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Chef JJ on Leading a Rice Renaissance in Harlem

Season 2: Episode 35


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James Beard Award-winning Chef JJ Johnson knows that the best things in life start simply, so he built his restaurant around one of life’s basic grains—rice. He then took his clean and healthy cooking to unlikely neighborhoods to make sure everyone has access to healthy and affordable food. That great tasting food plus data gathering and studying his customer base turned into a recipe for success. Reviewer Sonya H. shares her first time at FIELDTRIP and what made the experience memorable.

From the Yelp Blog: Why Chef JJ Johnson changed his business model based on reviews

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other businesses to improve their own reviews and their bottom line.

This week, I’m talking with Chef JJ Johnson, a James Beard Award-winning chef, TV personality, and cookbook author who built his restaurant FIELDTRIP around a singular ingredient—rice. Their tagline is rice is culture. It’s a simple cereal grain, but it’s also a staple food for more than half of the world’s population.

We’ll also hear from Sonya H, a Yelp Elite reviewer in New York City who wrote a five-star review of FIELDTRIP after her very first visit.

Let’s give that review a listen:

SONYA:  I’ve been wanting to try FIELDTRIP for a while now, and it did not disappoint. It is Black-owned and operated. My salmon was cooked well, and all the vegetables in my bowl were delicious. My son ordered chicken, and it was good. Service was great, and there were seats inside if you wanted to eat in, but we took ours to go.

I look forward to returning, and I would definitely recommend this place. I also would recommend going in and placing your order, or you can eat there. I tried to call in an order, but that didn’t quite work out. Inside seating is fine.

EMILY: Sonya found FIELDTRIP through Yelp and wanted to give it a try.

SONYA: My name is Sonia H. I am an elite Yelper. Super excited about that. So FIELDTRIP. I believe I saw the owner on perhaps maybe a TV show. I knew it was Black-owned. And I always wanted to try it, but I’m not really in Harlem that much. So one day, my son has to get his haircut. We go to Harlem to get a haircut. And while waiting, because all I do is sit in the car and wait for him, I’m scrolling through Yelp, “what are we gonna eat tonight? Huh, let’s see. We’re in Harlem, so we can explore. It’s gonna be great.” I came across FIELDTRIP and was like, Oh my goodness, everything looks good. The bowls look amazing.

It’s healthy. I’m excited. I always wanted to try it. And just being very honest with you, as I scrolled, I saw a negative review and I was like, it’s okay. Let me read through and see why did she only give it one? Because I read the good reviews and of course we have to read the negative ones. Oh my God.

Lo and behold, there was a roach in her son’s bowl and I said, ‘Oh, how am I going to justify this in my head that I’ve seen this?’ You can’t unsee or unfeel that feeling of, ‘Oh my God.’ But of course I know the restaurant business very well. I’ve worked on the other side before, things happen. People don’t always tell the complete truth about everything.

I still want to try it, but I don’t know. Let me just give it to my son when he comes out. He’s 16. Hey, we’re going to try this place. It’s Black-owned. He loves rice. He’s very minimalist on his eating. All he wants to eat is rice. I left out the really healthy part of it.

I just said, you know, you can get some rice and chicken. So he was like, uh, okay. I said, but you know, I saw this review and it wasn’t that great. He was like, wow, what happened? And I said, damn, I shouldn’t have said anything to him about it, but you know, trying to be transparent and just want his. I wanted his take on it.

So he was like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t go there. They have roaches.’ I said, ‘No, no,’ I think I said, something inside me said, just try it. Right. I said, ‘Look, I’ve already picked up what you’re going to get. I already know what I’m going to get. I’m gonna have a salmon bowl. I’m gonna get something for my daughter. This is going to be a whole thing.’ I said, ‘I think we should just try it anyway.’ Prior to him coming out, I called and I said, ‘Let me just kind of get a feel for somebody on the phone.’ That wasn’t necessarily the best way to go either, because they said something about the phone. They couldn’t take the order.

