The parking lot outside Johnny’s Saloon was packed on the afternoon of Friday, November 29. Veterans of every age and station of the military filled the lot and saloon to show their support for a simple and longstanding sentiment.
"Thank A Veteran For Your Freedom" is a message seen frequently around the saloon and practiced by owner Johnny Kresimir and his staff through their community involvement with veterans in Huntington Beach. Now the saloon’s rooftop sign bearing the same message has an uncertain fate. On Monday, November 25, a code enforcement officer with the city left a violation notice on the saloon’s door.
"We do so much on a daily basis [for the community] that it's pretty hurtful that they would do this to us," says Kresimir. The note emphasized that a complaint was made about the sign and gave Kresimir two days to remove it. Per the letter, rooftop signs are prohibited in HB.
We were unable to speak with a city representative regarding the controversy, but city officials have issued several press releases as community support for the sign has grown. The city urges that it is pro-veteran and that the issue was with lack of a permit for the sign—not the message the sign carries. Kresimir says, "I want to keep this positive about the veterans and the message and not against the city. We know the city is pro-veteran, but the notice is not pro-veteran. The notice is very... bad."
The day the news was received, Johnny’s posted the story on their Facebook page, and the rest was history. "[We] posted something on Facebook, and it just blew up from there," says Kyle Ennis, a bartender at Johnny’s. "It just took off and went nationwide all of a sudden." Nearly a week after the initial notice, word has spread to almost every country in which America's military is deployed. Johnny’s has received an outpouring of overseas support, and a Change.org petition was launched. To date, it has been signed by over 3,750 people worldwide.
The people’s voice was quickly heard. On Tuesday, November 26, the city contacted Johnny’s and stated that the two days would be extended to 90. "We keep pushing," Ennis says of the positive breakthrough. "We have people petitioning left and right. Thousands and thousands of people are petitioning to keep the sign up, so you kind of have to listen to [them], you can't just say, 'No, it's the law.'"
Grateful for the extension, Kresimir hopes communication between himself and the city improves. "It is Thanksgiving this week, but I would have handled it differently if I was them because look what happened," says Kresimir of the rally and growing support while city offices closed their doors. While the city has stated intent to discuss the sign during the extension, Kresimir says exact dates have yet to be set, and the city has not yet detailed specifically how it will work with the saloon.
Kresimir’s father would undoubtedly be proud. The sign stands due in part to his commitment to supporting veterans when he opened the original Johnny’s in Hemet, California, in 1982. Johnny Senior grew up under communism in Yugoslavia and fled to America to escape it. Kresimir recalls, "That instilled in us at a young age how thankful we should be for our freedom." Like the Johnny’s of today, it, too, was a haven for vets. When Johnny Senior passed, they looked out for his son as a favor to him.
What lies ahead for Johnny’s Saloon's patriotic sign? If you’re like Dan Sharp, an active member of the navy and longtime HB resident, you know that spreading the word about Johnny’s is a smart start. "When I’m deployed, I hear other people talking about Johnny’s in Huntington Beach," says Sharp. "When they come to California, they want to have a drink at Johnny’s. Everyone knows Johnny’s; it's an icon throughout the military."
If you want to help save the iconic sign, head to Change.org and sign the petition or make your opinion heard with the HB City Council at 714-536-5553.