FELIKS BANEL

All Over The Map: Johnny’s Seasoning Salt still shaking in the Northwest

Jun 18, 2021, 9:28 AM | Updated: 9:28 am
Johnny's seasoning salt...
Johnny's Seasoning Salt has been a famous Northwest product since the 1950s; the recent permanent closure of Johnny's restaurants, where the salt and other products were first developed by Johnny and Bea Meeker, will have no effect on the retail seasoning business. (Courtesy Johnny's Fine Foods)
(Courtesy Johnny's Fine Foods)

This week, the owners of Johnny’s Restaurant in Fife – which closed in March last year because of the pandemic — announced that they will not be reopening. But, not to worry, the world-famous Johnny’s Seasoning Salt is here to stay.

Johnny’s Seasoning Salt is one of those local products that historians and sentimental Northwesterners love to obsess about – like Mountain Bars, Aplets & Cotlets, Farman’s Pickles, Nalley potato chips, and Marie’s salad dressing. As is so often the case, the backstory of the beloved product is not just about a business, it’s also about a family or an individual.

The “Johnny” behind Johnny’s Seasoning Salt is Johnny Meaker. He grew up in Seattle in the early decades of the 20th century, and likely worked as a young man at the famous Crawford’s Seafood Restaurant north of downtown in the 1940s. Crawford’s, with its prime location along Elliott Avenue and its up-close views of maritime activity on Elliott Bay, closed in the 1960s, but the building eventually became home to Ivar’s Captain’s Table (which closed in 1991).

Johnny Meaker owned and operated his own restaurants beginning in the late 1940s, and opened Johnny’s Dock on Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma around 1953. According to family history, that’s where the original seasoning salt and several variations were first developed.

It was around 1955 or 1956 when Johnny and his wife Bea started packaging the seasoning salt and selling it in the restaurant. They got a big boost in sales from having a booth at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and they began to develop a series of other seasoning products along the way, including dressings and marinades, and found shelf space at Northwest grocery stores and now long-gone variety stores like Seattle-based Pay ‘n Save.

Johnny’s in Fife was opened by Johnny Meaker in 1968, and then taken over by his grandson John Crabill in 1986. That’s the restaurant that announced a few days ago that it will not reopen. Johnny’s Dock is also apparently permanently closed, and it looks like that parcel of land is now being offered for sale as part of a major redevelopment project.

According to old newspaper clippings, Johnny Meaker was a larger than life character who smoked cigars, vacationed in Vegas, and drove a red Cadillac El Dorado. He also came to the Johnny’s offices in Tacoma every day, practically up until the time he died in 2001 at age 96.

Though the restaurants are closed, they have been separate from the seasoning salt manufacturing and distribution for many years. That portion of the family business was sold off a decade ago, and that company is still known as Johnny’s Fine Foods.

The President and CEO of Johnny’s Fine Foods is industry veteran Kevin Ruda. Ruda assured KIRO Radio on Thursday that the permanent closure of either or both of the Johnny’s restaurants has no effect whatsoever on the seasoning business or the availability of the company’s products. Though the restaurants bought seasoning and other products from his business in the past, Ruda hadn’t heard about the closures.

“Until you told me this morning the restaurants were not reopening, I did not know that,” Ruda said. “So that was news to me.”

In the decade he’s been running Johnny’s Fine Foods, Ruda says that the old-school seasoning salt and the au jus mix have remained the company’s two biggest sellers. Under Ruda’s leadership, he’s maintained company traditions but has changed a few things. MSG was eliminated from the seasoning salt, and the company has added a few organic products to its more traditional lines and expanded its market nationwide and overseas. Also, the company is still headquartered in the offices in Tacoma that were part of the purchase, but they’ve moved manufacturing out of Pierce County to other parts of the Puget Sound area.

Exactly where, Ruda wasn’t willing to disclose.

Another secret that Ruda wouldn’t share is the formula for Johnny’s Seasoning Salt. The ingredients listed on the package are salt, sugar, paprika, garlic, spices, and something called “microcrystalline cellulose (anti-caking),” but the ratios and blending techniques are, understandably, proprietary information.

“It’s what makes us different from Lawry’s or other competitive products,” Ruda said.

And just how were those secret recipes physically transferred to Kevin Ruda when he bought Johnny’s Fine Foods 10 years ago?

They came in “a big book, … a black folder, it’s nothing special,” Ruda said.

Pressed for more information by an irritating radio historian who often obsesses about pedantic details, Ruda described a simple a three-ring binder filled with handwritten and hand-typed pages dating back years, if not decades.

“It’s a master file that has the recipe and process for each formulation,” Ruda said, though he also says the information has since been transferred to a secure computer system for easy access by key staff.

For each product in the book, “we follow that recipe and process every time we manufacture something,” Ruda said.

Is the “big book” with the original copies of Johnny’s secret formulas stored, like the famous Coca-Cola recipe, in a massive vault somewhere?

“No, it’s not. It’s in my desk drawer, I think,” Ruda said. “I haven’t looked at it for so long I can’t even tell you where it is.”

“I think it’s still in my desk, but I’d really have to look to tell you,” Ruda said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Johnny’s Seasoning Salt still shaking in the Northwest