It sounded a little like they might have been a little overwhelmed, but I went on anyway. Emily, I was thinking to myself, what am I doing now? But it was something inside me that said, just go, right? So I pulled up at a parking spot in New York City right there.

I was like, oh, there’s the parking gods – I’m supposed to be here. So pulled in. It’s like seven at night. Maybe they were going to close in an hour or so. The guy who welcomed us at the door, he was great! And all the workers were great. They have a small seating area, but we just wanted ours to go. Everything—it was perfect.

I was like, huh, I’m so glad I went with my instinct. The parking gods cooperated. My son was a little reluctant, but that’s just who he is. But when he went in and saw the guys in there and they were talking to him, I was like, “Hey, we’ve never been here before,” you know? And they were like, “Oh, come on in!”

They were mixing up the food and they had, I think some ice cream, or they gave me a sample of their tea or their hibiscus tea or something they had. And I was like, Oh, this is a good sign. Everything was perfect. Like I said, things happen, right? Not saying that that didn’t happen to her.

It probably did. Whatever the case was, it doesn’t matter. I’ve since gone back again – still had the same sort of experience. I love the food there. I think it’s healthy. Yes, you’re eating rice, but it doesn’t feel as heavy as rice could feel. I think they have ice cream sometimes.

I’ve never sat inside and ate, but the times that I’ve been, I loved it. My son was like, he, either way, he was still eh, eh, eh, but that’s just him because he has a lot of food allergies So I have to put everything on the side because he won’t eat it if he thinks it’s a nut or anything related to Something that he can’t eat fish or anything.

He just won’t eat it. So I had them put everything to the side. So sometimes when you don’t make it the way it’s supposed to be prepared, it tastes a little different. So with that being said, I may go back to FIELDTRIP this week because I really do enjoy it. It’s kind of earthy feeling in there. It’s clean eating and you know, kids like not clean eating.

That’s what happened on the day that I went and I decided to do the review, which I did kind of maybe later that night or the next day because I was so happy about it.

EMILY: Sonya’s experience is a great example of what Chef JJ had in mind when he opened his first location of FIELDTRIP five years ago—clean eating that’s healthy and delicious, as well as affordable and accessible.

CHEF JJ: I’m Chef JJ Johnson, chef and founder of Field Trip here in New York City. We have three locations, one in Harlem, one in Rockefeller Center, one in front of Columbia University. Our brand has been open for about five years. I started off in fine dining, casual fine dining, all working around New York City.

I’ve traveled the world cooking, and decided to open up a fast casual restaurant in the midst of COVID 19. A community that doesn’t get better-for-you food. And that was the reason why I opened up the location in Harlem. One, because the landlord gave me an opportunity and two was I wanted to try to give the community something better for them that tastes really good.

CHEF JJ: A FIELDTRIP is a rice bowl shop. It focuses on one singular ingredient, which is rice, which I believe is the greatest connector in the world. We all have a rice culture. Fields are for the rice fields, trips are for the trips I’ve taken around the world. And the bowls basically take you on a trip anywhere from the Americas to the American South, to West Africa, to Asia, to Southeast Asia, to India, to the Caribbean.

It will take you on a journey all around, for an affordable rate. You order at the counter, they call your name or you get a text message and that’s when you can come back to the counter and grab your food.

EMILY: Sometimes, when you present your business idea to others, you might get pushback—‘it’s not a good idea, why that location, what are you thinking?’ It might be disheartening, and it might make you rethink your business plan. But those negative comments shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent for creating the business you know the community needs. Chef JJ knew FIELDTRIP was needed in Harlem. He wanted to give people fresh options in a place where they haven’t traditionally had access to clean food choices.

CHEF JJ:  I think I’m a disrupter in that sense of form just through my career and looking at communities of Black and brown folks and talking to developers or landlords in the search was like always saying that these communities don’t want this type of food. “Nobody wants your type of food, JJ.” And that’s not true.

