Thanks to everyone who joined us for the 2023 Black in Business Summit! Watch our keynote session with Chef JJ Johnson above, and see the recordings of all other sessions below.
To celebrate National Black Business Month, Yelp hosted its third annual Black in Business Summit on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Dynamic entrepreneurs and business builders in social media, branding, and finance came together for a day of thought-provoking conversations, inspiration, and advice for professionals from all backgrounds and industries.
James Beard Award-winning chef, TV personality, and founder of FIELDTRIP, JJ Johnson kicked off the event, followed by sessions like creating a unique brand identity and mastering the art of scaling.
In this conversation with Chef JJ Johnson, a James Beard Award-winning chef, TV personality, and author, we take a deep dive into Chef JJ’s remarkable culinary career as he shares his journey as a chef and restaurateur and reflects on the challenges he’s overcome. This is a unique opportunity to hear from one of the brightest stars in the restaurant world and discover how to navigate your own path to success as a business leader, no matter your trade.
Speaker: Chef JJ Johnson, TV personality, author, founder, FIELDTRIP
Moderator: Ayanna Alleyne Grant, head of social media, Yelp
On the Yelp Blog: Get to know more about Chef JJ and his greatest advice on succeeding as an entrepreneur who breaks the status quo in life and business.
- Black-Owned Business Resource Hub
- Wayne Brady’s 7 principles for life and business
- Top restaurateur Leah Cohen on delegating, hiring, and learning from failure
- Yelp’s Black in Business Summit 2022
Creating a brand that’s simple, memorable, and reflective of your business is essential for every small business owner. It helps make both a strong first impression and a lasting impression. But how can Black business owners grow their business into a brand? This session explores the key elements of a successful brand strategy and how to create a unique brand that resonates with your target audience.
- Mahisha Dellinger, CEO and founder, CURLS
- Chris Goode, owner, Ruby Jean’s Juicery
- Zanade Mann, marketing director, Zanade Enterprises & founder, Black Women’s Business Collective
Moderator: Kadecia Ber, director of multi-location sales, Yelp
- Unleashing Your Creativity to Build Great Brand Experiences
- What is brand marketing?
- How to develop a strong brand personality in 4 steps
- A juicery with intention and purpose
Many Black businesses are rich with culture and a deeply rooted sense of community. These characteristics can be essential components of a small business strategy when it comes to building a strong brand identity and connecting with a target audience. This panel explores how Black business owners can leverage their vibrant community and cultural heritage to boost their own businesses—from becoming a staple of their local community to building partnerships with other businesses and beyond.
- Khary Lazarre-White, executive director and co-founder, The Brotherhood Sister Sol
- Miguel Pittman, co-owner, Sandra’s Next Generation
- Wendy Golding, owner, The Creamy Spot
Moderator: Erica Eubanks, Atlanta community manager, Yelp
- Create Impact Through Culture & Community
- 4 ways to build and expand your own small business network
- Networking Your Way to Business Growth
- How to Build a Strong, Supportive Network and Choose Collaboration Over Competition
Scaling your business is a critical step toward long-term success, but it can be especially challenging for Black entrepreneurs who face unique obstacles in accessing capital and resources. This panel explores the key strategies and tactics that successful Black business owners have used to scale their businesses and achieve their goals, including best practices for managing growth, finding funding, building a strong team, and leveraging technology to streamline operations.
- Sylvia Atsaves, director of strategy and business development and chief of staff, REVOLT
- Daryn Dodson, founder and managing partner, Illumen Capital
- LaToya Williams Belfort, executive director, Fifteen Percent Pledge
- Mignon Francois, owner, The Cupcake Collection
Moderator: Danielle Young, journalist, host, producer
- Hire the Right Way: How to Grow Your Business Strategically
- ‘You have to think bigger:’ a checklist for expanding your business
- 9 Steps to Grow Your Business Successfully
- Yelp Joins the 15 Percent Pledge
Founder of the Jonathan Jones Next Step Foundation and NFL player Jonathan Jones discusses the role of mentorship in his personal and professional development and the importance of paying it forward to the next generation. This session features stories of mentorship experiences and illustrates how positive guidance and support can help inspire and guide individuals from marginalized communities.
Speaker: Jonathan Jones, New England Patriots NFL player and founder of the Jonathan Jones Next Step Foundation
Moderator: Tara Lewis, VP of community expansion and trends, Yelp
- ‘We are the change we wish to see:’ Finding harmony in life and business
- Diversity Resource Hub: tools, tips, and inspiration for all
- Finding success through philanthropy and the support of other small businesses
- The Conscious Consumer: Engaging with Values-Driven Customers
Your free business listing on Yelp allows you to communicate with consumers who are searching for your products or services in your area. Taking advantage of the 20+ free Yelp features will help you stand out from the competition, giving you the best chance to secure the sale. Learn from Yelp’s Small Business Expert Emily Washcovick on how to implement the most important tools—helping you optimize your listing and manage your online reputation.
