Obituary: Johnny Garneau / Popular restaurateur, inventor celebrated trains

June 15, 1922-May 14, 2013

May 17, 2013 12:00 AM
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Johnny Garneau loved trains so much he built restaurants to celebrate them.

The restaurateur behind Golden Spike, which has four locations in the Pittsburgh area, died Tuesday in his sleep at his home in Lighthouse Point, Fla. He was 90.

Golden Spike was inspired by Mr. Garneau's fascination with the Golden Spike National Historic Site that marks where Union and Central railroads joined at Promontory Summit in Utah to complete the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.

At the Golden Spike on Sixth Street, Downtown, which he operated from 1968 to 1983, a model train ran across the bar. A bartender would place drinks atop train cars that would deliver them to patrons, recalled his daughter, Barbara Kelley, of Reston, Va.

Each Golden Spike featured a similar model train, along with servers dressed as conductors who wore their signature hats and patches from the five transcontinental railroads. In addition to steering restaurants, Mr. Garneau was an inventor. "He was always doing something," Ms. Kelley said of her father.

He patented the "sneeze guard" in 1959 as the Covered Food Serving Table and first used at Johnny Garneau's American Style Smorgasbord restaurants, a set price, all-you-can-eat model popular midcentury.

He went on to develop the detachable Sani-Serve food service handles and the "Pretz" roll, a cross between a bagel and a pretzel.

Mr. Garneau's enthusiasm for restaurants began in his hometown of Stratford, Conn., at Stratford Candy Kitchen, where he worked as a soda jerk until his high school graduation in 1941.

He then enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

After serving at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Ala., he helped train cadets beginning in 1943 at Clarion State Teachers College, now Clarion University.

He developed a fondness for the region, inspired by his relationship with Clarion native Lois Space, whom he married in 1945. His wife of 55 years, she preceded him in death in 2000.

Mr. Garneau then was transferred back to Alabama to serve as a chaplain's assistant until he was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant.

In 1949, he started his restaurant ventures with The Beanery, about two miles outside of Clarion. This five-seat spot was a hot dog shop that touted curbside service. He eventually closed it to open Johnny Garneau's American Style Smorgasbord in the 1950s, first in Clarion near Cook Forest State Park, then in the North Hills by Northway Mall and on Route 22 in Monroeville. He opened his first Golden Spike in Clarion in 1954 and the first one in the Pittsburgh area on Route 51 in the Baldwin area in 1965.

Later, Mr. Garneau transformed two smorgasbord restaurants into the steakhouse concept and opened restaurants in Ohio and Florida.

In 1969, Mr. Garneau entered Hospitality Magazine's Hall of Fame for outstanding achievements in the food service industry .

Even though Mr. Garneau retired to Florida, he returned to Clarion often to visit friends.

"He was a local celebrity," said family friend Donna Gaydash, principal of Immaculate Conception School in Clarion. "Everyone knew who he was because he was so involved."

Years later, she hasn't forgotten the food at his restaurants.

"You could always depend on a good bowl of chili," said Ms. Gaydash, who had visited the couple when they retired to Florida, where Mr. and Mrs. Garneau would make "a terrific key lime pie" and the chili she loved, one of his wife's recipes.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Garneau is survived by four other children, John P. Jr., of Montoursville, Lycoming County, Jane McLaughlin of Lighthouse Point, Fla., Susan McKinney of Pittsburgh and Robert of Raleigh, N.C.; a sister, Jeanne Richards, of Connecticut; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

The funeral is today at 12:30 p.m. at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Lighthouse Point. Funeral arrangements are by Kraeer Funeral Home in Pompano Beach.

A memorial Mass will be held in June at Immaculate Conception Church in Clarion with burial in the Clarion Cemetery beside his wife. The date and time are to be determined.

Memorial contributions can be made to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.