Small Business Spotlight: Chef JJ Johnson looks to expand his FIELDTRIP restaurants despite pandemic toll

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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- The restaurant and hospitality industry has been among the hardest hit in the pandemic, but one renowned chef is betting on the future.

James Beard award-winning Chef JJ Johnson currently owns three restaurants in New York City. He owns FIELDTRIP – a casual rice bowl eatery with locations in Harlem, Rockefeller Center and Long Island City. It’s named for the rice fields he has visited in India, Ghana, Israel, Singapore and other countries where rice is part of the traditional meal.

"I'm stirring up a different pot right now, trying to get a flavor full for the future, which is really interesting as you grow as a chef, entrepreneur or founder," Johnson told Joe Connolly and Neil A. Carousso on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight, sponsored by Dime Community Bank.

Seeing an opportunity to expand, he is more focused on business operations and marketing, but understands he must maintain quality in his food to succeed in growth.

"It's hard," he conceded. "You look at the color, you look at the consistency, that one is darker, that one is lighter... so you do think about that as you roll out more units."

Chef JJ acknowledged inherent risk. In talking to executives at Shake Shack, he learned they suffered near-insurmountable losses from a failed expansion to Florida, but survived with a healthy bank account. He's hoping to learn from their mistakes and capitalize on the opportunity he sees to pay lower rent with leases, he estimates, down about 30 percent from last year.

He said he prefers percentage-based rent and landlords are more receptive to partnering now because many are unable to make mortgage payments without revenue coming in and federal and local moratoriums on evictions. Johnson told Connolly and Carousso that before the shutdown last spring, he was "laughed at" when he suggested a percentage lease in which rent is based on a percentage of sales.

"I think the biggest thing we all learned is, if you have a landlord or you have a partner that's in it with you through the darkest and brightest times, we all benefit," Johnson said.

He told WCBS 880 that landlords he talks to are "looking to the new guard of New York City to try to help revive back some of these communities" or even start fresh in a post-pandemic economy.

Chef JJ believes connecting with the community through charitable work and sponsoring local programs is essential for building relationships and a customer base. FIELDTRIP launched initiatives to feed frontline workers in Harlem at the outset of the pandemic.

See ideas on how to turn the restaurant industry around on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight video above.