It’s a Damn Good story that incorporates the Windy City and the Sunshine State. Old-school values and modern-day deception. Fire and ice (or, at least, snow). Savage storms and uncomfortable calm. A Revolution and a whiskey rebellion. Speakeasy style and beer-pong comfort. And, of course, Michael Jordan and Lady Gaga.
It’s also a tale about one brother rolling the dice and a younger brother, years later, doubling down.
But, more than anything, it’s a success story—one that shows no signs of slowing down.
What started two decades ago with the purchase of one of South Florida’s most beloved concert venues has evolved into a business platform under an umbrella—Damn Good Hospitality—that says plenty about the intent of the company’s CEO, Jeff John, and his brother (and chief operating officer), Jarred John.
“Why do you go out? You’re going for an experience—and to be taken care of—whether it’s to your local bar, an entertainment establishment or your favorite restaurant,” Jeff says. “Our goal is to put a twist on that, whether it’s the artwork displayed, the edgy programming, the craft cocktail menu, the music we play. It’s all about enhancing a ‘regular’ concept.”
“Coming from Chicago, the hospitality scene was always top-notch. But you didn’t always get that experience in South Florida; we wanted to bring that environment to our properties,” Jarred says of a stable under the Damn Good banner that includes Revolution Live, Backyard, and Stache Drinking Den in downtown Fort Lauderdale; and Warren, the red-hot restaurant in Delray Beach with the largest whiskey library in the region. “You get the full hospitality experience from the time you walk into one of our rooms to the minute you leave.”
As with many good stories that have Midwest roots, this one starts with a patriarch who continues to live by a set of golden rules.
The John brothers were born and raised in Barrington, a northwest suburb of Chicago only minutes from the city. Jeff is the oldest (he’s now 45); Jarred is the youngest (he’s 36). There are two sisters in between. Their father was an orthodontist by trade, but he also had a real estate and development business (still around today) that he started with a partner in 1980. He sold the dental practice, but he teaches at the University of Chicago in the orthodontics department.
“Dad set the example for us of hard work, honesty and treating people right,” Jeff says.
“Sports was everything for us growing up,” Jarred says. “Our whole family played soccer; Jeff was an amazing player. My sister won a state title in gymnastics. But Dad is very work-oriented. If you weren’t playing sports, he expected you to have a job.”
He also established a tradition that Jeff and Jarred carry on to this day.
“Every winter break, or any long holiday weekend, my father took the family skiing in Colorado, Utah or Canada,” Jarred says. “That was our biggest family bonding every year.”
“Yes, we didn’t do Disney World,” Jeff quips. “It’s my favorite thing in the world to do. To this day, skiing is my motivation to work.”
Chicago also left an impression on the brothers, especially Jeff who often joined his dad on trips into the city for his real estate and development dealings.
“I knew the buildings downtown and grew up with an understanding of Chicago,” Jeff says. “Wrigley Field became a second home to me. And then there was Michael Jordan. Being in Chicago when the Bulls were so hot in [the late 1980s and 1990s]? The city was on fire. The amount of business that came into Chicago because of the Michael and the Bulls … people will never understand the value of what that did for our area.
“We got to see a world-class city develop in front of our eyes, including the transformation of its food and beverage scenes. That became part of our motivation here—to bring some of the education and culture that we grew up with to South Florida in the hopes that it would enrich this area and bring people together.”
In an alternate universe, both brothers would have spent their college years closer to the slopes. Jeff saw a potential career in skiing that his father couldn’t envision; Jarred wanted to attend school in Colorado. They both ended up at Lynn University in Boca Raton—but for different reasons.
“I was not a great student; schools had a love-hate relationship with me,” Jeff says. “They either loved me—or I was not in the classroom. Because I was a soccer player, and Lynn had an excellent program, it seemed like a fit. The soccer career didn’t pan out. But I started to excel in school.
“The great thing about Lynn was the small size of the school and the more structured setting. Plus, my business professors all seemed like former CEOs. So, it wasn’t just a teacher saying ‘Go home and read these chapters.’ It was, ‘Let me tell you how I handled the situation in 1975 when I was running a Wall Street company.’ That, to me, was incredible.”
