well known in the community, and we plan to do what it takes to keep that reputation intact.”
Keegan’s Grill Ahwatukee is located at 4723 E. Ray Road on the southwest corner of 48th Street. Information: Keegan’sGrill.com/Ahwatukee, and they’re on Facebook and Instagram.