Book Excerpt – Passion, Freedom, and Keeping It Simple

Joe Johnston has been building highly successful restaurants for over twenty years. After co-founding and later selling a chain of coffee shops in Arizona called Coffee Plantation, Joe has helped build three institutions in Gilbert, Arizona: Joe’s Real BBQ, Liberty Market, and Joe’s Farm Grill. Joe and his partners build institutions – restaurants that stand on their own, and that will be around for many, many years to come.

Joe is smart as heck, has a proven track record of significant success, and has figured out how to mitigate most of the risks that come along with opening restaurants. We’re very excited to have had the chance to pick his brain. A few of his pearls of wisdom are below…

Learn From Others – One of the things that we always try to do in all of the concepts that I’ve done since, including this one, is to do a lot of research. Go and visit some of the best people who are doing something, and see if you can get a half hour’s time out of them. Observe their businesses. Write down what you like, and what you don’t like. Even go to some bad places. Almost every bad place has some good things about it, and you can also learn some things not to do.

Be Known For Something – I think sometimes with the broadline restaurants, it’s hard for people to put a finger on why they’re special, or what they’re known for.

KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) – I like the simplicity of both operations. Barbecue is relatively straightforward and understandable. And coffee is straightforward and understandable. So you have the coffee roaster for coffee. And you have the smoker for barbecue. And if you can really understand your process, and keep controls over the factors in that one process, then that’s good.

Freedom Comes From Interdependence – I think that sometimes there is the idea that the American dream is independence, and you’re the self-made man, and you can do it alone, and a good entrepreneur has the whole package. Well, the fact is that generally nobody has the whole package. I think from a biblical perspective, that certainly is the case. There’s the idea of the different gifts working together to accomplish something. And I just decided, “You know what, from now on out, I’m only going to do what I’m good at. And I’m not going to get involved in those things, like management and all of that other stuff that caused my undoing, in terms of lack of fulfillment and happiness with The Coffee Plantation.” So I just decided that, from now on out, I’m going to take care of ideas, and concepts, and getting them rolling. But I’m going to make sure that I don’t do anything without a partner, or partners, that cover the operating side, and have the same vision and passion, but the complimentary gifts. So for me personally, interdependence, rather than independence, has been incredibly freeing. And it’s been freeing for my partners, because they work in the area of their giftedness, which they naturally enjoy. So it works well together.

Partnerships Are Like Marriages – The main things is that you just have to make sure that your partners are – almost as in a marital situation – on the same page. What’s fundamentally important at the end of the day, for all of the people, needs to be the same. You have to have the same view of people. Of how people are to be treated – both brigade members and customers. How important is money? Do you do things for money, or do you do things not for money? Why are you doing what you are doing, and what’s gonna drive the business?

Restaurants Don’t Have To Be Risky – Restaurants are traditionally thought of as risky ventures. I don’t necessarily consider them risky at all, if you do them correctly. But I have to get to that point where I feel it’s not that risky.

Take Time To Perfect Your First Creation – What I call it is the “first creation.” The creation in your mind. On paper. Sketches. Lookbook. Business plan. That first creation is so important, but so many people short change it. Because, it’s totally true that the first creation is always better than the second creation. The second creation, which is actually doing it physically – building the building, the equipment, the menu, etc. – and actually making stuff, is never better than the first. So if you haven’t spent the time in the first creation, richly enjoying it, and embellishing it, and building layers and layer and layers of reasons why people will want to come, and the story, and all that sort of thing, then the second creation is just gonna be the same thing. It’s gonna be half-cocked. And why bother? There’s only a couple of reasons why people might want to come. And you’re gonna take shortcuts. You’re gonna open discombobulated. Why?

Solid Business Plans Can Be The Difference Between Success & Failure – For us to get the original location, we didn’t have to go into any debt for it. But to actually convince the landlord – on his brand new, multi-million dollar project with a fairly high-profile developer – that we should get the prime space? You know, Tim was in publishing, and I was an engineer. To give us the prime space when they wanted a national tenant in there? We had to have a really good business plan. And they had to believe in us to give us that space, instead of a space that we might have died in. So I really think for somebody that is going to have to seek out financing, through bank financing, or SBA, or relatives, or friends, or private replacement, or whatever, the big deal is that you need to have a really solid business plan, and you need to have done that first creation well. That’s how you can demonstrate to people, whether they be bankers or relatives or whoever, that you have put in the time and effort and thought, to develop a concept, and a menu, and a floor plan that makes sense. And that it’s low risk on their part as well. A lot of people I talk to just kind of shoot from the hip, and that is not going to work.

It’s Easier To Build Your Plan In Parts – With the young people that I mentor, I always have them go through that first creation. And get them to do the business plan. So it doesn’t freak them out, I don’t lay out the whole thing at once. Every two weeks, I say, “O.k., now you’re gonna write this section.” So I kind of lead them down the pathway bit by bit, so they don’t become frightened. The whole task can seem overwhelming. But if you break it up into pieces, it’s certainly doable.

Have Passion For Food – If you have a passion for food, then certain things flow from that simple concept. If you have a passion for food, you are not gonna buy a bunch of prepared foods. And if you have a passion for food, you’re gonna use professional preparation. And training. And it’s gonna be a clean place. And you’re gonna be looking for great flavor profiles. You’re not going to rest on your laurels. And you’re not going to become passionless about food, and start making boring, chain-style food.

Serve From The Heart – That’s really important. You’re not serving for money. You’re not serving for personal glory. And you’re not serving for all of these other reasons. You genuinely enjoy serving people, and that again drives good decision making at the ownership level. And at the brigade level. Given any decision making, you ask, “Is this serving us? Or is this serving from the heart?”

Hire People Who Are Passionate About Food & People – In hiring at the espresso bar at Liberty Market, I’ve had to not hire some really, really, incredibly gifted baristas. They met criteria one, which is that they were crazy about coffee. Crazy passionate about coffee. But they were not that passionate about people. And I just can’t have that. I can’t have someone who’s passionate about an inanimate object, but not passionate about the people they’re serving, and trying to make sure that they enjoy the product that they’re making.

The Schedulefly Crew