I think the reason is, is that it’s a circle. Somebody has got to break the circle. Maybe the first person that comes in doesn’t break it, but it kind of opens up the gateway for the next person to move in and then they’re successful. So that was a risk that I took. And what I realized was like, working class Americans want to eat better. There’s nothing at an affordable rate, we all can argue what that is, for them to at least have the opportunity to eat better, if it’s once a week or twice a week. And that was the goal, and using ingredients that were familiar to those types of, to those communities.

So like why you see a vegetable, a protein, and a starch in our bowls where most bowl places that consider themselves ‘a bowl place,’ it’s just protein and a starch and you can add sauces or a little bit of cucumbers or whatever tomatoes to it. We’re basically giving you a complete, wholesome meal. And that was the key for me in the process: giving people a wholesome meal or complete meal that they can eat that hopefully tastes really good to them.

EMILY: Sonya mentioned earlier that she tried to call ahead to order, and the staff told her they didn’t take phone orders. It didn’t deter her, and she went ahead to FIELDTRIP to order at the counter. Once inside, she understood exactly why.

SONYA: When I went in, I could see how busy they were. I understood why she just couldn’t take my order. She just, whoever it was, just couldn’t take my order. And they were trying to steer me to that third party app or whatever it is, like place the order through the app. And then when you get here, it’ll happen.

And I was like, Oh, I hate apps. I don’t know third parties. I just like people. I like customer service, like good customer service. I’m going to always be one for customer service. I don’t know what I’m going to do when AI takes all these jobs. But I was just so pleasantly surprised. I understood because everybody’s short staffed, right? Everybody right now is short staffed. So for them to take my order, which I probably would have hemmed hawed and hoed because I’ve never been there before.

“What about this? Do you have nuts? I don’t want the sauce on that.” And they were like, “look, look, look, do all that over there. That’s it.” So that’s why I said, you know, let me just go in and see what’s going on. When I went in, it was fine.

EMILY: Taking away a convenience like phone orders from your customers could be seen as a risky business decision. In the end, it didn’t deter Sonya, but it might deter other customers from giving FIELDTRIP a shot. Chef JJ understands that risk, but made his choice with thought and care for both his business and his customers.

CHEF JJ: So it’s really interesting – during the pandemic, we took a lot of orders over the phone because it was a different time. And I think as you open up in different communities, there’s a different culture, right? So for us, we would love to take more orders over the phone, but it’s a risk, like a high risk.

We’re not supposed to take your credit card over the phone. That’s illegal. We hold your order or it’s on the screen now. So it’s rung in. Somebody doesn’t show up, we got to void it out. So there’s a lot of different aspects to it. I wish I could put you through a phone that you could press one, to order this press three, and then it came through the KDS screen.

And I think what happens is in a community like our Harlem location, we are learning through technology. Where we are really trying to capture folks’ data so that we could come back and join a rewards program.

Do this, to really be able to extend more of the stuff, why we push people to order online. Or now our app, so that it is easier for them. And we also don’t mess up your order. We don’t hear you properly. And those things, we really keep the phone in place for people that have mistake orders. Maybe we forgot to put something in the package, maybe the delivery guy went to the wrong place.

When somebody calls our operation is to really take the order, push you to order on the website. And I know we probably lose a lot of customers. I don’t know how many customers we lose. But it is something that we have weaned away from to help out. But yeah, we don’t take it over the phone due to your privacy. We don’t want you to say that we stole your credit card and we want you to still show up.

EMILY: One thing that really struck me in this conversation with Chef JJ was the way he uses the online ordering system as a way to collect data. He and his team can see how often someone comes in, what dishes are ordered the most, and how best to build a rewards program around that information. He can track frequent customers, and his team will follow up personally if they haven’t seen a top customer in a while.

