Insights / Interviews / Q&A with JJ Johnson: On Diving Into the Fast-Casual Space and Scaling a Restaurant for Success
Q&A with JJ Johnson: On Diving Into the Fast-Casual Space and Scaling a Restaurant for Success

In 2019, Beard-Award-winning chef JJ Johnson launched FIELDTRIP, a NYC fast-casual restaurant centered around rice. Not long after, the pandemic hit. And Johnson feared he’d have to shut his doors. But thanks to an idea from his wife, Mia, a nurse, Johnson found himself turning things around – by providing thousands of meals to healthcare workers and families in need.

“Community is a really big player with restaurants, but it’s like, how do you get awareness to people that aren't on social media? How do you get people’s attention?” says Johnson. “What we did during the pandemic sped up that process of awareness. People working in hospitals that might’ve never heard of us before were telling their friends, ‘Hey, I got this delicious food today, this restaurant looked out for us,’ and we started seeing people show up that otherwise would’ve taken much longer to walk through our doors.”

FIELDTRIP was born out of Johnson’s love for rice as a connector that can be found at the center of tables across the world. The menu features seven types of rice, with more than half sourced directly from farmers. It’s Johnson’s first debut on his own, and also his first time exploring fast-casual, a space he’s found he loves. And now, he’s been given the opportunity to grow within it, fast.

In December, Johnson landed a round of funding from two investment firms, Founders Table and Pendulum. With it, he plans to grow FIELDTRIP from two locations to as many as eight across the next four years, with hopes of eventually adding more.

We sat down with Johnson to chat about what he’s learned since diving into fast-casual, and how he’s planning for FIELDTRIP’s future success.

Can you walk us through how you first got into cooking?

When I was a kid, I cooked in my grandmother's kitchen, and fell in love with food that way, in this very vibrant, loud, kitchen with my grandmother and my two great great aunts. At about seven or eight, I told my parents I wanted to be a chef because I saw a commercial for the Culinary Institute of America. And that never stopped. As I got older, I tried to cook people’s birthday dinners – I burnt a lot of people’s birthday dinners. 

My first job was as a dishwasher at a country club. It’s the only job I’ve ever been fired from because the chef took food in the garbage can and tried to feed it to people and I wouldn't allow him to do it, which is like a horror story.

I toured all the culinary schools, and when I got accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, I went there. I was one of the worst kids in my class. And I wanted to quit. My dad talked me out of it. I graduated with my associate’s. And I promised my mom I would get my bachelor's, so I went to Seton Hall in New Jersey. I stayed there for a semester. And that's when I really realized that I ultimately loved food. I would be talking about food all the time, and people would look at me like I was crazy.

You worked your way around a bunch of different kitchens, eventually landing at  Harlem’s The Cecil, which merged with Minton’s. How’d you decide to go off on your own and launch FIELDTRIP?

Alexander Smalls [from The Cecil and Minton's] mentored me for a good six, seven years. And I left to go out and make my own path. I did a popup at New York’s Chefs Club Counter and got asked to do a residency there, which was a super success. 

Chefs’ Counter was the first time I ever tried to do fast-casual. I remember asking Chefs Club to do Counter, and they were like, ‘No chef ever wants to do Counter’. But I said I was interested in trying to figure out a popup, and figure out fast-casual. It was a rice bowl popup. And it wound up being a huge success.

At that time, two things went through my mind – people of color that cook food in a restaurant setting, some people don't want to pay the price point that your food’s actually worth. And two, will people actually pay $22 for a rice bowl? Originally I wanted to do a very similar model to what David Chang did with Momofuku. Instead of ramen, there’s rice bowls, with a counter spot, and the vibe – a very similar approach. But I thought, I don't know if this is going to work. So I tried to figure out fast-casual. It's something I never worked in before. I just read books, worked with a team, and then rolled out FIELDTRIP. 

Fast-casual is actually a lot harder than a full-service restaurant.

Tell me a little bit about that – what you’ve learned across the last few years?

I realized the reason why McDonald’s and these big brands are so successful is because they've figured out two things – the supply chain and consistency. In fast-casual, people that walk in the door want that same thing every time they come in the door. They know what they want, they know what it tastes like, and if it’s off, they’re pissed off. And it’s difficult. It has a lot to do with the supply chain across the board.

I imagine you’ve been particularly struggling with that during the pandemic? 

Right now in particular, the supply chain is ruthless. Before, you built a fast-casual chain, and you were trying to get food costs between 18% to 22%, maybe 15% to 22%. But is that even possible anymore? 

