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Jonathon Dawson – HFEE Community Honoree

Jonathon Dawson, this year’s HFEE Gala honoree and owner of the popular Jonny D’s Pizza, is a familiar face to many in the Huntington community. He’s known for his family-friendly restaurant and for his long-standing support of the Huntington School District and many organizations in the Huntington community.

When he first heard the news that the HFEE board selected him as the 2024 honoree he was in disbelief, but very honored and humbled by the recognition.

“Owning a business in Huntington for nearly 20 years has given me the opportunity to form long-lasting connections with teachers and staff at the schools as well as the incredible families in Huntington. It’s one of my greatest joys! I love seeing the kids come in for a slice after class or parents as they are shuttling kids from soccer practice or other activities. It’s like we are all part of one big, extended family.”

Over the years, Jonny D’s has participated in countless fundraisers for organizations within the Huntington School District, providing special promotions that donate large portions of the sales generated at the pizzeria during the designated fundraiser – just ask any PTA member and they’ll tell you that Jonny D’s always helps. Mr. Dawson and his team have supported dozens of Pasta Night fundraisers for the schools and have provided food at cost to help to raise money. He’s even been a guest speaker at Washington Primary School, discussing entrepreneurship and business skills.

Jonny D’s also participates in feeding people in need at homeless shelters in the area for years. Mr. Dawson and his team at Jonny D’s support the Family Service League and Halo Network. They collect donations from patrons of the restaurant for a grassroots initiative that they call “Pay It Forward” to either feed a person in need who comes to the Jonny’s and doesn’t have enough money pay or to send free pizzas to the Tri Community and Youth Agency (Tri-CYA) for the kids who attend their youth programs.

Growing up in nearby Greenlawn, Mr. Dawson got his first taste of the pizza-making business at DiRaimo’s at age 14. There, he learned the business from the ground up, working after school and on the weekends. He was a natural behind the counter, greeting customers and gaining experience with the pizza ovens.

“I definitely asked a lot of questions! That first job taught me so much – the importance of hard work, how to take pride in your food, how to treat customers. I loved every minute of it! I took it all very seriously and wanted to master each aspect of the business,” reflected Mr. Dawson.

Mr. Dawson took that love of cooking and the leadership skills to Oswego State University, where he earned a business degree. He further honed those skills as the president of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. Leading over 60 members in philanthropic activities like supporting the local soup kitchen and fundraisers activities on campus, further developed his organizational skills and his love of helping others. Known for his culinary skills, Mr. Dawson would often cook meals for the entire fraternity.

“After graduation, I tried some entry level business positions but learned very fast that a desk job was not for me. I was yearning to connect with people through food – I knew I wanted to own my own restaurant. And I was going to make it happen one way or another.”

So, at the tender age 22, Mr. Dawson created a business plan for Jonny D’s, found a location for his restaurant – which happened to be a vacant autobody shop – and secured a loan to finance his dream. After extensive demolition and renovations, he opened the restaurant on February 7, 2005.

The first few years were filled with ups and downs, but Mr. Dawson was determined to be successful, working 90 hours a week or more. Knowing the failure rate of new food establishments is 90%, Mr. Dawson was committed to making his food fresh, delicious, and well-priced. He and the team use a special blend of breadcrumbs for the crust to make it crispy and differentiated from other pizzas in town. His homemade marinade for grilled chicken for salads is another specialty that sets Jonny D’s apart from other pizzerias. Today, Jonny D’s has over 15 different pizza combinations and has expanded into chopped salads, hot wings and other offerings. A chef at heart, still likes trying new recipes and perfecting old ones.

“One of the proudest days of my life was paying back my loan, knowing that I had established an enduring business. Even better, a few years after that, I was able to purchase the building from my landlord, which gave me more autonomy to run my business. It was a long road to that moment, but I never gave up because I had so much passion for my dream, and I absolutely love what I do.”

Now that Jonny D’s is an established business in Huntington, Mr. Dawson has more time for friends and family. He met his lovely wife Baine Anna Dawson, and they married in 2017. Equally driven and committed to giving back to the community, Mrs. Dawson is licensed marriage and family therapist with a practice in Huntington. Today, they live in Huntington and are raising their two beautiful children, daughter Presley, and son Jonny Jr.

“Looking back over the past two decades, I’m so grateful to the Huntington community for helping me make my dream into reality. It really comes down to hard work and treating people the way you want to be treated. And never giving up – that’s the biggest lesson I’d like to impart to young people today.”

Congratulations, Jon! You are an inspiration!