By Susan Johnson
Judi Keller Keiser was a lot like the hard-shelled, soft-centered chocolates she enjoyed during the holidays.
Strong-willed and opinionated when it came to running her restaurants in Sedona, the slender, dark-haired woman from Tennessee was always the first to offer sandwiches for hard-working volunteers and the first to arrive with a spread for friends going through rough times.
Surrounded by her husband and daughter and her stepdaughter’s family, she passed away suddenly at the age of 60 at the Verde Valley Medical Center on Tuesday, March 17, at 8:30 p.m.
Co-owner of Keiser’s West for 11 years, she and her husband Larry sold the West Sedona landmark in 2008.
Until her death last week, she and her husband were also the longtime and well-known co-owners of Judi’s Restaurant and Lounge on Soldier Pass Road.
The secret of Judi’s longevity in the restaurant business, notorious for its attrition, was to treat like family her loyal employees who rarely if ever left of their own volition.
She also reigned in the 1980s and 1990s over a group of customers that longtime regular James Bishop Jr. characterized “as bizarre a mélange of characters as might ever be found.”
Though Sedona is a far tamer place these days, Larry said there are still some similarities to the old days.
“If you think the lights on 89A are a problem now, you should have seen the uproar when the lights were going up on Posse Grounds,” Larry said. “We had fistfights in the bar.”
Part of the ambiance in those days could be chalked up in the name of diversity, such as it was in the red rocks, a mix of locals and tourists and hippies and New Agers.
About that not-long-gone era, Bishop reminisced that Judi would look around the smoke-filled bar and muse, “The bad and the beautiful are here.”
Those were the days when the St. Patrick’s Day Parade began Thursday evening, Larry recalled, trucks backing up to the main drag for a three-day long tailgate party.
“The parade ended in our parking lot,” Larry said. “We had people on horseback coming in through the overhang.”
Alice Simmons remembers those days well — she began working at Judi’s in 1980, left briefly, then returned 17 years ago.
“It was like coming home,” Alice said. “I worked side by side with Judi in the kitchen — she was fast, meticulous and she only used the highest quality ingredients — that made my job easy.”
Simmons’ length of tenure at the restaurant isn’t unusual; another employee recently retired after 18 years.
“Judi cared about everybody, she listened and she was open to you, she was exactly the way she seemed,” Alice said.
Not that working for Judi was easy.
“Everything had to be perfect: the chairs, the table, the settings, where people were seated,” Alice said. “She had the strongest personality of anyone I’ve ever known.”
Tending to customers was equally important.
“We might as well have handed them blank menus because Judi told us to make them anything they wanted,” Alice said.
That attitude made both restaurants regular hangouts for locals, including Mimi Esser who knew Judi when the restaurant owner first got started in Sedona.
“When Larry came along and they fell in love, my husband Fred married them in our home,” Esser said. “And when Fred passed away, she never asked, she just brought a whole load of food over to our house.”
Larry first met Judi when he was one of her customers.
“I loved her, everything about her, for seven years from afar,” Larry said. “Evidently, she didn’t mind.”
With a family history in the restaurant business, Larry was no stranger to the kitchen and he began helping her out whenever he could.
Within a short time, the two married, working long hours together in the kitchen and in the front of house.
As opinionated as she was about where people ought to sit, Judi was just as gifted in the kitchen, an expert hand at homemade ice cream and her infamous homemade butter brickle, chocolate chip, cream cheese pie, according to her daughter Marci Tully of New River, who said her mother learned to cook in order to make a living.
Though her soft heart never hardened despite years of long hours, it also never got in the way of speaking her mind.
“She would tell anybody anything and it would be the truth; there was no sugarcoating,” Marci said.
“But, no matter what might be going wrong, she was a rock, very sage, and if I needed anything she was always there.”
In addition to her husband and daughter, Judi is survived by her parents Emma and Ervin Keller, sisters Brenda Smith and Patricia McGee, stepsons Roger L. Keiser, Robert B. Keiser, stepdaughter Kelly Keiser Peebles, nine step-grandchildren, two step-great-grandchildren, one niece and one nephew.
A celebration of her life will be held at the Sedona Elks Lodge on Sunday, March 29, at 6 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Humane Society of Sedona at 2115 Shelby Drive, Sedona, AZ 86336.
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