Speaker: Emily Washcovick, small business expert, Yelp
- 5 free things you didn’t know you could do on your Yelp Page
- MF Strong’s Yelp journey—from starting her Yelp Page to getting her first client
- 6 business owners share their favorite Yelp features and tools
- Yelp 101: a business guide to thriving on Yelp
Time management, attracting customers, hiring the right talent—these are the topics that are on the minds of business owners today. This session brings together Black business owners to talk about the top challenges they’ve encountered and the strategies and solutions they’ve employed to overcome them.
- Dr. Quiana M. Shamsid-Deen, DSW, LMSW, owner, Supreme Burger
- Chelle Dockery, owner, Solo Creative The Marketing Co.
- Dianna Rose, owner and CEO, Jars of Delight and Essential Kitchen
Moderator: Brenae Leary, associate director of communications, Yelp
On the Yelp Blog: Hindsight is 20/20. Learn what these successful entrepreneurs wish they’d known when starting their businesses.
Tara Lewis oversees Yelp’s community expansion efforts throughout North America, leading a team of Community Ambassadors who serve as Yelp’s community leaders in their respective markets. She and her teams celebrate what makes each community special and take pride in the relationships they build between great local businesses and Yelp’s community of users. She is also Yelp’s Trend Expert, working alongside Yelp’s data science and PR teams to identify emerging consumer trends across food, drink, beauty, wellness, and beyond. Since stepping into the role, she’s made appearances on The Today Show and Good Morning America, and has been featured in The New York Times, Elle, HuffPost, AdWeek, Travel + Leisure, Forbes, and more.
Director of Multi-Location Solutions Kadecia Ber has been at Yelp for over 15 years working with businesses of all sizes. In her current role, Kadecia leads a team of managers and analysts by diving deep into performance data and solving complex business issues to deliver on client goals. The team assesses digital performance, uses measurement and attribution tools to generate best practices for proposals, and leads the go-to-market strategy.
Kadecia Ber: I don’t want to give too much away, but Chef JJ Johnson has had an incredible culinary career. And moderating the discussion today is Ayanna Alleyne Grant. She is Yelp’s senior director of social media, who has expertise in building and leading high performing digital communication teams. The two will discuss how to navigate your own path to success as a business leader, no matter what your trade is. And I’ll let Ayanna take it away.
Ayanna Grant: Good morning, everyone. I’m Ayanna Alleyne Grant, and I am so excited for today. The music before was perfect, because I just came off of seeing Beyonce in the last few days. And that plus today is the right amount of excellence needed to kick off Black Business Month. So shout out to you all for taking the time to carve out for yourself to be here today. I know there’s a million things that I’m sure you could be doing, but you’re taking the time for yourself and that’s what we’re here for. This is our third annual Black in Business Summit and we’re kicking the day off with our keynote speaker, Chef JJ Johnson. Welcome, Chef JJ.
Chef JJ Johnson: Thank you for having me.
Ayanna Grant: Thank you for being here. Also, happy belated birthday.
Chef JJ Johnson: Oh, thanks.
Ayanna Grant: Your birthday was yesterday. We have two Leos, both from Caribbean backgrounds, speaking together, so it’s going to be good.
Chef JJ Johnson: Well, I didn’t turn up because I wanted to be a responsible person while hanging out with you. So maybe I’ll be turning up later today.
Ayanna Grant: For the weekend tonight, you know that we appreciate that. So I’ll share some background on JJ before we jump into our conversation. So Chef JJ Johnson is a James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning chef, TV personality and author, best known for his barrier-breaking cuisine, informed by the Caribbean flavors of his upbringing. He’s a James Beard nominated chef de Cuisine at the Cecil and Minton’s, both based in Harlem, New York. Chef JJ opened FIELDTRIP, his made to order restaurant rice bowl concept in 2019 in Harlem and has expanded to Rockefeller Center and recently, Morningside Heights in New York. FEILDTRIP was one of the only fast casual restaurants on Esquire’s America’s Best New Restaurants in 2020.
Before the pandemic, JJ began donating meals to the local hospital in Harlem to feed nurses, doctors, and first responders in the area that were working to keep everyone safe. The outreach then moved to helping neighbors by providing free meals to those in need. Shortly after, FIELDTRIP began receiving donations from across the country to continue their work and has since donated over 220,000 meals to support the Harlem community and to feed frontline workers throughout the pandemic. Chef JJ is the television host of Just Eats with Chef JJ airing on TV One’s Network, CLEO TV, and a finalist for the 2022 James Beard Foundation Awards Best Chef in New York State. Hello chef, how are you today?
Chef JJ Johnson: I’m great.
Ayanna Grant: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Who’s been the biggest inspiration for your culinary journey?
Chef JJ Johnson: I’m really fortunate in my career. Before I get that, I want to say thank you to Yelp for doing this for Black people because this is a very necessary summit. So I wanted to tell Yelp, thank you. And piggybacking off of that, I started in my grandmother’s kitchen. I was young, I was five, six years old. I used to get up on a milk crate and help her peel carrots and onions or that’s what I thought I was doing. And she made cooking very fun. She’s my Puerto Rican grandmother with my two great-great aunts that I thought were my great aunts. And my grandfather from Barbados would sit there, watch television, watch them cook. I never really watched cartoons that early in life. And as I grew up, I used to see the table be one of the most fun places in the house.