Right now we’re in the 26% to 27% range. We used to be in the 18[% range]. The price has literally doubled.

What are some ways you’re trying to adjust?

The price of the product has to go up. How much will it go up, I’m very conscious about that. Most people say push it on the customer, but then a customer only walks in your door a couple times a week. So you just have to work through it, maybe taking a different approach, using locality, changing a kind of a protein, looking at all the different things.

Have you had to change your proteins?

We changed our beef bowl between a couple of different cuts but for most part we’ve stayed the same.

I’d love to hear a little more about how the actual rice concept of FIELDTRIP came to be.

The inspiration came from all my travels. Being in Singapore and West Africa, India, Israel – everywhere I went, rice was always at the center of the table, and people really get excited. Here, when rice comes to the table, people are like, ‘Ugh rice’. It’s mushy. Under-cooked. Overcooked. As I started to dive deep into the rice culture of America, realizing that rice was part of the Gold Era and all the history behind it, I wondered if we could be part of this rice revitalization of the country. Can I serve people freshly milled, no bleach, no enriched rice, the way that you should eat rice? And for me, I cook a worldly, global-fusion style of food, and this allows me to play in that arena all the time. It also allows people to come in on a frequent basis because they can get something different every time.

Bowl concepts are incredibly trendy in the fast-casual space. What are the main reasons you think they work so well?

I didn't create a bowl concept because bowl concepts are popular. I created a bowl concept because rice goes in a bowl. Why do people gravitate to the bowl? I’m not sure, I’m still trying to figure that out. But it was very specific to me to put it in a bowl. For us, FIELDTRIP is nostalgic. You eat rice in a bowl, you feel it, you see it.

But you do happen to be among this very competitive bowl space. I’m wondering what you think about when aiming to set yourself apart?

I classify myself as a concept based on one ingredient, which is rice. And then flavors build around the rice. That’s what makes us different. We also source the rice directly from the farm, and ethically source and support small-batch farmers. 

When you planned the original menu, can you describe your process for creating ingredient combinations that allowed you to keep menu prices no more than $13? 

Just being mindful – of portion sizing, what cuts of protein you’re using, your partners. I wanted to include oxtails with the rice and peas, but oxtail prices are just so much money. But that’s the pleasure – I can do it on the menu for a special or in partnership with a certain rice company.

Do people ever complain about portion sizing?

People are people, and they have ideas of how much they want in the bowl. What we recently learned is that our customers want to add ingredients, so we’ve actually taken our bowls up a size so when people add ingredients, it doesn’t feel so compacted. It’s something our customers started naturally doing in our Harlem location, and we’re going to [officially] roll it out in the next couple of weeks.

This definitely gets the check average up, but it also allows people to have fun with it and create things we might have never thought about. Like when David Chang comes, he does something I never would’ve thought of, and it comes out really good. He basically does the Veggie bowl with jollof rice, adds beef, no coconut yogurt, and adds peri peri sauce with red onions – it’s a super spicy bowl, but he’s a spicy kind of guy. 

From your recent experiences, can you share some advice for others starting out in fast-casual?

When you open a fast-casual restaurant, it’s a community restaurant, right? Everybody that started in the fast-casual space, that restaurant was an anchor of the community before they went to the next community. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Popeyes – everybody was an anchor somewhere.

A lot of us, we look at these brands where they are now. We look at Sweetgreen, and are like, ‘Oh my god, look at that technology’ or we look at Chopt, and we’re like ‘Oh my good, look at that branding’. Just focus on who you are right now. You can look to the bigger players to see what they're doing, but you don’t need to come out of the gate with all this branding, spending all this money that you won’t recoup in enough time with one location. You need to look at the cost of everything, not just the food, and that includes the vessel you're using to put the food in. It’s different than a full-service restaurant, where the plate was reusable. That bowl and utensil, every time it goes into the bag, that costs money. So that's something that I'm very conscious of now.

You also need to think about creating something people can eat multiple times a week. It can be based on a singular ingredient or not. I think with the add-on section I’m rolling out now, it’s like, ‘Woo, woo, now I can put Fresno [chilies] or that curry sauce on top’, and it allows our two-times-a week-customer to come three times a week.

How’d you choose Harlem as your first FIELDTRIP location?

Harlem is where my dad’s from, it’s where I lived as a young adult, I have family there. When you open your first spot, it’s like who’s going to walk through the door? At least I’ll have my auntie or my cousins. And without Harlem, I wouldn’t be who I am – like in my Cecil days, those people came through the door, supporting me, they ate my food, told their friends about it, and gave me a shot.

