Chef’s witness is giving addicts hope

The majority of the employees who work at the combined restaurants of Panhandlers and Johnny’s Steak house in Oshkosh, Neb., are recovering addicts, and that’s how owner John Thomason likes it.

Deliberately asking God to bring addicts in need to his doorstep, Thomason, with God’s help, has been an example and safe place for several over the years, helping them with the wealth of experiences he has garnered over the past nearly 50 years of dealing with addiction and mental illness. 

A native of Denver, and raised in a Christian home, John accepted Christ at the age of 9, but the emergence of bi-polar disorder in his teens drastically changed the course of his life. 

Undiagnosed, and with few support systems in the 80s, John turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope. 

John was married by age 19, with the couple quickly having two children. 

By the age of 26, however, John was on the brink of suicide. It was at this time that divine intervention 

led him to a psychiatrist in Denver who diagnosed his mental illness and helped him to begin healing. John went on to become a chef and to become very involved in a local church. 

With his mom being from North Platte, John was familiar with western Nebraska, and with his children grown, his marriage ended, and clean and sober, John moved to a ranch 32 miles north of Oshkosh. It was in Oshkosh that John met his second wife. John got very involved with the Oshkosh community and his faith in Christ continued to be strong, but problems with his wife dealing with sexual addiction led him to relapse three years ago. John’s father and brother intervened and helped John to seek help at the Harmony Foundation Drug and Alcohol Rehab in Estes Park, Colo. It was here he completed the popular faith-based 12-step addiction rehab course, and he emerged fully recovered.

With his second marriage ended, and looking to make a new start, John fell back on his previous chef experiences and he opened Panhandlers in June 2015. 

 He now uses his business and his free-time to help others break addictions of all kinds. This has included hiring addicts, helping local law enforcement intervene in the lives of addicts, and speaking to various groups about breaking away from addiction. 

According to John, addiction is everywhere in the world, and it doesn’t have to be just drugs and alcohol, but anything that raises the pleasure chemical dopamine in a person’s brain to the point where they repeat that act more and more to get a “high”, just like what drugs and alcohol provide. 

Other forms of addiction can be sex, food, shopping, gambling and hoarding. All forms of addiction can be conquered with the help of Christ, but first one must turn from their pride and admit that they have a problem, John said. 

“This is really the hardest step in the process, because none of us want to be wrong and none of us want to give up control. But to heal, you have to,” he said. 

Addiction is a selfish disease, he said, admitting you have a problem and giving your life fully to Christ is a maturing process and you release yourself to live as God wants you to.

He went on to say that once a person makes that choice to get help and change, the real challenges will begin as Satan tries to get the addict to turn back. 

“Satan doesn’t bother those who are already doing his work. It is when you are trying to walk with Jesus that he will start tormenting you. The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is give my life to Jesus, and 10  minutes later I have to do it again, and again throughout the day. I have to choose constantly to walk with Christ by staying in His Word and doing His will,” he said. “Sobriety, joy and faith are like muscles, they have to be exercised daily.”

After admitting they have a problem, the next thing the addict must do is surround themselves with support, and he recommends completing a Christian recovery program, or start going to local Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings.

“There is financial assistance out there if you want to go to rehab, but if you aren’t ready for that, find a support system. We have a great one here in Oshkosh, as I am sure each town or county in Nebraska does,” he said. 

He said that once sobriety takes place, the addict needs to start giving back, with the process of helping others slowly becoming their new high.

“Helping others and being a support for someone else produces that same chemical process in your brain as your addiction did. Sobriety will eventually become your new high,” he said. 

John is now happily married to Lori, also a Colorado native and a Proverbs 31 woman who John had prayed for. He said Lori is his true partner in all areas of his life, including his sobriety and their restaurants. 

Along with their original hamburger cafe Panhandlers, John and Lori are now expanding their business to include a steakhouse called Johnny’s Steakhouse on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Housed in the same building as Panhandlers, the ambience of the building is changed on the weekends, with dimmed lights, fine linens and personal service providing a big town feel in small town Nebraska, he said. 

John is loving his life, and although there have been hard, dark moments, he wouldn’t change his experiences. 

“They made me who I am today, and it helps others see that God can change anyone and use anyone to His glory,” he said. 

For more information about Panhandlers or Johnny’s Steakhouse, or to speak to John, call 308-772-3121 or log on to their website at

Nebraska Living Times

P.O. Box 751
Grant, NE 69140