Now, if you’re from an immigrant family or anybody knows that the table was is the safest place in the house, especially in the era that I grew up in. Now, yes, there was arguments, yes, there was tears, but my grandmother made it very fun for me. And I told my parents at a really young age, about seven, eight years old, that I was going to go to the Culinary Institute of America. I saw a commercial for it and that I was going to be a chef. And about 14 years old, my mom pulled me to the side and told me, “Well, we’ve worked really hard here. Why are you going to be a chef? Black people have been cooking their whole life.” But I told my mom, “Don’t worry, it’s different.”
So I was always trying to inspire, but a perfect person that pushed me through those moments in my high school years of cooking was my father. My father was a big believer is that you shouldn’t live life like you could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. And as we would go to basketball practice, he would be telling me that in the car. And as we were coming home, he would say, “Oh yes, listen to your mother. She knows what she’s talking about.” So there was no beef in the house. But I followed my dreams. I went to culinary school and I was the worst person in the kitchen.
Ayanna Grant: The worst person in the kitchen, that’s an interesting kind of segue into the next question because I’m so curious about what that experience going to culinary school was like. How many people that looked like us were there and how did that characterize your experience?
Chef JJ Johnson: So I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania at a place called the Poconos. So very early on in my life, I was the only Black kid in my kindergarten class, only Black kid I think to fifth grade. And I can remember it like there was one Korean, Matthew Davis was Korean, Pablo, which was a Puerto Rican Latino. And there was just the three of us and we were the tightest going to culinary school. And then it changed over time, 9/11 happened, people started moving to Pennsylvania. It became very diverse. I think it actually is a very diverse place right now in America. But going to culinary school was very similar. There’s 38 kids in my class and 4 kids were Black. And that to me was like, “Hold on, this is supposed to be college. What’s up?”
Ayanna Grant: With the diversity?
Chef JJ Johnson: Where’s everybody at? And the first person I actually met, and you are in a line to get your uniforms, you’re in the military and they ask you, “What do you want? What’s the name on your coat?” And the first person in line I met is a gentleman named Kamal Grant. Dear friend, one of my closest friends in life, he owns Sublime Doughnuts in Atlanta. And we became best friends because we were the only ones. And there was a sense of a place of being safe, a place of having an open conversation. We could relate to each other. And it was very Eurocentric, Culinary Institute of America, it still is. It’s sad because as I’ve grown in my career, being in culinary school was like, “Oh, I need to learn how to cook French food. I need to learn how to cook Italian food. I need to learn how to cook Eurocentric.” That’s the only way I got to hone this craft. Everything I learned from my grandmother or in the household with my parents or family, that was non-existent there, that wasn’t good enough.
And I came out of culinary school looking to hone the craft, make the best risotto, how to gather my ingredients [inaudible 00:08:16] plus in place, using these words that were very not familiar and only familiar in my life from this time. And I was always a person going back to I was the worst person in the kitchen because I didn’t have really good knife skills. I didn’t know the lingo, I didn’t fit in, the code of conduct, that’s not how I acted in my household or around my friends or my family. And as I went into the industry, you never saw me work at a French restaurant. I didn’t go work at Per Se or Le Bernardin or Jean-Georges or Daniel or any of those places because the atmosphere of those places, if I would’ve came home and told my pops what was happening, he would’ve pulled up to the restaurant and been like, “Hold up, this is an 18-year-old kid. How are you treating folks?”
So I came up in this very Americano restaurant, Tribeca Grill, Jane, The Smith of New York City, and I wind up going to cook in Ghana. I got invited to cook in Ghana from a gentleman named Alexander Smalls. And I went to Ghana and that’s when I found myself through food. Kind of fast-forward, but going to Ghana cooking, I found out who I was. I was like this real kid of the African diaspora. These flavors were very familiar. And I started to question myself and also question the industry of why isn’t anybody talking about the motherland? Why aren’t we exploring these flavors? What is going on? And this was in 2011.
Ayanna Grant: It’s really helpful to hear your history and how you got to that point. Because in preparation for our talk, I watched your TED Talk that you did almost a decade ago and you said that slaves were the culinary game changers and that really stood out to me. I’d love to just hear about what that means to you and how we should think about that in terms of our Black heritage.
Chef JJ Johnson: So let’s think about America. America is a rich country because of one thing, agriculture. We produce so much food that we can feed so many nations, but who created agriculture? Who was farming? The native people and West African slaves. And that’s how America got rich. There’s no way around it, right? Rice, cotton, bourbon, these are Black things. I get really worked up around this, that’s what is Black. And if you look at just those three ingredients, they have been talked down on through the years of our life. Rice is not a great ingredient to eat because nobody knows how to farm it properly. Or bourbon, we found out what, three years ago that bourbon was made by a Black gentleman. I mean all of us, our heads were spinning like how did this happen?
Ayanna Grant: That’s new.
