The story of the place on Petronia is as sultry as the name, Better Than Sex. Dani Johnson, a University of Central Florida marketing and journalism grad got hooked in the restaurant biz. She started serving with Bahama Breezes based out of Orlando, and was one in a wait staff of about 45. One guy drove her crazy.
“When I first met Len I couldn’t stand him,” Dani laughs at her first impression. “I thought he was loud, and obnoxious, and crazy.”
Len Johnson, a radio guy armed with a degree from the American Broadcasting Institute had a different take.
“I thought she was a little hottie. She had a boyfriend when she met me,” Johnson flatters his flame.
He hung up his apron for radio act in Mississippi, but going AWOL made Dani ditch her disliking. She started to miss him bopping around Bahama Breezes.
She explains, “he has this energy. When he leaves, the energy leaves. I started asking, “where’s that guy, Len?’”
Luckily for Dani, Len didn’t exactly like his deal and came back. The two Florida-raised restaurant workers started hanging out. That was 14 years ago.
While opening Bahama Breezes franchise in Tampa and Fort Myers, the two started escaping to Key West to blow their money. One four-day visit stretched into ten and Len popped the question.
“He asked me to marry him. We started planning our wedding,” Dani recalls fondly. “Either we were going to get married in two months at the Elk’s Club in Cape Coral, or save our money and have the wedding we wanted in Key West at the Hyatt.”
The two saved and splurged and moved to Key West after suffering grave losses.
Dani is serious. “Both of us had lost parents and we realized life’s too short. Why wait ‘til retirement?”
That was seven years ago.
Len and Dani logged long hours working various jobs around the island. They had both pairs of their dark, brown eyes on 411 Petronia Street, initially thinking the locale would be great for a fondue restaurant. They didn’t have any money, or a business plan. Instead of sitting on the idea, Dani was in the kitchen baking.
“Len had asked me to make him dessert. I wanted to impress him, and three hours later it still wasn’t done,” the missus remembers the day remarkably.
But, the New York City born daughter of Italian parents emerged from the kitchen with a two-later Oreo cake.
“By then Len was sitting on the couch in his pj’s and said, ‘wow!. If you can do that, I wonder what else you can make?’”
Dani, who’s favorite memories of her upbringing belong in the kitchen with her mom and a box of Christmas cookie recipes, revved up her red Kitchen-Aid mixer, making changes to her recipes and filing them in a three-ring binder. After Len pushing the idea for a dessert restaurant, a Valentine’s Day tasting party, and the Bone Island Grill closing up shop, the papers were signed. A lot of the decadent desserts on the menu today, were served at their home to friends first, or made by a fluke. Take the Choco-cab. A semi-sweet chocolate rimmed glass with Mad Housewife Cabernet.
“Len was asking me the proper way to melt chocolate. I tried to explain to him how to use a double boiler, melted all this chocolate and explained how it worked, and I thought I’m kind of in the mood for wine,” Dani dishes her secret. “I bought a bottle from Dion’s and I had all this chocolate. ‘What am I going to do with it?’ So, we figured out how to get the chocolate on the glass and I drank the whole bottle.”
The Adult Apple is a caramel rimmed glass with caramel beer.
“Caramel to the glass was a huge challenge to me, but Len pushed me to make it happen,” says Dani.
While she’s in the kitchen, wearing a uniform of black ballet flats, a black skirt and black tank top, to accentuate her red apron and master-baker’s hat, Len lends his talent to the front of the house, managing the staff, accounting, entertainers, the marketing, referrals, and setting the mood with music.
“We do hip hop songs, remakes of old jazz songs, big band, and Frank Sinatra all blended in together. For instance we have Smells Like Teen Spirit sung like Frank Sinatra,” Len admits his all time favorite is Love Shack, “plus really, really sexy Brazilian beats.”
As for the décor, the design takes the ancient art of Feng Shui. The South room is painted red to fuel passion and the main dining room is coated with eight layers of gold paint. The Chinese believe a gold room in the north will bring prosperity. The chandeliers, Dani picked out at a thrift store while shopping with her mom on the mainland. The furniture is all strategically positioned around all of their awards. Better Than Sex boats of the Chamber of Commerce’s New Venture Award and this year took away the judges’ blue ribbon and People’s Choice for Best Dessert. This year, they entered Strawberry Prosecco Soup with a Chocolate and Brie Grilled Cheese Sandwich.
Again Dani, “People don’t expect chocolate and cheese together in the same bite. Len suggested the Brie because it’s his favorite and there you go!”
After over a decade, they don’t make a decision without each other. Dani’s creations don’t make it onto the menu if Len lips aren’t likin’ it.
“We always knew we wanted to be in business together,” Dani gushes with authenticity. “The more were together the better we are.”
Proving some facets of life can at least compare… to doing the deed…
Len and Dani
Len and Dani Johnson are husband and wife, sharing their love for the island, each other, and desserts with the world from their place on Petronia Street. “I love the look on their faces when they do see me,” exclaims Dani. “They expect a nice, jovial, plump person to come out of the kitchen!”
A combination of melted chocolate and Cabernet may not be Better Than Sex, but dessert diners could call the after-dinner drink “sinfully delicious.”
The Adult Apple features a caramel rimmed glass and caramel flavored hops. All of the menu items have suggestive names; including, the signature dish Better Than Sex, bread pudding with three different kinds of chocolate plus Bing cherries. A Chef’s Classic Judge’s Award Winner 2009!