CHEF JJ:  I think when you look at a lot of the brands that are growing, you need that data, you need to know who your customer is. Who are they? What do they look like? And a lot of you could just sit in there, you know, Mav Carter, LeBron James’s manager or partner – I was talking to him once and he was like, you want to know your customers, Jay, you just sit in the restaurant and just check off.

Who would you think they look like? Black, white, Latino, Asian, other, male, female, check off the boxes and then you’ll start to see, then you can run a survey. And that’s why I think Cabo was really successful. They knew that the customer was leaving a Target coming to Cabo’s.

What do you do? You move closer to a Target to extract the customer. So that’s really key. I don’t think FIELDTRIP has really found its home run location yet. It does okay, in the majority of the locations. And I take that for example, at Columbia university location, high density. I’m like, okay, what we gotta do is open the doors.

No, we gotta gain trust from the Columbia students. I should know that better than anybody. Shame on me. So like, always stick to the playbook that has worked and then you can expand and tweak it. But yeah, we’re going to come out really strong in January with catering to the Columbia undergrad student, freshman, sophomore, how do we tap into them?

How do we make them trust us? We are the right place for them to spend the little bit of money that they have.

EMILY: Everything Chef JJ has done to build FIELDTRIP has been based first on customer service, which Sonya specifically mentioned in our conversation. The team behind the counter greeted her and her son, walked them through choices, and made them feel comfortable and welcome. The crew was invested in making sure Sonya—and her picky teenaged son—got exactly what they wanted.

CHEF JJ:  We firmly believe in hospitality, right? Coming from a full service experience, hospitality is key where you’re greeted at the door, how you’re treated at the table. So trying to really put that into fast casual or “fast food.” You don’t really see that much. I mean, we could talk about the brands that do a really great job on that.

I think that’s why they’ve been really successful, but for us, especially like starting in Harlem is that we wanted to lead through hospitality and making sure everybody’s greeted. Why we say ‘welcome to FIELDTRIP’. And then we say, ‘see you next trip,’ is because a lot of places throughout Harlem, if you read the reviews, when I did market research early on, most people were saying they weren’t treated nice, that people were rude, things of that nature.

And I didn’t want to be categorized in that area. So we always led through that. Really leaning into service and hospitality and then leaning into the food afterward.

EMILY: Great service is one of the reasons reviewers give four or five star ratings to businesses on Yelp. A good customer experience can overcome any initial negative impression that a customer might get. Sonya mentioned that the food was delicious, which is one ingredient in a great review of a restaurant, but she also made note of the big impression made by the staff.

SONYA:  So I guess I gave them the five stars because I was so reluctant to going in and then my experience was so awesome. I had to give them five. If I would have given them four, it would have probably been because I was annoyed about not being able to order ahead. And it just seemed like they was trying, I think they were trying to send me through an app to order through a third party, like Grubhub or something like that, which I really try to stay away from those people as much as possible.

EMILY: Most small business owners know that they shouldn’t expect all reviews to be five-star. Especially if they’re a high volume business, serving lots of different customers. And that’s ok! Because consumers don’t necessarily trust a business with 100% five-star ratings. They want to know what the issues are, or can be, and more importantly, how the business handles customer concerns. A public review response is a great way to show your customer service practices to all future consumers.

Business owners should always respond to reviews, both positive and negative. After all, those less-than-positive reviews are a great way to keep tabs on your business, and figure out what’s lacking or what could be improved about your operations.

That’s exactly what Chef JJ does when reading and responding to reviews for FIELDTRIP.

CHEF JJ: I try to tell people that write reviews, we try to respond to everybody’s reviews. We’re very thankful for reviews, but criticism that makes sense, right. Criticism that makes sense to us to become better. I think when somebody is like, I had my meal and this was trash, like, okay, so what was trash about it? What was your experience? That only allows us to become better. And that’s where we don’t want that review up because that doesn’t help us. And it also doesn’t help the consumer. The reviewer, somebody is like, Hey, my rice was cold. The rice was like pebbles. The chicken felt gummy.