Chef JJ Johnson: Right, very new. Or cotton, I remember when I lived with my uncle and my aunt in Harlem, my uncle used to call me Cotton Came to Harlem because if you remember that famous movie, Cotton Comes to Harlem, people were getting rich off of cotton and he felt like I had this essence to pave this way, to make it through Harlem. He saw this vision that I didn’t see, but he was right. So there was these moments that were really ingrained in Black history that it’s because of slaves. And if those free slaves were given the land, America would be even richer than what it is now because all these issues we have now around agriculture, we wouldn’t be having because we would own the land that we were preserving, that we were making money off of, white people money off of. And we would have that now and it would be richer, better and beautiful.
Ayanna Grant: No, that’s incredible to hear. And just to hear that history and what if of what could have happened, I think this is the perfect parlay into speaking about FIELDTRIP. You spoke about rice and how this is so pivotal to the American agriculture and our history. FIELDTRIP is… You parlayed your interest into rice into a whole business. As I said before, you opened FIELDTRIP in 2019 in Harlem, now you have several locations across New York City. You just opened your Morningside Heights location just in the last month. So I’m just interested in hearing about how that interest in rice was parlayed into your own business and also just how that transition was from you for being a chef in someone else’s restaurant to deciding to open up your own restaurant.
Chef JJ Johnson: I’ll start in that part. I’m probably sure a lot of people are like, “Why is there a chef talking here as a keynote about business?” FIELDTRIP was probably my fifth business. All the other businesses I started failed. I started in culinary school, I tried to start a platform called Your Palate, that was like to compete against Facebook around food. It didn’t work. I worked at Morgan Stanley executive dining room. I started an oatmeal oat juice. Now look, there’s oat milk all across the shelves. I started in 2000 and called OMJ, that was started in 2007-8 packaging everything. But people told me, “Nobody would ever buy a product that lasts only 13 days on the shelf.” Now we see tons of that product. And I’ve tried a bunch of other stuff in between, tried to self-publish a book, a bunch of other stuff in between.
So the entrepreneurial spirit or the ownership mentality has always been in me. And when I was a chef at the Cecil, which I consider it claimed the fame for me, I took a very ownership approach. And at one point I’m like, “Wow, I’m really working really hard for Dick Parsons and Alexander Smalls here. What about if I do this for myself? What about if I put all this blood, sweat and tears, stress, frustration into what I believe in?” And at that moment it was rice. I was doing heavy research on West African cooking. And I came across this grain called glaberrima, which is the mother grain of all rice. And I was cooking at a place in Tennessee called Blackberry Farm. If you’ve never been, you should treat yourself to it, it’s an amazing place. And I ran into a rice connoisseur named Glenn Roberts who owns Anson Mills.
And I ran up on him and I said, “Glenn, we don’t know each other, but I’m sure you have somewhere to go. Can we talk about glaberrima?” And he was like, “Take a seat.” He was like, “What you know about glaberrima?” I was like, “I’ve been researching and come across that this is the mother grain of all grains.” He’s like, “Take my number, too much to talk about right now.” And me and him talked on the phone for years. He actually became a mentor to me about rice and how to look at rice. What’s the right rice? What are the mother grains? And at that point, that’s when I had this love for rice because I was traveling the world, Ghana, Singapore, India, Israel. And when the food would come out and I was cooking at these events with other chefs, rice would come to the table and people would go crazy.
But here you look at the news and people are like, “Yeah, make sure you eat your brown rice, because that’s the good rice for you, or don’t eat too much of that rice, that’s not good for you. Or it has gluten in it.” I was like, “No, these are all false narratives around rice.” So I really wanted to open up FIELDTRIP to be a full service restaurant. I wanted it to be like Momofuku, David Chang’s Noodle Bar. I had a partner at that time and he said, “Nobody’s going to pay $28 for a bowl of rice.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s true.” And I wasn’t able to raise enough money to open up a full service restaurant. I could barely raise $500,000. And I would be talking to my peers at the time and they would be opening up, they were raising $3 million for a restaurant. I’m like, “How are you getting $3 million? People are turning me away. People are telling me I don’t have enough expertise.” I’m like, “I have all these awards.” It was very mind-boggling.
And for me at that time, I never liked to really point to race like it was the color of my skin. Maybe I need to be better, maybe I need to work harder. And I took the amount of money that I had, we had a really good landlord. We negotiated a really good tenant improvement deal, a lot of free rent. And we got FIELDTRIP open. I thinking I had about $7,500 left in a bank when we opened up the first FIELDTRIP. Maybe that was enough to run the first payroll. Half of that was to run the first payroll of folks. And then the rest of it really was getting then funded out of my own pocket of endorsement deals, I was doing cooking show was. And I was like bankrolling it. And I tell a lot of folks, “You should raise capital like tech companies. You should raise enough capital to stay open for three years, a year.”
You shouldn’t, especially in the food industry, a lot of people raise money to stay open for three months and then it’s going to be okay. It’s like you barely know your business in 90 days. You don’t even know your customers. You think you do, but you don’t. And the reason why I chose Harlem is because I wanted people that look like me, that look like us to consciously eat better, to have a choice to eat better. Because when you walk around Harlem, it’s like Popeye’s, the fried chicken joint, McDonald’s in our communities, all around the country. And these big brands are telling folks, “Oh, nobody wants this type of food. Nobody wants your healthy-ish type of food.” And it’s like the Black community is based off of grains, rice, and vegetables. It’s not based off of smothered chicken and fried fish. This is our celebratory moments. But it was hard opening in Harlem because a lot of people thought it was a white business. They thought I was just this smoking mirror guy that was there for a front and I was infiltrating the community.
