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SK Founder, Justin Johnson Sits Down with ActionCOACH to Discuss the Food Service Industry Today.


Justin Johnson, CEO/Founder, Sustainable Kitchens

Rob Maniaci sat down with Justin Johnson of Sustainable Kitchens to discuss their mission, their approach and the state of the food service industry, post-pandemic.


RM: Who is Sustainable Kitchens and what do you do?

Justin Johnson: We are a food service consultant. We work with all segments of food service to develop operations with a focus on sustainability, scratch cooking, and local sourcing. It could be restaurants; it could be corporate office cafeterias. Primarily though, our work is in hospitals, schools, and senior homes because those are typically the areas that are in the greatest need of better food as they oftentimes rely on processed, pre-made, convenience foods.

RM: Where do you want to take your company long term?

JJ: I would like to see a time when our system is a ubiquitous thing. A lot of times, people view us as a premium service or as something that would be great if they could do it, but don’t think they can afford it, don’t think they have the staff to do it, or aren’t in a position to “serve healthy food”. But it’s not about that. For us, it’s not so much about the menus and the recipes as it is simplifying and streamlining operational footwork. Even if it’s a high fine dining restaurant that does everything from scratch and grows their own food and sources from local farms, just using our menu and recipe format, is going to simplify the day-to-day operations and the footwork through an operation. I feel like it’s something that, regardless of what segment of the industry, everyone can benefit from it. It reduces the steps in the cooking process, it keeps your food inventory low, it keeps your staff level to a point where you don’t have a lot of extra labor that you can’t use or a lot of wasted time or wasted steps. I have been working for the last couple of years to try and break the stigma of being seen as a high-end thing or something that’s beyond your capabilities. It’s not.

RM: Who is your target market (who do you help)?

JJ: I would say our sweet spot is healthcare and senior living. It’s a big area of need and a lot of times they're the organizations who have the flexibility to take on a project. Often times, operations-- whether restaurants, schools or hospitals-- are just trying to survive and don’t have the time to rethink a totally new approach to the way they work. Health and senior living facilities tend to have a little bit more flexibility and there is a great need for better food in these environments. Patient, customer or resident feedback is immediate because food is the primary source of entertainment in a day. If you’re an older individual and you live in assisted living, that lunch, that dinner, is the number one thing that you're looking forward to. You get out of your room, you get out with other people; there is a social element to it. When you take that most anticipated part of the day and you start giving diners the worst food on the planet, it’s pretty depressing. We can flip the script on that and it’s not about fancy food. It’s about fresh, clean, and well-cooked proteins; everything is simple and clean and from scratch and looks great and smells great. It just pays huge dividends. It has also become a competitive edge in the industry because when you’re looking for a place for grandma or grandpa to go to live or you’re looking for a hospital to go and get a procedure or receive some type of healthcare, you have options. You have all this information about what kind of experience you’re going to have at a place. The healthcare industry is really trying to get out in front of those reviews and try to have a good identity in the community amongst their patrons. Food is a huge part of that.

RM: What problems do you solve for your customers?

JJ: Reducing waste in food products, reducing waste in human capital and reducing waste in the time, steps and money spent to efficiently run an operation. The pretty pictures are of the food, yes, and that is what gets people excited, but for us, that’s the easy part. The hard part is the operational framework and looking at an operation, not in the balance of one day, but how one day leads into the next, into the next and into the next and having processes that require the least amount of excessive steps or resources; or things that are going to go to waste like food scraps and peoples’ time.

RM: What is your biggest learning from the pandemic and how has your thinking changed in your approach to business over the last two years?

JJ: In our industry, the biggest challenge that everyone is facing as a result of the pandemic is staffing. Prior to the pandemic, if you’ve ever been a hiring manager, you know that if you post a job and let’s say you get 10 applications, about 8 of those 10 are un-hirable. They don’t have the skillset, they don’t have the personality, they don’t have what you are looking for or what you envision for that role. Then you have a front runner and a backup. This probably extends to a lot of different industries. When the pandemic hit, a lot of people who had committed themselves to the hospitality industry were sort of hung out to dry. Most of them found something else to do. When restaurants reopened, everyone said, "nobody wants to work!" Well, that isn’t exactly true. What happened was that the people who did want to work, that made your operations good and made them run, were gone and not coming back. So, what you are drawing from now in the current labor pool are the people you wouldn't have hired before. In a way, we are almost kind of needing to rebuild our industry as if it didn’t exist before. We can’t sit here and feel entitled to great workers. We have to develop them. We have to remold and recreate the hospitality workforce. It’s really more on the adaptability of the leadership in food service than it is on the frontline workers.

RM: What is one mistake you’ve made, or lesson learned that other business owners and entrepreneurs can learn from regardless of their industry?

JJ: When we started, we came out of the gate fast. We had a lot of projects right away, we were able to grow our staff right away and our revenue really spiked. We had an opportunity with a large company in Illinois. We were wary of the fact that we didn’t have a huge team yet, and it was going to be a lot of work. We thought we were going to take this big project on and figure it out along the way. And we did to a degree. We did a lot of work for them but could just never get out in front of their expectations. Within 8 months or so, the project ended. That was a regrouping moment for us. We realized we tried to run before we were ready to walk. It was a difficult situation, but I wouldn’t have changed it because I feel that we've learned more from our mistakes than our successes. I think that was a good hard lesson learned and it helped us to kind of find our sweet spot and figure out how to pace what we do a little better.

RM: Is there anything you’d like to include in the form of an offer or announcement for the folks that read this newsletter?

JJ: The way we generate what a project is going to look like is with a site assessment and a very detailed and comprehensive report of all the aspect of an operation, from menus, recipes, training, employee communications, facilities, food safety, and so on. We spend about a day in the operation, we generate an overview of what you are doing well, what you are not doing so well, along with the things we would focus on were we to proceed with a project. That site assessment and the report is something we do for people for free, whether they decide to go forward with a project or not. If somebody decides not to go forward with the project, they still have that report to maybe do some of that work themselves.

RM: What is most inspiring to you today?

JJ: I am really inspired and energized by the people that figured out a way through the mud and are still around and have maintained a good approach, a good energy and a good positive attitude about what they do to continue to survive. For us, it always comes down to the leadership. As much as we spend a lot of our time training frontline workers, the people who are going to be cooking the food and the support staff within a food service operation, it really requires a strong leader to guide that ship. One of the things I have learned in my years in food service and as a leader is that when I started out, I thought it was all about me. I set the tone, I provide the direction, everything goes through me, I take all the blame and I take all the accolades. Chefs sort of treat their operations as extensions of themselves. I learned over the years that isn’t the way to build a strong team because, as a leader, you’re there to serve your staff. I have always felt that your main job, as a leader, is to make sure your staff knows what their job is, that they have what they need to do it well, and then get out of the way so they can do it. As I have adapted that mindset myself, I recognized it in others and seeing those folks who have that mindset in the industry now, after the pandemic, are the ones who are still doing great. And that's an exciting and inspiring thing to see.

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