How JJ Johnson Beat 2020
As early as January, the chef was in danger of losing FieldTrip. Now, he has two more restaurants opening later this month.
Chef JJ Johnson’s voice is effervescent as we speak. It's a perfect fall day, and Johnson has a lot to be grateful for: His Harlem restaurant, FieldTrip, not only survived, emerging as a much-needed lifeline in his community, but is expanding to two new locations this month. In January, it was a different story entirely. While the restaurant industry came to a complete halt in March due to COVID-19, for Johnson, the end loomed much nearer.
“I had to tell my staff, ‘I’m just being upfront with you, the sales are not here,’” Johnson said. “I had to cut back hours to 30%, then 50%, and was potentially thinking about cutting my staff to 90%.”
By March, when the whispers of COVID-19 turned into a full-blown pandemic, Johnson pared down to a team of three staff, who all had to take significant pay cuts. “I opened, then I closed the doors,” Johnson said. “I did whatever it took to make sure that business could keep going, as I'm the first business owner within my family and my wife's family.”
With FieldTrip’s future hanging precariously, Johnson pivoted to helping frontline workers in hospitals—an idea that started with his wife, Samiyyah Chapman, who is a healthcare worker.
“My wife would come home from work hungry, and I was sending food to the hospital she was at,” he remembered. "Then I said, ‘Well, what about our hospitals in our community?’’’
Johnson put out a simple call on Twitter. Soon, donations were flooding into what Johnson calls his “buy-a-bowl program,” allowing him to send meals to Harlem Hospital. His fragrant Afro- and Caribbean-inspired rice bowls, made with heirloom grains like Carolina Gold and paired with vibrant vegetables and proteins, did more than provide meals for hospital workers—the influx of orders allowed Johnson to rehire a few team members.
This summer, as temperatures swelled in some of the hottest months on record, Johnson pivoted again to a greater need: feeding local Harlemites in what he calls his “step-up moment.” He partnered with the Boys and Girls Club, Harlem Grown, and the New York City Housing Authority to provide nutritious, flavorful meals to community members in need. “The pantry line was getting longer and longer every day, so we were able to really touch the community in a very different way,” Johnson said.
Prior to the pandemic, the chef admits that it was difficult for FieldTrip to find its footing in Harlem. “The buildup for FieldTrip about not being another fast-casual [restaurant] was taking a little bit of time because the only thing that made us cool was we were in Harlem,” he said.
It wasn’t the plans that he had for community outreach pre-pandemic—like partnering with Nike to bring back Harlem’s iconic Kingdome basketball tournament—that helped to solidify FieldTrip’s place in the community. Rather, it was earned in the quieter, day-to-day work: passerby seeing Johnson open FieldTrip’s gate before the morning dusk or sweeping floors, and watching neighbors scoop up steamy, hearty portions of rice in FieldTrip’s open kitchen, creating over 85,000 meals to those in need.
“Things that would have taken us two to four years to do, we were able to do in two to four months—touching the community and people that typically wouldn't be in our restaurant,” Johnson said. “People were walking in and realizing that the people we were employing are from Harlem.”
Locals weren’t the only ones who took notice. When the developers at Tishman Speyer contacted Johnson about expanding FieldTrip, he saw an opportunity to bring a bit of Harlem to Long Island City and Rockefeller Center.
FieldTrip’s Long Island City outpost, which opens on November 11, will be part of the newly-minted Jacx and Co food hall. Johnson is already thinking beyond the space he’ll be occupying.
“As Long Island City’s been building up more for the upper middle class, there's still a community as Queensboro that potentially gets left behind,” Johnson said. “We’ll bridge that gap of Queensboro and Long Island City with the flavor we bring and who we hire to make sure people get an opportunity to work in a space where we pay a living wage, which is very important to me.”
The Rockefeller Center location is slated to open in late November. Johnson is hoping to bring some vitality back to an unusually quiet area, which bustled with the frenzied energy of tourists and commuters before the pandemic. “People don't believe Midtown is ever going to come back, so let's be a part of the revival and renaissance of Midtown,” Johnson said.
The zipcodes that surround Rockefeller Center are some of the wealthiest in New York City, but Johnson hopes his food can be accessible to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status.
“When we go to Rockefeller Center, we're going to be giving you delicious food for the security guards, construction workers, maintenance teams, and whoever is working in that area,” he said. “They should be able to feel like they can go to FieldTrip and afford to eat. They don't have to worry about paying $17 for a salad bowl or $16 for a fried chicken sandwich. It's geared to people that work really hard—we're able to give them really delicious food at an affordable rate, regardless of what market we're in.”
As the restaurant industry continues to reinvent itself, Johnson thinks diners are yearning for substantially more, with options that go beyond a sit-down meal.
“You can't open a restaurant just as a luxury, and hope that people come in just to eat because they have the financial well-being to," he said. "You have to be a restaurant that’s a necessity and a luxury at the same time. A sense of different ways to eat at a restaurant will be very important. If you don't eat there in person, do I get their delivery box? Can I get the wine from that restaurant?”
No matter where Johnson lands, one thing will be steadfast. “You'll see us supporting communities, always,” he said. “And anybody could hold us to that.”