Ayanna Grant: How did you put yourself more at the forefront to showcase that this is your business, I am here for the community?
Chef JJ Johnson: I mean, you just have to talk to people. So the first conversation it was two guys, they came and they ordered some food. One guy had a Rolex, three chains on, some Jordans. And he is like, “Oh man, you don’t own this spot. This isn’t your own, man, this is not.” And I’m like, “Hold on, why can’t we, as Black people have nice stuff too? If you look… Like I want to have a Rolex and three chains on my neck. Well, why can’t Black people have? Why is everything that’s nice have to automatically believe that it’s a white business?” And that’s how the conversation really started. And there were two Harlem Night guys, been in a community whole lives around my age. And that’s how it started. And then my family started coming in and bringing their friends and then they were like, “Oh…” Then Joan was telling her grandson, and this person was telling this person.
And then the pandemic happened. And a lot of those folks that would tell me it wasn’t my business, one day, the guy I was closing the gate at night and he was like, “Yo, I saw you here this morning and you’re closing the gate. I know you on the spot. If you were just a front, you wouldn’t be here during a pandemic doing all this.” And the pandemic helped really for us, bring a lot of awareness in the community for all that we were doing and a new business that was on the block.
Ayanna Grant: No, definitely. And from your story, it sounds like resilience is definitely a key theme throughout your journey. And you… Go ahead.
Chef JJ Johnson: Yeah. I mean, I never closed FIELDTRIP during the pandemic. And I’m sure a lot of people could relate to that tune in is that for us, there’s always hard days. So my dad would always say, “You going to have hard days, man. This is what it is with being Black, you going to have hard, you got to get through it, you got to push.” So then never in my mind I was like… I mean, Danny Meyer put out a statement early on the pandemic like, “Don’t worry you all, just close your restaurants for three weeks and we’ll be right back.” And my wife is a nurse and she was like, “No, that’s three months. Don’t close your spot. Don’t listen to him, you know better.”
And a lot of my friends closed their restaurant listening to him and now they don’t have restaurants. I never closed. That was never an option. And also, people who were working for me, what were they going to do? So we worked on. I mean, people were working 10-hour weeks just to make sure they had some type of money until we were able to build it up. But no, there was never a day that I ever thought about closing FIELDTRIP or giving up in any of the moments. Not even during the pandemic, the early on stages with the $7,500 in the bank account or somebody telling me, “You won’t get enough money.” Always just fighting through and figuring out who’s going to believe in you through the process.
Ayanna Grant: No, you brought up the amount of growth that happened during that pandemic. And when we previously chatted, you mentioned negotiating rent forgiveness with landlords as an example of a lesson learned during the pandemic. You mentioned the one about your wife saying, “Don’t close.” What are the other lessons that you know learned in the last few years that contributed to your growth, that could be beneficial to those that are listening in today?
Chef JJ Johnson: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned… Well, we used to have a location at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament for five years. It was there based off relationships. I used to work for Restaurant Associates. President of Restaurant Associates, Ed Brown, I reached out to him and said I had this concept, this is right before FIELDTRIP was supposed to open 2018. I have this rice bowl concept, I sent them the deck, did a tasting. They let me come to the U.S. Open. And the lesson of that is use your connections to help you get through. You can’t think, you should always ask for help and somebody’s either going to respond to you, not respond, say yes or say no, that’s it. It’s not going to hurt you. And if you do ask for help from somebody, you know they’re going to come back and ask for a favor too. So just know who you’re asking your favors from.
But what I did learn through the process of the US Open and why we didn’t come back is early days, I would take opportunities because I believe they would never be there again. And it was like, “Oh my God, I got to figure out how to make this work. Don’t worry, the kitchen’s not set up the way I need it to be set up, but I’ll set it up. I’ll figure it out.” And that doesn’t always work, just figuring it out as you go. I should have went back to them and said, “Great, first year, amazing. We want to be in this space, but we also need to have all of this to do this as in revenue or sales.” And based off the space that was designed for us, it wasn’t the actual space for FIELDTRIP at the US Open.
But we maxed out on the sales number. We couldn’t push out any more food, but if it was set up it was supposed to be, we would double, triple maybe those numbers, which are still crazy numbers. And when they came back to me to say, “We’re going to move in a different direction because of sales,” that’s when it hit me. It was like, “Okay, you have to stop doing this. You can’t just take an opportunity because you believe it’s not going to be there for you or us anymore.” Because I’m a firm believer of if I can get into the space, that means it’s going to allow for more Black people to get into the space alongside me. Not that people are going to come up, we going to be in it together. Because I don’t want to be the only one in the space. And that was a lesson learned for me is like, okay, just like the pizza guy next to me, they let him bring in his pizza oven, he’s able to put out X amount of pizzas. He knew what he could do.
