Rushing out the kitchen doors, he quickly shakes hands with three patrons in the establishment. By most measures, he is nondescript: a youngish man in a white chef apron, plain white T-shirt and tousled hair. He stops to talk to two more customers sitting at the bar before making his way to a table, Guinness in hand.
It’s 3:15 on a Monday afternoon, the lull period for businesses in the food and beverage industry, but at JJ Dolan’s, this slow duration appears nonexistent. For the next hour, all tables remain occupied by happy patrons enjoying beers and pizzas.
Most would not know it, but the man in the chef apron is the co-owner of this restaurant. John Niebuhr, known as “JJ” around the streets of Chinatown, pegs the success of JJ Dolan’s on one simple concept: hot pizza and cold beer. Niebuhr, who gives himself the title of “Pizza Guy” on his business card, says he found his love for pizza back in Jersey City, where he hails from. “I was in the second grade and I went on a field trip to a local pizzeria,” Niebuhr recalls. “I was selected out of one boy and one girl in the second-grade class to go ahead and make a pizza, and I knew right then, at that moment, that I wanted to be in the pizza business.”
Before beginning his working life in the downtown area, Niebuhr made pizzas at Kemo‘o Farms in Schofield and spent his leisure time in Chinatown. “On Friday nights, I would finish up at Kemo‘o Farms at 4:30 p.m.,” he says. “I would come down and be here in Chinatown by 5:30 p.m. and bring the guys at Murphy’s a pizza and have a beer.”
That’s where it all started for Niebuhr. Don Murphy, of Murphy’s Bar & Grill, made Niebuhr’s pizza deliveries a regular Friday night occasion. Then, in 1997, Niebuhr jumped on board Murphy’s bartending team, becoming a fulltime bartender in 2001.
Through Niebuhr’s regularity in the downtown area, both working and playing, he was able to build relationships with the right people. One of those key individuals is his current partner, Danny Dolan, who shared the same dream as Niebuhr of opening up an establishment that would fill a void in Chinatown. “In December of 2007, I got a phone call from Danny, who just left his bartending job at O’Toole’s, looking for something to do,” he says. “From there, we got together and put together a plan of what downtown needed.”
But it wasn’t an easy road for Niebuhr and Dolan. The two friends decided to launch their business right when the economy started to take its downturn. “We didn’t give up after three of the largest banks in Hawai‘i weren’t interested,” Niebuhr says. “But Hawaii National Bank stepped up because of a personal relationship we had built with someone there.”
Niebuhr made sure to utilize this kokua network to put together a place that benefited the community. “It was Chinatown helping Chinatown,” he says. “Everyone knew that they wanted pizza, they wanted some cold beer, and they wanted a place they could go to.” Built on that simple concept – the perfect marriage of pizza and beer – JJ Dolan’s opened its doors to Chinatown patrons in January of 2008. All the recipes are Niebuhr’s own and are an amalgamation of everything he has learned over the years of making pizzas, resulting in pies that people can’t get enough of. Still, he hasn’t let the restaurant’s success go to his head. While Niebuhr sits humbly at a tabletop with a Guinness in hand, he always makes time to welcome customers entering the doors and thank those headed out.
“You’re able to be resilient when you have a grouping and backbone of people behind you,” he says. “And Chinatown is the most resilient neighborhood in Hawai‘i. I feel so humble and so incredibly blessed.”
_______________ The key to a perfect pizza:
“To me, a great pizza is a perfect marriage between pizza dough, sauce and toppings,” says Niebuhr. “I really pride myself in using local produce, like local grape tomatoes. If you overdo the toppings, sauce or dough, it can ruin the entire pizza. My favorite pizza? I’m a simple man. I like cheese pizza. I like pepperoni, garlic, basil and sausage as an afternoon or late night pizza.”
Niebuhr’s chewy and crisp pizza crust is arguable the best on the island. Here, Niebuhr shares the key ingredients to his dough recipe, although the measurements you’ll have to figure out yourself.