Photo: Chef JJ

This chef turned supporting his community into a winning business strategy

Small businesses — particularly in the restaurant industry — are taking a big hit during the pandemic. Staying afloat in the current coronavirus economy requires requires innovation. Unfortunately, for many businesses, innovation looks a lot like disaster capitalism. But for New York City restaurateur Joseph Johnson (a.k.a. Chef JJ), innovation and community care go hand-in-hand. As the owner and chef at Harlem’s Field Trip, Johnson is using his food service skills to feed people on the front lines and keep people employed.

Community engagement is nothing new to Johnson. His restaurant, Field Trip, which opened last fall, is built on the idea of using food to connect people. The company motto is, “rice is culture,” and it captures the ingredient’s universal appeal as a comfort food. From Ghana to Greece, rice has always been central to a hearty, fulfilling meal — and Field Trip harnesses that reality by offering reasonably priced (meals are around $10), sustainably sourced rice bowls to a community where most affordable food options are still fast and fried.

Photo: Chef JJ

Johnson’s culinary prowess and service orientation are both part of his lineage. “When I was a kid, my parents built a basketball program to help local kids,” he tells me. “They were always picking up kids and driving them around, making sure they got to and from practice. I didn’t understand why. They told me, ‘not every kid is as fortunate as you,’” Johnson tells Mic. “They were doing it for the community. So that’s really where the idea of Field Trip came from. I thought, ‘how can I adapt that to food?’” And so, his quest to harness the joy of good food and engage everyone around him with it expanded.

Field Trip is currently open for take-out orders but its primary purpose is to support people on the front line and those in need. The restaurant is serving 100 meals a day to workers at local hospitals and is also providing hot meals to folks at a local homeless shelter. This is crowdfunded mutual aid at its finest. For every $8 donated by friends and supporters, Field Trip adds $2 to cover the cost of making and delivering a hot nutritious meal to someone who needs it.

The money Johnson is raising serves the dual purpose of feeding people and keeping seven safely distanced (and sanitized) staff members employed at a time when many in the industry are losing hours and income rapidly. And while other restaurants have hopped on this concept, Johnson was an early adopter.

And he's is just getting started. “In Harlem, there’s 14 shelters,” he says. “They usually rely on school to provide them with hot lunch. With the schools closed, they didn’t have hot meals for two weeks.” Right now, they have enough funding to feed one shelter a week, but his ultimate goal is to feed all the shelters. Field Trip may not be able to do it alone, but Johnson is hopeful. He says that if the restaurants in Harlem that remain open each adopt a shelter and rotate, together they can feed the community.

“I wish I could feed everybody,” he laughs. “But it’s community that fuels America and the world, and it’s communities that keep your business and society going.” Donations have poured in from around the world, he tells Mic. “People with big hearts will get it done,” he says.

We are shining a spotlight on some of the millions of small businesses now challenged by COVID-19. This is part of an ongoing commitment our parent company, Bustle Digital Group, is making to support small businesses throughout the entire month of May. Tell us about your favorite small business on social media using #SmallBusinessSalutes.