Despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, chef JJ Johnson is expanding his "community-based restaurant" Fieldtrip — and providing tens of thousands of meals to healthcare workers and families in need.
Johnson, who opened his restaurant Fieldtrip in Harlem, New York, in 2019, is a James Beard Award-winning chef and television host. The restaurant serves rice bowls inspired by international flavors.
"We consider ourselves a community-based restaurant," Johnson told TODAY's Al Roker. "Everything on the menu is under $13. You will get flavors from Singapore, West Africa, India, the American South, (the) Caribbean. I believe that rice connects us all, and it's a place for everybody."
Johnson said that the new restaurant had almost gone under earlier in the pandemic: He had laid off 90% of the establishment's staff, and few people were ordering. Things changed when his wife Mia, a nurse, gave him an idea.
"I'll be really honest with you, my wife saved my business," Johnson said. "Early on in the pandemic, she came home one night, she said, 'Did you bring anything home from Fieldtrip? We had no time to think about eating a meal.'
"So, the next day I sent her and her team some Fieldtrip bowls. And then I said, 'Well, hold on, what about the local community of Harlem?' So we sent some meals and bowls out to Harlem Hospital."
Social media posts about the donated meals led to financial donations from fans of the restaurant, and soon, Johnson and Fieldtrip partnered with local organizations and nonprofits to help feed families dealing with food insecurity, the number of which has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, Fieldtrip has donated over 100,000 meals.
"We're still doing anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 meals a week," Johnson said. " … Delivery was only 20% of our business when we first opened up Fieldtrip, and now it's 80% of the business."
The chef said the experience has had a major impact on him.
"There was days I walked home with tears in my eyes. There was moments I screamed," he said. "But at the end of the day, I was able to cook another day, and a lot of my peers weren't able to cook."
Now, he's looking forward to the future of dining, which he hopes will come as the weather warms up.
"In the springtime, restaurants will be coming back, people will be eating more out, people will feel a sense of comfort, and people will have their jobs again," Johnson said.
However, he does expect major, long-term changes across the industry.
"I think when restaurants fully open back up, they won't be the same restaurant that you've known it to be, because the restaurant industry isn't reopening," Johnson said. "It's a grand opening (for) the restaurant industry, and we're going to see a lot of new, cool, innovative ways of how to eat.
"I think that's what we have to look forward to … innovation, technology, styles of cooking, more diversity. A lot of new things will be coming."
No matter what happens to the industry, Johnson intends to be part of it: A new location of Fieldtrip just opened at Rockefeller Center in New York City at the beginning of February, and he is continuing to donate meals to those in need.
"Rice bowls for everybody," he joked to Al.
"We will see you later," Al responded. " … Rice is life, and rice is good."