So when you all are whatever the businesses you’re going in, set yourself up for success. Redline those deals to make sure that you are getting what you need in rent or lease or CPG or whatever it is. And ask for it all and let them tell you, “No, we can’t do it.” And then you can make the decision on, “Okay, I can do this, this, and this, or this is a deal breaker for me and I got to step away from this one” and maybe they’ll come back or maybe I’ll move on. And there’s something else for me inside the tunnel when the tunnel shows the light. But I’m not taking anything anymore just because I’m hoping that it’s going to lead to a better opportunity or I’m going to miss out on it. Either you got to give it to me or if you’re not going to give it to me, then I got to figure out how to set it up for success so that we can be successful.
Ayanna Grant: I hear that, the lesson that I’m taking from what you’re saying is make sure that you’re going to advocate for yourself because no one else is going to so that you can have the best success in whatever you’re doing. So I think that’s a great learning for a lot of aspiring business owners are on this call. Shifting gears a little bit, you’re a parent, I’m sure many people watching are also parents. How does that fit into all of these challenges and the big successes?
Chef JJ Johnson: Yeah, I’m a parent of two. I have twins who are six, I’ll tell you, they’re great. I’ve learned that JJ like my alter ego to them. It’s a funny thing in my house. I think the best way I can explain it is you see a family that’s like well off. Maybe they have generational wealth, maybe they’re rich, maybe they’re doing well for themselves. And I used to look at that and get upset like, “Oh, this is crazy. This kid here doesn’t do anything. He’s barely working, getting a trust fund check or whatever it is.” And then one day I took a step back and was like, “Oh, somebody in that family worked really hard. Somebody’s working really hard to get them there. Especially in a Black household, somebody took the trauma, they absorbed all the trauma to make sure the next generation didn’t get the trauma or not as much trauma.”
And for me, it’s communication with my wife and also with my kids. It’s like, this is what’s going on. This is what’s taking place. I’m working hard. This is what my job is, because it’s not like mom’s job or mom works a 10 hour, 12 hour shift. And you can be like, “Oh, she does this?” You have to be very communicative around it and I allow for my children to partake in some of the things that go on. So if I’m doing cooking demos virtually, they might set up the counter if they’re around in the house. During the restaurant getting built in front of Columbia University, Morningside Heights, they would go there and look at the space on the weekends and be like, “Oh, I saw this change and this change.”
So making them feel very much a part of it and not that there’s no disconnect and just letting them know that you’re working hard. And sometimes it’s not really the children, it’s your spouse or your partner that might not understand what you’re doing because entrepreneurship is, there’s no playbook for it. Everybody’s yellow brick road is different. So having that open communication of what’s going on, what are you doing? How’s it taking place? Sometimes they just need to see it or hear it versus you just assume that they get it because nobody gets it. My mom doesn’t get it. She’s like, “Oh yeah, so what you doing today? Easy day for you?” “There’s no easy day mom. What are you talking about?”
But my mom was a first grade kindergarten teacher. She has a pension, she has her master’s. She had her path of what she believed, how she would role in life. And you have to have that same type of path, but you just have to communicate more. Let your kids know you’re working hard for them. This could be something for them and their life later on, this is going to set them up for X, Y, and Z. You can share your whole vision. I used to think my six-year-old kids didn’t get it, but they pay attention to a lot.
Ayanna Grant: Yeah, no, I think bringing your family, bringing your children along for your journey is something that’s very beneficial. My mom is an insurance agent. She has her own agency. And I remember when I was a kid, I used to go into the office and do filing and see customer interactions. And I think all of that helps shape whatever your children do in the future. Watching your parents do what they love is very impactful.
Chef JJ Johnson: Correct.
Ayanna Grant: So I come from the marketing world and whether you are trying to open up a business, you’ve opened up a business you’re trying to sustain, marketing is incredibly important for your success. I’d love to specifically talk about social media. What marketing channels for you have been the most effective in different stages of your business? How do you feel about marketing in terms of businesses? I would love to just hear your thoughts. People have a lot of feelings about social media.
Chef JJ Johnson: No, people have a lot of feelings, I think about marketing. Well, I think marketing is good, different than PR. I think that’s one place to start. Public relations and marketing are two different things, two different line items on your P&L sheet. Don’t put them together. I think when you think about marketing, people for me is return on investment. What’s the return on investment here when I hire head of content? And I think there’s three areas I look at before I really get into my personal feelings. One is, is this marketing going to get me more investors or more investors and my keep my investors happy, maybe my current investors family and friends, maybe myself. If I’m funding my own business, is this going to keep me happy?
Brand equity, growing the brand as an equity and then butts in seats or purchasing the product. Those are the three areas that I look at. And then I give you guys some brands that I’ll talk about. So on the investor side, things that investors love is seeing things like in Forbes, Fortune Magazine, Bloomberg Business, they love that, they can brag about that wherever they’re at. Brand equity like people who are doing things very good for a brand equity to grow the brand to keep you exciting. McDonald’s does a phenomenal job, they’ve been around for a 100 years. Vegan Pinky does a great job, Domino’s, these companies been around for a really long time and they make you feel like they’re still fresh. And then butts in seats, that’s just a place that has a long line that you wait at or you’re hearing the ticket machine or you see the KDS screen or the product might be potentially sold out on the shelf.