If someone’s opening a fast-casual, go back to that community where people know who you are. You might be a big chef in a big city. But if your hometown looks up to you, you’re this hometown hero, maybe it's right just for you to start there.

Can you tell me about your recent partnership with Founders Table and Pendulum – how did that get initiated and what are your main goals?

I wrote an op-ed in a magazine, and Nick Marsh [of Founders Table] reached out. We just had a really good conversation, and then I was talking to my attorney, and he was like, ‘You know he invests? Get your stuff ready to go to market.’. 

So it really started with Nick, and then I always look at a playbook like, okay, who did it the right way, and can I do it their way to make my success. I think Steve Ells did a great job with Chipotle in partnership with McDonald's to help him get him to where he is. And I said if I can find a player like that to help me bounce ideas off of, negotiate leases, share a marketing deck – that’s what made me very interested in Nick. Nick also just loved what we were building. And then in the mix of that, he introduced me to Robbie Robinson [of Pendulum], and Robbie’s goal is to invest in black-owned and women-owned businesses. And that excites me because somebody that's trying to push the needle and get founders exposure and money in their pocket to push their vision forward, is what I hope to do for the future. 

To get to that next level, I can’t do it myself. I need people in the room that can call their friends and say, ‘Hey, we invested in FIELDTRIP, check them out,’ or ‘Hey, you're trying to do marketing on Tik Tok? We know a firm that does that.’.

When you first opened, was your plan always to expand?

I thought over the course of my career, we would maybe get to five locations. I'm not a greedy person. But I realized during the pandemic that FIELDTRIP could be potentially a 30, 40, 50 unit place if I can do it right. This brand is actually bigger than me. And that's what I’m set out to do now, take this brand on the road, partner with development companies that are looking for good partners, and keep paving the way for the future, bringing hope to the industry and just keep fighting during these hard times. 

You mentioned one of the hardest challenges is consistency. As you scale, what plans are you putting into place to make sure the FIELDTRIP experience stays consistent?

As we get to the next couple of units, we’ll bring on a culinary director, which is probably going to be one of the most important hires. This allows me to develop dishes more and have somebody constantly jumping around from unit to unit, testing out products. Then I think the other biggest thing is just empowering talent. Our talent isn’t talent that you specifically see in other fast-casual restaurants, and we're empowering those people, hoping as we grow, they grow with us because without them, there is no FIELDTRIP.

You’re cooking 7 varieties of rice – I mean, are you at all concerned specifically about the consistency of the rice? 

Hah! I'm always concerned about the quality of rice. I always have an issue with rice. 

From what I hear, you shouldn't waste money on a commissary [kitchen] until you get to about 60 locations. So I think what we’ll do is go to a rice cooker format in partnership with a rice cooker company, because every rice cooker cooks rice very differently. Hopefully that will keep that consistency. And with the process from start to finish, everybody [will need to do it] the same way. There’s a very serious methodology of how we cook rice, what we do when the rice is done, how we fluff and season the rice, and so far we’ve done an okay job. 

I know you're also planning on launching a line of retail sauces, something we’re seeing a lot of chefs doing these days. Can you share the mission behind that?

We had been approached by a couple of retail places that were interested in the sauces that I produce at FIELDTRIP. And when I look at companies like Cava, it’s like, I’m also looking to be a potential brand in everybody's household. It allows us to expand our brand. When it will come to market, I'm not sure. It's a totally different world than I know, but that I'm excited to get into.

Do you at all miss being in the fine dining space?

I’ll be back in the fine dining space. I’m not sure when I’ll return, but I’ll be back.

Are you enjoying fast-casual, or are there any surprises you’ve discovered along the way? 

I actually love the fast-casual space, and it’s taught me a lot. A lot of us as chefs, we look at broadliners like it's the devil, but broadliners actually allow you to have some consistency and get product. So with that approach on looking at the supply chain and consistency, I will take a very different approach at a full-service restaurant than I did before.

You’ve talked about your vision for FIELDTRIP, and I’m wondering where you see the concept ultimately landing in the future?

I think right now with this third wave, or whatever this is [with Omicron], I’ll go back to my growth plan, and it’ll probably get slightly reworked because New York is at an ultimate low right now for restaurants. Where's the next place for FIELDTRIP? That's what I'm trying to figure out.That's where I'm digging deep. 

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