I’m really sorry for your experience. Can you please email us so that we can, give you a gift card or talk about this a little bit more to give you a better experience. And that’s what you’ll see from us. If somebody got a bad review, we’re reaching out. If somebody had a good review, we say, thank you very much. See you next trip! Hope to see you next time. Or maybe make some funny comment on what you had. But for the most part, reviews are supposed to help the restaurant get better. And I think that’s where people have lost track of it, where they just go wild.

And I think there was a review recently where I was like on Yelp, I’m like, what’s, what is this? What’s going on here? Then we go back and ask the team. So we’re really keen. This person gave a four star review. I was happy that I passed by this and similar to create-your-own-bowl places are trending everywhere, but I bought two bowls from here. They were very tasty, but we don’t let people create their own bowls.

But like that comment, it’s like, okay, maybe there’s a create your own bowl Friday. It allows us to really lean in and understand what people want. And say, oh, somebody else has a create-your-own-bowl spot by FIELDTRIP in Harlem, what’s going on? So those things allow us to be better.

EMILY: That’s a really good example of how to think about your reviews. Sometimes it’s about the star rating and maintaining a certain star rating, but sometimes it’s actually about the content in the review and getting a customer’s perspective.

Sonya mentioned that one of the reasons she knew about FIELDTRIP and wanted to come in was that it was a Black-owned business. As someone who self-described as an African American, it is important for her to support more minority-owned businesses.

SONYA: And I think that may have been one of the times I went maybe like Black-owned business month or week or certain times they may do a little more, the business may offer a little more. I just like to see the new businesses succeed, and if it’s a Black-owned business – and I think he has other locations, so I think he’s really doing well. But like I said, I saw him or I heard about him on TV, something Black-owned. I don’t know what the date is on that. And maybe it was Black History Month. I can’t remember. If there’s any new Black-owned businesses, or it could be Latino, just minority owned businesses, I’m going to support them. I’m going to try my best to get there, see how it is.

And, I don’t always tell them I’m doing something for Yelp. I’m just going to, I just want to have the genuine experience.

So Black-owned businesses. I love it. I’m an African American female mixed with some Latino. So I go to all of those plus all the rest of them because I just love new businesses. And I understand the restaurant business very well. And it’s difficult. It’s difficult. And I think where we are lacking is customer service. We have to go back to having some people that care

EMILY: Chef JJ said once that he didn’t want to be just a good Black business, but a good business. But identity is something that’s important to him as a business owner, because it’s a sign of what’s possible for other minority entrepreneurs.

CHEF JJ: When it comes to Black-owned business, you don’t have the resources to give maybe the hospitality or making sure you can stay open late or these hours. And I think letting people know that a Black-owned business exists or helping push the needle, and not getting looked over.

The country’s built a certain way. And the people that are in the country right now, I probably would say more than 60% of those people don’t like the way the country was built.

So, it is what it is. There’s nothing like that you or I can do to fix what happened in the past. What we can say is, ‘okay, this was wrong, and what can we do to fix it for the future or the present?’ And I think that’s what a lot of people are trying to do is put their money where their mouth is to help fix it.

And then to see you getting attacked for it is ridiculous. And that’s why I say that might be the 40 percent of the 30 percent of people that still want it to be that certain way. If you look at the music industry in hip hop, who invested in hip hop, those guys that invested in hip hop are making tons of money off of these musical artists in a genre of music that didn’t exist.

So if people looked at it that way, like, Oh, I can invest in a Black-owned business. And my return on investment could be really great. Why not? I might have to give them a little bit more money or hold their hand a little bit because they don’t have the resources or the education around it. There should be nothing wrong with that.

And I think that’s where the country holds itself back every time we get into this. It’s like, you don’t want women to progress. You don’t want people of color to progress. After a while, I think enough is enough. And I’m happy to see other Black people, other people of color, promoting other businesses that look like them for folks that don’t know about it, because we have to come together just as much as we want everybody else to come with us.

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