And I’m a big firm believer of couple of different types of marketing, like grassroots marketing still works. The person I used to throw parties in culinary school, the person that’s throwing the flyers under your dorm room door and you pick that up, that still works. I don’t care what nobody says. Those Chinese restaurant menus that come to your mailbox, those Papa John menus, they work in a marketing way. Value customers love those things. The coupon, they save them, they come in. TikTok works. I’m just getting new in TikTok, but I’m watching places that have been around for years now, showing their beautiful croissants on TikTok. And they have a line out the door. TikTok works, it’s touching different folks, different generation. And the younger generation does care about food. They do want to brag about food, they do like eating out. They do like going to a place that seems cool or has the ingredients listed or gluten-free or vegan. TikTok really helps with that. And I use all platforms. I use LinkedIn, I use LinkedIn Newsletter, I use Instagram, I use Facebook, I use TikTok now. Threads is new, so we’ll see.
I use Twitter, Pinterest, some people use Pinterest to drive business. And then I look at all three of those platforms and who am I talking to and what am I talking about? So my LinkedIn Newsletters are very focused on business, entrepreneurship. Instagram is a catchall. Twitter, I’m an expert. I have the name chef in front of my name. People are looking for expert information. Twitter, current events, news. That’s how I view this stuff. But you can twist the things to fit those areas to drive people. And before COVID, influencers were going away. You were seeing newsletters coming back or newsletters is also we is a great thing. We were seeing newsletters coming back. And then now we’re seeing newsletters and influencers back because especially in the food space, people don’t know where to eat because you don’t know what’s open or closed. And I think one of the best influencers we did a partnership with, or not even, he came through was, What’s Eating, Brian? And you would’ve thought the New York Times gave us a three star review.
Ayanna Grant: Wow.
Chef JJ Johnson: That’s how busy we were. Brian generated more than $70,000 in sales.
Ayanna Grant: Wow, that’s incredible.
Chef JJ Johnson: In 10 days. And that was based off people saying, “Oh my God, I saw him on TikTok, I saw him on Instagram.” And it was also like, “Oh, it’s a Black guy telling us it’s a Black owned restaurant. Anderson, Harlem, I got to go check this out.” And it resonated with folks who’d also taught me. It was like, “Okay, if I’m going to do partnerships with influencers, we have a Black base of people eating here. We need to be finding more micro and more big influencers that are of color, that are helping people that want to support Black-owned businesses absolutely drive this way.” So I’m very big on social. I’m less on PR right now. And I’m very big on traditional marketing with newsletters and direct mailers.
We’re going to do a direct mailer campaign for Morningside Heights, when Columbia University like right when these students come back to their new apartments or dorms, they’re going to be getting FIELDTRIP club menu in front of their door to let them know where they should eat. And we’re going to make that investment and we’ll see if the return on investment of that comes back. And that’s how I kind of measure it. And for my own personal brand, I think posting news articles, posting awards, talking to the camera like we’re talking now, but just to the camera so you can get to know me more like a reality TV style based allows for brands like Yelp or anybody else to be like, “Oh, I kind of know this guy JJ, he aligns with who we are and maybe we will have him be a keynote speaker here.” So I think utilizing it to the best of your ability, and you don’t have to have a lot of money to run a social channel, there’s so many different ways you can do it than just having a person in-house that’s running it for you.
Ayanna Grant: Yes, you can set up your camera and just create some of that content yourself. And I think that’s what makes social so much more, it makes it more accessible. It allows for some trustworthiness. And I think that’s something that could be beneficial regardless of the stage of business that you’re in.
Chef JJ Johnson: But you should do it. Don’t think you’re too small to start social.
Ayanna Grant: Absolutely, definitely. What do you wish more business owners knew about Yelp?
Chef JJ Johnson: All right, I’m going to talk real candidly here. A lot of business owners don’t like Yelp because people are talking crazy, they feel or they’re bashing the business. I think everybody should take a step back from that, I love Yelp. And I’m not just saying that because I’m here as your keynote. Yelp gives us value information to operate the business better. So if one person writes a review and they go, “My food was salty.” Three days later somebody writes a review, “I had this and it felt like there was too much salt.” I’m able to be like, “Hold on. I see this key word of salt constantly popping up. Let’s go back and taste the food to see if it is salty. Let’s bring a collaborative, a bunch of folks that work here, we’re going to taste.” Or “My customer experience when I came in, the people weren’t giving me eye contact.”
You should be using it as a useful resource and you should be responding to folks who are leaving reviews, good or bad. It shows people that are utilizing Yelp to tell them where to go and eat or wherever that this business cares about the good and the bad and it will give you more revenue. So we respond to a lot of reviews, reviews respond have a lot more, since we have three locations. Now, it’s a little bit more difficult. But Yelp for us, we utilize it. And every market also has a Yelp customer service person that you can reach out to that can help you set up your page, run Yelp ads, tell you keyword searches. So use Yelp also to your advantage to help run your business better so that people know how to search you. Because at Rockefeller Center, I constantly see tourists like this.
