JJ Johnson — an award-winning, New York City-based chef and restaurant operator known for his culinary and community work in Harlem — is expanding his fast-casual rice bowl concept, FieldTrip, to Morningside Heights in New York. Opening later this month, this will be the third FieldTrip location (with the other two in Harlem and Midtown Manhattan), but Chef Johnson has a long-term vision of growing FieldTrip to 100+ locations in major metropolitan markets outside of New York.
“The concept was to make it like a Momofuku, where people can order from a chef’s table, and instead of noodles, it would be rice,” Johnson said. “At the time, my old business partner was like, ‘Nobody’s gonna pay $25 for a rice bowl, you’re crazy.’ And I was like, why not? People pay $25 for rice all around the world… I was thinking, ‘what if I can get people really good rice that you’d see in a fine-dining setting and I can do it at an affordable price and bring back this level of respect to rice as the foundation of agriculture. And that’s how it got started.”
The first FieldTrip location opened in Harlem in 2019 as a self-proclaimed “community-based dining experience” with the idea of bringing fine-dining skills and ingredient quality to a more affordable, limited-service-style restaurant. The rice bowls are priced between $10 and $14 and each features a unique rice recipe as a base of the bowl inspired by recipes from the African diaspora and American South, like jollof basmati rice, Texas brown rice, and Carolina gold fried rice. The soul food-infused menu lineup also includes seafood gumbo, fried chicken bowl, and Harlem Soul Salad made with rice, Brussels sprouts, and kale.
“When you are cooking at the high level, you’re really trying to source the best product and know where your food comes from,” Johnson said. “I think that’s why Chipotle has been able to dominate fast-casual now because they are constantly letting you know it’s fresh. But we’re doing the same thing. I’m giving you really good rice that’s ethically sourced for under $14 and that’s where the fine-dining translation to fast-casual comes in… fast casual is way harder than fine dining on a consistency level. You have to be able to really make sure you’re pushing out the same quality of food every time.”
When FieldTrip’s third location opens later this month near Columbia University, it will have the smallest dining room so far, with only 12 seats, and a focus on appealing to students or professionals in a rush. Johnson said that the concept will continue its tradition of being community-centric and involvement in the surrounding neighborhood. Before opening up each location, Johnson said, it’s important that their team makers sure the FieldTrip concept and community values will fit in.
Although Johnson’s focus recently has been on opening this third location, he has his eyes on the long-term prize, and believes that FieldTrip could thrive in major markets outside of New York City, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey. The big challenge as FieldTrip begins its journey to 100+ restaurants, would be to maintain consistent quality and not corporatize the brand in the same way that other regional fast-casual restaurants have done as they expanded. This is part of the reason why Johnson is hesitant to commit to the idea of franchising; preserving the concept and soul of FieldTrip is more important than cranking up the development pace.
“FieldTrip speaks to the everyday person: you could come in here as a college student or pushing a stroller, you can be somebody on a budget or not,” Johnson said. “In Harlem, we’re in a heavily Black and Latino neighborhood giving people food that is better for them… In [Midtown], we have working-class folks that can’t afford to eat in Rockefeller Center eating our food. We’re a brand that actually cares about people. The food quality doesn’t change and the price doesn’t change just because we’re in a neighborhood where we know they can afford to pay more. We keep the price level everywhere.”