How Chef JJ Started a Rice Bowl Revolution in Harlem Chef JJ Johnson's global portfolio of rice bowls brought clean eating to a working-class community that has traditionally lacked access to healthy, fast-casual restaurants.

By Emily Washcovick

Key Takeaways

  • If you know your product or business is needed, pay no attention to the naysayers. Instead, back up your business plan with data proving your business niche is profitable.
  • Use data to analyze your customers, create reward programs based on their needs and wants, and decide where and when to expand.
  • Use business attributes on Yelp to let people know you’re a minority-owned business. Customers are specifically looking to support businesses aligned with their values.
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Courtesy of FIELDTRIP

When Chef JJ Johnson opened his first rice bowl restaurant, he set up shop in an area that doesn't see a lot of his kind of businesses. Where others saw that as a problem, he saw it as an opportunity to fill a clean eating gap in a working-class community that has traditionally lacked access to healthy, fast-casual restaurants. That first FIELDTRIP location in Harlem was the first of three storefronts he opened across New York City providing nutritious meals at quick speeds and affordable prices.

"I think I'm a disruptor," Chef JJ said. "Throughout my career, looking at communities of Black and brown folks and talking to developers and landlords in the search, [people were] always saying that these communities don't want this type of food. And that's not true."

Related: How to Open a Restaurant Step By Step

FIELDTRIP's bowls focus on one ingredient—rice—which Chef JJ calls the "greatest connector in the world." From Southeast Asia to West Africa to the Caribbean, the restaurant takes its customers on a trip around the globe with hearty and delicious blends of vegetables, proteins, and starches. The goal is to use ingredients that are familiar to FIELDTRIP's diverse customer base to create fresh and balanced meals.

Despite some initial, external resistance to his business idea, Chef JJ's restaurant was a huge success and has since expanded to storefronts near Rockefeller Center and Columbia University. His fresh, flavorful bowls have drawn in many loyal customers, including Yelp reviewer Sonya H.

"The guy who welcomed us at the door was great," Sonya said, reflecting on her first time at the Harlem location. "And all the workers were great. They were mixing up the food, and they gave me a sample of their tea. And I was like, 'Oh, this is a good sign.' Everything was perfect."

Even with a glowing review, Sonya's first "field trip" wasn't entirely smooth sailing. When she called to order to-go bowls for herself and her son, the staff wasn't able to take her order over the phone. But she didn't let that deter her, and upon arriving at the busy restaurant in person, she understood why no one was able to process her call right away.

Related: Restaurant Owners Reveal Their Success Secrets

Though Chef JJ recognizes that it might turn some customers away, not taking call-in orders is actually a strategic part of how he refines his business model. Instead of taking a customer's information over the phone, which can pose legal problems, the celebrity chef and his staff direct customers to order on FIELDTRIP's website or mobile app. The online system not only improves the accuracy and security of orders, but allows Chef JJ to track who his customers are, what menu items they like, and how often they're eating at FIELDTRIP.

"When you look at brands that are growing, you need that data," Chef JJ said. "Who are your customers? What do they look like?"

By observing what kinds of customers the restaurant appeals to, Chef JJ is better able to cater to his audience when making decisions about expansions and rewards programs. While he doesn't think FIELDTRIP has found its "home run location" yet, he is always thinking about how to move closer to his targets. As FIELDTRIP's location near Columbia University grows, the business's next step is to tailor offerings to undergraduate students.

Chef JJ also tries to differentiate his business through top-tier customer service. When conducting market research for his Harlem location, he found that many fast-casual restaurants in the neighborhood were known for having unfriendly service. In response to this, FIELDTRIP makes a point of always greeting customers and calling out "See you on your next trip!" as they exit, earning staff their reputation for charm.

Despite Sonya's initial frustration with not being able to call in her order, she gave FIELDTRIP five stars on Yelp after experiencing the restaurant's hospitality in person.

Chef JJ maintains that hospitality with online touch points as well, making an effort to respond to every review he receives. He often goes the extra mile, communicating with critical reviewers to invite them back for a better experience.

Chef JJ is grateful for loyal customers like Sonya who support him and other Black business owners, who haven't always been given the resources they need to succeed. By identifying with business attributes on Yelp, FIELDTRIP's business page is able to attract diners who are eager to invest in the Black business owner community.

"I'm happy to see other people of color promoting businesses that look like them for folks that don't know about them," JJ said. "We have to come together just as much as we want everybody else to come together with us."

In addition to knowing your audience and engaging with your customers, FIELDTRIP believes in:

  • Breaking the mold. Locate business opportunities by thinking about what your community needs, not what it has already found success with.
  • Making strategic operating decisions. Using and encouraging an online order system is a great way to acquire crucial data about your customers that can inform future business operations.
  • Creating a sense of belonging. Small things like being greeted as soon as they walk in the door can have the power to reverse poor first impressions and keep customers coming back.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Chef JJ and Sonya, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora, and Soundcloud.

Editorial contributions by Callie Morgan and Kristi Lindahl.

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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