They won’t order the food. They’ll be like, “Should we come here?” And our Yelp score early on in Rockefeller Center was really bad. It was like a 3.8. And I believe if you have below 4, people aren’t going to eat there. And we were just a new business. We were in COVID, we didn’t have enough staff. There was a lot of… We were running a skeleton crew, brought in a new manager, I think we were like 4.1, 4.2. Last time I checked, it could drop, but people use it and go, “Okay, what did they eat? What does the pictures look like?” And you can upload your pictures. So you should use it to your advantage because that’s what we do. And it definitely drives people. I also think the secret thing for Yelp, and I don’t know if you guys still do this, is you have an influencer-
Ayanna Grant: Our Yelp Elite Squad.
Chef JJ Johnson: Yes, the Yelp Elite Squad where you can run a Yelp Elite Squad for that location or whatever you’re doing to help drive business. It will cost you, but it’s great. And I haven’t done one in a long time, but I’m going to do one for Columbia University location, Morningside Heights. We did that in Harlem and we did it with 50 folks early on and it drove business for us.
Ayanna Grant: Yes, definitely. You have the most engaged users on the Yelp app that are coming to your business and being able to interact with what you’re trying to do in your community. So definitely happy to hear about how Yelp has been beneficial for your business. I know we’re kind of getting close to time. Last section is going to be rapid fire questions. Don’t think, just respond. What is your favorite restaurant in the U.S. that is not yours?
Chef JJ Johnson: Wow, come on now. My favorite restaurant in the US that’s not mine, I eat out so much. I’m probably going to give a big shout-out to Nina Compton in New Orleans. She has two restaurants there, Bywater and Compère Lapin. Her food is delicious. I love how she’s using Creole ingredients and Caribbean ingredients together. So if you’re ever down there guys in that area, great. But I could go state by state and tell you my best spot.
Ayanna Grant: We’ll follow up and we’ll create some content on Yelp for business with all your favorite places. Well, we’ll come back with that. If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
Chef JJ Johnson: I’d probably be a division I basketball coach.
Ayanna Grant: Okay. I’m surprised that you aren’t saying that you would just full-time be an author because your latest book, The Simple Art of Rice is coming out in September. So I feel like you’re an author as well if people do not know that
Chef JJ Johnson: I am an author, a lot of work. But no, I’d be a basketball coach. My grandmother used to tell me that she thought I would be the President of the United States.
Ayanna Grant: Hey, there’s time.
Chef JJ Johnson: I’m good right now.
Ayanna Grant: What lesson has been the most helpful for your success?
Chef JJ Johnson: Dick Parsons, ex CEO of Time Warner Citibank once told me, “Banks don’t go out of business because they went into credit card. Business banks run out of business because nobody’s paying attention to the cash.” And when I opened up a business, I understood what he was talking about. I literally look at the bank account every morning when I wake up to see the cash flow, to see if things got deposited. I never, don’t go a day without logging in to see what the cash is and seeing what came in and out of the bank. And if I see something I don’t know, I contact our accounting office right away.
Ayanna Grant: That’s very helpful. What book or podcast are you listening to right now?
Chef JJ Johnson: What’s the podcast, If I made It? Is that what it’s called?
Ayanna Grant: How I Made This?
Chef JJ Johnson: How I Made This, yeah. I’m always listening to How I Made This. And the book I’m reading is the McDonald’s book about the McDonald’s franchise, the Black franchise, McDonald’s getting Black people to own franchises and that’s how they were able to get in Black communities. So it’s a really a great book. I’ll drop it in the chat before I leave the exact name so I don’t get up and walk over there.
Ayanna Grant: Perfect. And then what’s the last business that you reviewed on Yelp?
Chef JJ Johnson: Well, I would never review a business on Yelp unless somebody really upsets me.
Ayanna Grant: We’re going to change. We’re going to turn that around positive. We’re going to have a lot of positive five star reviews coming from you soon. So before I go, I always do this for those that are watching, if you follow @yelpforbusiness on Instagram, and if you DM us today with any social media related question, I’ll personally respond with individualized social tips for your business. I did this last summit and it was a hit, so let’s do this again. If you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you. Don’t forget to follow @yelpforbusiness on Instagram and we’ll make sure that we’re responding to your questions. But Chef JJ, it has been so amazing speaking with you today. Really appreciate your insights and your time. I hope you have a great National Black Business Month.
Chef JJ Johnson: Oh, no, thank you for having me. This was great. I did want to talk, can I talk on one more thing?
Ayanna Grant: Please.
Chef JJ Johnson: So I did raise a private equity round for everybody out there, I did a Series A. And I think it’s really important that if you are looking to raise money, start now. Start to raise money. Like start having the conversation, find a fund manager, do it the right way. And if you’re having issues raising money, you can definitely reach out to me. My friends make these jokes that they say I’m less a chef now and a more business person. But I did raise a private equity round with some really great private equity groups with L Catterton and Pendulum and Founders Table. And I think it’s a great moment for us if we’re looking to grow our businesses like to get into the private equity space. There’s money for us out there, people are writing checks, and you should really take advantage of it if you’re ready. And that’s just something I want to say. And yes, I have a cookbook coming out, ‘The Simple Art of Rice,’ help me with the pre-order sales, make me a New York Times bestselling author.
Ayanna Grant: Absolutely. We’re going to do that right after this. JJ, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.