Jeff graduated from Lynn in 2002 with a master’s degree in international business. That same year, he sealed the deal that would change his life.
Jeff was working on his graduate degree when a friend of his secured the lease for what was then known as Chili Pepper, an intimate, well-known venue on Southwest Third Avenue that had been part of the live music scene in Fort Lauderdale for decades. When the building first opened a century ago next to the railroad tracks, it was a slaughterhouse. It later became an armory during World War II. In one of its music incarnations, the space hosted a pop singer named Madonna in the late 1970s.
Jeff’s friend had put together a group of investors with the intent of redeveloping a property that had slid into disrepair. Jeff made a small investment, as well, figuring he’d be in South Florida for a few years. As it turned out, he never left.
“The big-money guys that were supposed to invest? That never happened,” Jeff says. “These other guys came in—and they were criminals. I remember asking for information on the accounting side, like balance sheets and profit/loss statements. They had nothing. They were flying by the seat of their pants.
“When I finished grad school, they needed more money to stay afloat. So, I told them I’d buy them out for pennies on the dollar. They could get out of the business, and I would move it forward. That’s what happened. I bought the business in 2002—and then I shut the place down.”
As Jeff describes Chili Pepper at that point, “you couldn’t put another Band-Aid on that place.” With investment help from his father and his uncle, Warren—whose spirit, two decades later, inspired the Damn Good restaurant by the same name in west Delray—Jeff and his team set about renovating the room.
A blown breaker earlier in 2002 had caused a fire that prompted the city to shut down the property. For six months the following year, there was no power as workers completely redid the electrical system; the plumbing also received a reboot, and the interior was transformed and refortified.
Jeff finally opened the doors to a building now called Revolution on Sept. 28, 2004, with the Wailers providing the opening-night entertainment.
“We could get 1,000 people inside and 2,000 on the patio. After the first year, we were already 32nd in the world in venues with 3,000 seats and under, based on our ticket sales,” Jeff says. “Where in the world are you going to find a 35,000-square-foot property, with half of it outside, where you can play music until 4 in the morning and be open seven days a week? The entertainment district of Fort Lauderdale was a huge driving point for me.”
Just as things started rolling at Revolution, Mother Nature dropped her hammer.
In 2005, back-to-back hurricanes—Katrina in late August and Wilma in late October—dealt Revolution a blow that lingered for the better part of two years. In the short term, downtown Fort Lauderdale was a disaster with windows blown out, light poles and electrical lines down. But even as the area gradually recovered, people were too busy dealing with their own storm-ravaged properties and lives to think about live music.
“It wasn’t just the lost bookings,” Jeff says. “No one was going out.”
Asked how he kept the business going, he pauses before saying, “That’s the trust and love of family. If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Speaking of which, by this time, Jeff had help at Revolution from a familiar face. After the family invested in Revolution, Jarred’s father encouraged him to also attend Lynn and learn the business—even though his ski-loving youngest child had his heart set on college near the Rocky Mountains.
It turned into a bonding opportunity for the brothers, who were nine years apart.
“My first year at Lynn was 2004,” says Jarred, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business four years later. “That’s where my relationship with Jeff evolved. On my off days from school, I’d barback and bartend. I ended up learning the business from the ground up.”
“He was working there,” Jeff says, “but don’t think he wasn’t having fun.”
“I definitely got to reap the benefits of being at Revolution,” Jarred notes with a laugh.
“I will say this,” Jeff adds. “He was a great ambassador of the brand. He brought boatloads of people to Revolution while he was in college.”
Though the country was dealing with an economic downturn in the late 2000s, Jeff was thinking beyond the Great Recession. In 2008, a renovation of the outdoor space behind Revolution resulted in a casual favorite for cold brew and all-night parties called America’s Backyard (now, Backyard; see sidebar). Two years later, a 5,000-square-foot space at the end of the building opened as an artist-driven spot to support the local cultural scene called Green Room. That room eventually re-emerged in 2013 as Damn Good’s 1920s-era speakeasy, Stache.
