Management of Bill Johnson’s Big Apple Restaurants, one of Arizona’s most iconic brand names, is being passed to the third generation of the Johnson family. Sherry Cameron, 47, granddaughter of founder Bill Johnson, has been named the new chief executive of the company, taking the reins from her mother, Dena Cameron, the eldest daughter of Bill Johnson. Dena became president of the company after Bill Johnson died in 1966 and led the company for more than 40 years.
Management of Bill Johnson’s Big Apple Restaurants, one of Arizona’s most iconic brand names, is being passed to the third generation of the Johnson family.
Sherry Cameron, 47, granddaughter of founder Bill Johnson, has been named the new chief executive of the company, taking the reins from her mother, Dena Cameron, the eldest daughter of Bill Johnson. Dena became president of the company after Bill Johnson died in 1966 and led the company for more than 40 years.
Sherry Cameron hopes to revitalize the family business by emphasizing its home-style cooking, customer service and Western atmosphere that made it a symbol of Arizona.
“My perspective is to bring us back to what we did really well,” she said. “We have a history that very few others have, and we have to use that as one of our strengths. And I think people are looking to support local companies.”
Bill Johnson and his wife, Gene, established the first Big Apple restaurant at 3757 E. Van Buren St. in Phoenix in 1956. Previously they had operated restaurants in Oklahoma and Compton, Calif.
The name Big Apple came from a Western dance that had been a part of the musical “Oklahoma!” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It served as a reminder of Johnson’s courtship of his wife when they were living in that state, Cameron said.
Gene was the cook while Bill was largely responsible for the Western theme. He began broadcasting a radio show from a makeshift studio over the entrance to the restaurant, playing country music and bantering with politicians, actors and celebrity cowboys who stopped by for dinner. Among the guests were Tex Ritter, Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers, Wayne Newton and Rex Allen.
Cameron remembers as a child watching her grandfather sitting over the entrance doing his nightly show.
“He would talk to people in the restaurant or describe what was going on down Van Buren,” she said. “Later he moved it inside so he could do more interviews with people, and he had a room where he did the broadcast.”
Johnson also would take a portable trailer to events like the state fair, where he would conduct remote radio shows.
Cameron would like to bring back the broadcasts, but she said it would be difficult to do today because the radio business has changed greatly from the 1960s. But the company still keeps the broadcast trailer in storage, and “at least I would like to see it restored” as a reminder of those days, she said.
After Bill Johnson’s passing, Dena took over the company with help from siblings Rudy Johnson, Sherry Hovak and Johnny Johnson. The second generation expanded the business, and today the company has five locations including a Mesa restaurant at 950 E. Main St., which opened in 1977.
The company also became known for barbecue sauces sold in supermarkets throughout the Southwest and a catering business that served spring training baseball teams, Firebird International Raceway and Backstage at Celebrity Theater.
Although the younger Cameron said becoming CEO was probably “my destiny,” she didn’t realize it for a long time. A graduate of the Thunderbird global-management school in Glendale, her main interest was international business. After graduation she ran an import-export business in Guadalajara, Mexico. Then she lived and worked for 12 years in Singapore and finally wound up in the food distribution business in Australia.
After 50 years of working in and managing the Big Apples, Dena Cameron realized it was time for a change, and she viewed her daughter as the best person to keep the Bill Johnson’s brand going.
Cameron recalls “we were in New York about three years ago, and Mom says, 'you’ve run all of these successful companies all over the world. Why don’t you come home now and be successful with us?’”
She didn’t accept immediately.
“I had always had wanderlust and was interested in different cultures and languages,” Cameron said. “But I had a good and long run at that, and the family was getting together and asking me to help. I thought about it for close to two years, and then it became the right decision.”
Cameron, who became CEO on Oct. 1, inherits a company with about 250 employees. She would like to expand to more locations and operate Big Apple restaurants all over Arizona. But with the economy in recession, she said that will have to wait for better times. The catering business could expand sooner because “we are seeing that pick up again.”
Johnny Johnson, who has retired after 50 years in the business, said he is “extremely excited” that his niece and other members of the third generation are joining the company.
“I didn’t think any of them wanted to step up and do it,” he said.
“Sherry has been around, she has some good ideas, she’s trying to inject new traditions in the business. I’ll do anything I can to help her, just so long as I don’t have to work a shift.”
Johnson, who had to stop working because of health concerns, now spends much of his time at his home in Tombstone.
“I’m still living the cowboy life,” he said.
Ralph Moser, night manager at the Van Buren location who has worked for the company for 40 years, also is happy the next generation is getting involved.
“What’s nice about the family is you pick up the phone, and they are there for you,” he said. “You don’t become a number.”
Moser said the restaurants have changed to keep up with the times, adding new menu items and televisions to watch sports events. But the Western ambience remains.
“There was one time we were told we couldn’t have sawdust on the floor,” he said. “But that didn’t last long. We went to court and won because it was part of a grandfathered clause Bill had made with the city many moons ago.”
Such Western touches are what Cameron plans to emphasize.
“I just feel it’s so important that we preserve our heritage, and we have this wonderful opportunity to save some of Arizona’s history,” she said.