2nd Generation Restaurateur Brad Johnson on the Restaurant Business

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Brad JOhnsonAccording to online research derived from the National Restaurant Association, “30% of new restaurants fail in the first year, and of those that survive, another 30% close in the next two years.” But judging by restaurateur Brad Johnson’s 30-plus year run in the business, there’s hope yet.

He is the son of the late New York restaurateur Howard Johnson and he’s come a long way since his days as a teenager in NYC working at his dad’s popular, Upper West Side nightclub, The Cellar.

Post & Beam (LA) and Willie Jane (LA) are his latest hot spots, but Johnson’s got a list of noted restaurants and nightclubs that he’s either owned or operated since the 80’s. They’ve consistently garnered the attention of critics from coast to coast with recent applause from Travel + Leisure which included Willie Jane in a piece about the best new restaurants in LA; and in both 2013 and 2014, Post & Beam made the “Best 101 Restaurants” list in the LA Times.     

A NY native but current LA resident, Johnson’s rise has included the 20/20 Club, owned by music legends Valerie Simpson and the late Nick Ashford, wherein he was hired to “re-concept” the operation and book talent; BLT Steak in West Hollywood where he served as managing partner; Memphis, a New Orleans style restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; and Windows, a 10,000 square foot fine dining restaurant that sits on the top floor of the AT&T building in downtown Los Angeles, just to name a few. 

Here, we caught up with Johnson for a little Q&A about the ins and outs of the restaurant business, running a restaurant in NY vs. LA, and the infamous G-word (Gentrification).
 
TNJ.com: To what do you attribute your longevity in the restaurant industry?

Brad Johnson: I’m a 2nd generation restaurateur so I think this is in my blood. And whether or not I was born to do it, I don’t know but I’ve certainly become very familiar over the years with the ins and outs and the ups and downs of the business. Just like with the nature of life, there are peaks and valleys and ups and downs, and you just have to be prepared to weather the bad times and not get too high during the good times and just kind of stay on a level course and be ready for whatever life and business throws at you. And I hope I’ve been able to do that.

TNJ.com: Would you say that funding is the biggest challenge in running a restaurant successfully? Did you self-fund or did you have investors?

B.J.: I’ve done both. We funded our restaurants primarily on our own. For Post & Beam, we did receive some funding from Capri Capital, the owners of the mall. Funding is always a big challenge in our business because of the risk factors. And rarely is our business attached to a real estate deal, which potentially makes it a little safer to most investors but, yes, access to capital is a major challenge and you have to wear several hats when you’re trying to open a restaurant. And the first one is usually a fundraiser.

TNJ.com: Have you had more success in the NY market or in the LA market?

B.J.: It’s difficult to say. I’ve lived in LA for the past 20 years and I’ve matured as an operator here in LA. The two markets, NY and LA, are very different. I can say that the top line grosses in NY are much healthier on average, just because of the sheer density of the city and how many people you have access to in small blocks, in that the city is vertical. In LA, we have to make plans to meet up with our friends in various places since we’re all coming from different areas in town. So in that regard, it’s a little bit harder – and the top line grosses show it. But in terms of measuring my own success, I have definitely matured here as an operator, but I miss NY terribly.

TNJ.com:  What has been your biggest lesson, and the one piece of advice you can share with aspiring restaurateurs?

BJ: The understanding of how important financial discipline and financial management are. You can be a fantastic cook or chef, you can have a charismatic personality, you can have a great rolodex or access to thousands of people through social media, you can have talent for design and a great eye for detail, and all of these nice attributes but if you don’t have financial management skills, you’re just not going to have any money at the end of the month. And it took me a while to really understand the importance of that. And in tribute to my wife who is a former auditor with one of the big five accounting firms, she really taught me that. And it has made all the difference in the world in both our business and our personal life because now we’re not just working to pay bills. We actually have a home and can live a nice life alongside with working hard. So above and beyond everything else, financial discipline and financial management top the list. 

TNJ.com:  Did you develop an interest in the restaurant business as a result of working with your dad in his businesses?   

B.J.: Absolutely. I got exposed to the business through my dad’s eyes and really had a chance to grow up in it. I started in the dish room and worked with the guys in the kitchen and understood what it felt like without any of the glamour part of it that the front of the house offers you with the opportunity to meet people and mingle. I just understood and valued the “hard work” part of it. And you have to do it everyday, and then do it better than you did the day before. So I would say yes, my dad’s business exposed me to so much. In those days, the Upper West Side was such an exciting place to be, with young African American entrepreneurs like Bruce Llewelyn, Ed Lewis, Susan Taylor and all of these folks who were just starting to rise in prominence and the whole “Black is Beautiful” movement was very much alive in those days and I got to witness it first-hand. It was really exciting and it stimulated me and gave me inspiration to continue and stay in this business.

TNJ.com: Do you want your kids to follow in your footsteps and continue on with your family’s legacy of being entrepreneurs in the restaurant business, especially considering that we hear about so few African American family business success stories?

B.J.: My son is 26 and he’s a musician. He attended Berklee School of Music and is a talented young man. I hope he continues to find success in the music business. But yes, [the lack of success stories regarding African American businesses] it’s a real problem. We’ve seen how over the last 30, 40 and 50 years since desegregation and integration and forced busing and all of those movements impacted the African American neighborhoods and we saw a destabilizing of African American owned businesses over the span of that time to the extent where now were seeing things come full circle where gentrification has kicked in especially in cities like Harlem, South LA, Oakland and even Detroit. So we’re seeing a renewed interest primarily driven by low real estate, which brings in low real estate prices, which brings in outsiders in a lot of cases. And it gives gentrification a bad name. But I’ve witnessed, first-hand, what happens. My dad’s business was patronized, 90 percent, by African Americans – even in the racially, integrated neighborhood of the Upper West Side. There were 4 or 5 nice places in our 5-block radius that were all supported by African Americans. Once the climate started to change and new money, that is my generation and the generation just before mine, started to really make money and were more widely accepted in the downtown nightclubs, restaurants and bars, you saw a lot of the Black-owned places really lose their grip on their customers to the extent that now you see the athletes and musicians and folks that are really making big money, they’re at SoHo House and all of the very popular, mainstream places which happened at the expense of some of the Black-owned businesses in those neighborhoods.  

TNJ.com:  What do you love most about what you do?

B.J.: I love two things: I love the opportunity to be my own boss and be in business for myself. There’s a lot of burden and responsibility that comes along with that. You’re responsible for other people’s lives in terms of healthcare and other issues. You need to be responsible about staying in business so that you can continue to provide people with jobs that provide for their families. But the second benefit is the cross section of people that I’ve been able to meet over the years. It’s just been phenomenal. You really do meet people from every walk of life. One of my best friends at my dad’s restaurant in NY was the mailman who we saw every day who worked our door on the weekends and collected the $5 cover charge. And his perspective on life was just phenomenal. He was one of the happiest guys I knew. And just being in LA, of course, the entertainment world…you do meet the creative types. But it’s just a fantastic cross section of people. I even met my wife in one of my restaurants, so there you go!

TNJ.com: I heard that you take an interest in empowering young people and professionals. In what ways do you try to reach out and mentor?

B.J.: I try to spend as much time talking to and mentoring, certainly, anybody who works for us if they have ideas about entrepreneurship, and I try to enlighten them as to the hurdles that you will face but also the benefits of being in business for yourself and believing in yourself and believing that if you have the skills, discipline and desire you can accomplish business ownership and that the way to build wealth is found through entrepreneurship.