By then, Jeff had developed a passion for whiskeys, purchasing private barrels and building a spirit portfolio that would later set the stage for Warren. The Delray restaurant debuted last year with a collection of nearly 1,000 original bottles, including single barrels that Jeff personally taste-tests and purchases in Kentucky from brands like Buffalo Trace and Russell’s Reserve. (Before Warren, Damn Good acquired the healthy food concept Green Bar & Kitchen in 2018.)
The steady growth coincided with Jarred’s emergence, after coming aboard full-time in 2008, as a secret promotional weapon that, along with his guerilla marketing team, helped to fill the rooms at Revolution and Backyard. He would go to become director of operations for all the Fort Lauderdale properties, set corporate polices and handle much of Damn Good’s finances.
“When I started Revolution, we went to head shops and tattoo shops and tanning salons with flyers. We were old-school promoters,” Jeff says. “Jarred, being nine years younger, grew up with this digital world. I despise it. His ability to understand all of that—the posts, the retweets and all that—from a marketing and branding perspective? You can’t put a price on that knowledge and what he brought to our businesses.
“He’s also great with the staffs. He makes people feel comfortable and creates a workplace atmosphere that’s honest and fair. If Jarred wasn’t doing what he’s doing, I couldn’t get away from the day-to-day at the properties and grow our business.”
The brothers remain humbled by the response to the concepts they’ve launched. Along the way, they’ve seen expansion the likes of which Jeff could only dream about when he was focused on replacing the $40,000 electrical breaker that blew in 2002. Today, Damn Good Hospitality employs more than 200 people—a figure that will exceed 300 after the launch later this year of Damn Good Sweets in Delray and a second Warren across the state in Naples.
“We do see things differently sometimes, because we grew up in different eras,” Jarred says. “But Jeff has this ability to go out, network with certain people, and truly visualize the growth of this business. If we make a mistake, we learn from it. But if the juice is worth the squeeze, we’ll move forward on it.”
“The worst decision you can make,” Jeff says, “is not making a decision. We try to make ours as a team.”
Years before he bought out the other investors—and long before Katy Perry and Lady Gaga played Revolution during a three-week span in 2009—Jeff remembers thinking during his early Lynn days what a gem the property seemed. And how it was perfectly situated.
“If you put a dart board over South Florida, Fort Lauderdale is the bull’s eye,” Jeff says. “You’re 18 miles from Miami, 20 miles from Palm Beach, and you’re in a market that’s now one of the five largest in the country.
“But the biggest thing in 2002 was that I had given these guys a hundred grand of my money—and I didn’t want to lose it. So, I said, screw it. Let’s go all in.”
Twenty years later, Damn Good Hospitality continues to reap the benefits of that bet.
Damn Good Options
The offerings under the eclectic Damn Good Hospitality umbrella include a live music haven, a spot to hang and play games, a 1920s-era drinking den, a hub for healthy dining, and the hottest restaurant in Delray. Here’s the rundown.
- Revolution Live: The OG in the Damn Good stable remains one of South Florida’s hippest and most intimate concert venues, with room for 1,300 people in its two-floor, standing-room-only setting in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (jointherevolution.net)
- Backyard: The laid-back space behind Revolution hosts everything from glow parties to beer pong tournaments to luxury brunch seatings and much more. There’s a good-time feel to this spot for fun and socializing. (backyardftl.com)
- Stache: The art of mixology has a home inside this craft cocktail/whiskey bar and nightclub with a discernible air of speakeasy cool. Entertainment includes live bands, cabaret shows and DJs. The two-level space is perfect for private events. (stacheftl.com)
- Green Bar & Kitchen: The only concept not originated by the Damn Good team is an ode to wholesome dining in Fort Lauderdale with an array of vegan treats, plant-based burgers, smoothies, salads, bowls, cold-pressed juices and more. (greenbarkitchen.com)
- Warren Delray: The brothers’ Uncle Warren would be proud of this restaurant in west Delray Beach, inspired by him, that boasts a whiskey collection valued at some $1 million and a chef-driven menu that has this part of Palm Beach County buzzing. (warrendelray.com)
- Coming soon: Damn Good Hospitality is poised to launch a second Warren later this year in Naples. In addition, a space behind the Warren in Delray will serve as home to a new concept: Damn Good Sweets, a spin on the traditional sweet treat shop.
Photos by Eduardo Schneider