Eatery helps ex-drug addict turn his life around

That One Place restaurant is a 1950s-style diner known for being a haven of comfort food and sumptuous breakfasts.

Less known about the popular Port Orchard eatery — tucked in the corner of a shopping mall off of Olney Avenue Southeast — is that it dishes out job opportunities to those with a troubled past.

That One Place has a history of hiring people with previous legal problems. About 20% of staff are in the Second Chance program, owners Mike and Jami Stice said. It enables those who may have lost out on other employment possibilities the opportunity to turn their life around.

“We like to focus on the people that had past drug issues because that is part of the reason that fuels their bad behavior. We want to help them get them back on their feet and headed in the right direction,” Mike Stice said. “I have seen firsthand that people who had problems before have a tough time getting that first job and getting their life back. If no one gives you that chance, then you are set up for failure. We realize it’s not an easy task, but someone has to do it. We do what we can.”

The restaurant’s philosophy has been a godsend for Sean Johnson, who was hired in 2021. Today, Johnson is drug-free, washing dishes and flipping burgers, and he couldn’t be happier.

Johnson’s story

The 53-year-old man said he spent most of the last 40 years using and selling drugs while repeatedly getting in trouble and spending time in jail.

“It was like living in hell,” Johnson said. “You got warrants [for your arrest]. The police are out for you. Every time you leave the house you gotta look over your shoulder. I don’t think a lot of people would be able to handle the lifestyle I lived without ending up dead or in prison.”

Johnson ran away from his California home in seventh grade. The 12-year-old boy moved in with his then-girlfriend’s family. “The family was into making and selling drugs,” he said. “I saw the money these people were making from selling. It made me want to do the same time thing.”

Johnson became a father at age 14. That would be his first of 10 children he would father with five women.

From his teenage years into his 50s, Johnson said he built up an extensive rap sheet by stealing cars, selling drugs and committing countless thefts and assaults—the most serious for pistol-whipping a person.

In 1999, he moved to Washington state to turn his life around. That goal was short-circuited when he returned to a life of “running with riffraff, selling drugs and boosting cars.”

In 2017, Johnson met his current girlfriend, Domonique Whitlow, at a “dope house” in Bremerton where users gathered to get high. Whitlow had been on heroin for 11 years, Johnson said.

Soon, the couple had their first child, but Child Protective Services took custody because of the parent’s drug use. The couple had their next two children, and the same heartbreaking scenario played out as the state had their parental rights taken away. The three kids ended up being adopted by a local family that allowed them to remain together.

At a crossroads

In 2020, Whitlow got pregnant a fourth time, and she told her partner that it was imperative that they get into a drug treatment program. When she finished, it was Johnson’s turn. “When she completed treatment, I hadn’t cleaned up. I was still selling drugs. I came up with the excuse that I needed to keep money rolling in so we could live. That didn’t fly,” he said.

Faced with losing his partner, Johnson entered a 28-month outpatient treatment program at Agape in Bremerton. His motivation: no way was he going to lose another child to CPS. Johnson completed treatment in early 2022, allowing him to part ways with nearly 40 years of drug addiction. “Treatment taught me to care about myself. To love myself. That wasn’t my lifestyle. It was the best thing that happened to me.”

When treatment ended, Johnson set his sights on finding a legitimate way to support his family. That’s when he heard That One Place hired recovering addicts. “I work in the dish pit. It’s the lower part in the restaurant. You clean dishes and do anything anyone wants you to do.”

From day one, the Stices believed Johnson was a good fit. “Sean is the perfect example of a guy who won’t say no to anything,” Stice said. “He’s the first person to raise his hand when something needs to be done. He’ll roll up his sleeves and get the job done. He is willing to help us in any way he can at any time.”

The Stices were so impressed by Johnson’s commitment that earlier this year they expanded his responsibilities to learning the ropes of cooking.

Johnson is also impressed by the Stices. “The owners were really interested in how my treatment was going. I never had someone care about me like that, especially workwise,” he said.

The Stices see Johnson as a changed man. “He actually has figured out life. He knows what he wants to do in terms of his goals, and he’s doing them. He’s a living example for other people who come in with these problems,” Stice said.

After Whitlow completed treatment, she and the couple’s two children moved into a clean and sober household for moms with children. No men were allowed. While the family was on a waiting list for transitional housing, Johnson lived in his car, something he tried to keep to himself out of pride.

When the Stices learned of his homeless status, they offered Johnson $4,000 so he could rent an apartment. “To get into an apartment, you have to have the first and last month’s rent and deposit,” Mike Stice said. “For a person living paycheck to paycheck and getting back on their feet, that’s a tough pill to swallow. If you don’t have help, you are not going to get there. We felt that Sean had earned that and deserved the help.”

Johnson added: “They actually found me a two-bedroom place, right in Port Orchard close to work.” The apartment allowed the couple and their 2-year-old daughter and 17-month-old son to reunite and live under one roof. They moved in three months ago.

Johnson’s future

Johnson has been clean from drugs for 31 months. He plans to marry his girlfriend, who works at a bakery-cafe. Johnson and his girlfriend were also able to connect with the family that adopted their three children who had been removed by CPS. Now they are able to visit those kids and celebrate birthdays and holidays with them.

Johnson also reconnected with his five other children. After making amends with past girlfriends, he said he now has regular contact with all 10 of his children – which he relishes.

The Johnson family operates on a tight budget, but life is good, he said. His paycheck covers rent. Hers covers food. Johnson said: “I don’t make a whole lot of money, but that’s alright in my mind. Our bills are paid, and there’s a roof over our head. I don’t have to go out and sell drugs.

“Everything is going good. It all started when I came to work here. This restaurant is awesome. For me, it totally changed my life. I’ll do backflips for these people. My life is content. I’ve never lived like this.”