Owner loves old school vibe at Lima's Boilermakers

Feb. 26—LIMA — Stepping into the Boilermaker Restaurant and Bar can be like stepping into the good old days.

At least that's how it feels for Lelah Johnson, who proudly owns and operates Lima's oldest Black-owned restaurant and bar. She's been a fixture since she first DJ'd at the former Club Utopia as a 19-year-old woman.

She's a little older (67) and a little wiser since taking over the business when her father, Carl Johnson, died in 1999, but she still steps in to choose the music if her hired DJ can't show up. She owns the DJ equipment in the business. And when she hears R Kelly's "Your Body's Callin'" from 1994, she knows it's going to be a good night.

"R Kelly," she says, beaming at one of her favorite artists. "He's got some bad rap on him, but people still love R Kelly. He's got some good stuff out."

She doesn't mind living in the past a bit. There's a market for it.

"Most of the people that come here are parents themselves," she said. "They don't want to party with kids. You know, it's the music that will draw the kids here, but we play the older style music. Our people don't want to hear all that damn rap crap."

The history is everywhere at the Boilermaker.

The building first opened as Oliver's Nite Club in 1946 by a man named Judge David Oliver. Willie Wright eventually bought it before, in 1971, passing it on to Paul Jones and Carl Johnson, Lelah's father. The sign for Club Utopia, as it was called then, hangs over a doorway.

When Carl and Lelah's mother, Kathleen, died in the 1990s, Lelah took over. She closed it for nearly eight years, as her full-time job in accounting at General Dynamics was her daytime focus. When she reopened, she named it Boilermaker, in honor of her dad's profession at Lima's ordnance depot and the popular drink.

Now, it's about minding her enterprise, which includes serving food and drinks to one-time strangers who've become like family.

"I'm actually very, very proud of this because I've lived through a lot of bars in Lima," she said. "... Some bars were much nicer looking on the inside, but they'd close real quick. What gets me about a person is when they open up a business, and they've never worked in one. You don't have any type of vision of what really should be going on."

Johnson is clearly detailed. While she's laid-back and friend at the bar, in the office she knows the key is controlling her costs. When COVID-19 hit, she had to lay off most of her staff. Gradually, they're bringing people back.

The Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area launched in downtown Lima last year helped reinvigorate the place, after Johnson resorted to catering meals and selling unique purses online to stay busy during the mandatory shutdown in COVID-19 times.

"We do get a mixed crowd in here," Johnson said. "It just depends on what's going on. After a Rally in the Square and stuff, they'll come down. Now that they've got that DORA thing where they can drink anywhere, that helped."

It's a tight profit margin, but the business keeps Johnson happy, she said.

"All I've got to worry about is paying my utilities and paying my help," she said. "If I don't make any money and I budget right, I'm not getting rid of the liquor and the beer, then it's still there for when I open up the next week So yeah, I'm able to mae it work. You've got to pay attention to what's going on."

Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.