Mr. Johnson's Opus
A blind dog roots through a damp forest in Alba, Italy. Guided by his nose, he veers to the left and then to the right, his hind legs following a split-second behind. Finally, he stops at a pile of brush and pushes his nose, gone white with age, into the dirt.
“I swear it’s coming soon,” Mike Johnson said, pointing at the video on his phone, his eyes glued to the screen as if this time it would show the elderly dog uncovering a human skull.
A man’s head enters the frame and he starts to dig, hands carefully running through the soil like he’s panning for gold. Suddenly, a golf ball-size white truffle appears, and the camera turns to show Johnson’s triumphant smile, which was then mirrored by his in-person smile as he held his phone out to me for a better look.
After truffle hunting that day, Johnson and his friends went to a little pizza joint, and when the waiter brought out the pizza, he also brought a truffle and a tiny scale. He began to shave the truffle on the pizza, as if it was a block of Parmesan.
“We thought this was maybe just some cool thing restaurants in Alba did since the white truffles are so big there,” Johnson said. “So we let him keep shaving and shaving.” When the little $10 pizza had a mountain of truffle shavings on top, Johnson finally suggested that the waiter stop. “He then weighed what was remaining of the truffle, and the pizza ended up costing $300!”
When Johnson returned home to St. Louis, he carried with him a suitcase filled with thousands of dollars in truffles, which he used in specials at Sugarfire Smoke House even though he knew it would lose him money.
“Who wants truffles on barbecue?” Johnson asked with a laugh. “No one.”
But just like that $300 pizza, these days, Johnson can joke about losing a little money.
There are currently six locations of Sugarfire Smoke House in and around St. Louis – three of which are franchises – and Johnson has two more in the works, including one in Indianapolis, which will mark Sugarfire’s first move out of state. With Sugarfire’s franchise system, Johnson foresees another four locations opening by the end of the year. “We’ve had calls from Columbia, Missouri to south Florida,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of people interested in owning a Sugarfire right now.”
At 3 p.m. on a Monday, Sugarfire’s Olivette location was filled with people hunched over plates of brisket, pulled pork and baby back ribs. The restaurant doesn’t even have set hours. “It just stays open until it sells out, which can be as early as 2 p.m. and never much later than 6 p.m.,” said Johnson.
Taking into account Sugarfire’s reputation and business model, it should be no surprise that potential franchisees are falling over themselves to get their hands on a location. But part of what they get with the deal is Mike Johnson, the intangible tangible, who works very hard at being Mike Johnson.
From participating in barbecue festivals around the world – Johnson and his girlfriend and fellow chef, Christina Fitzgerald, who’s also a partner in Sugarfire, just got back from a competition in Perth, Australia – to appearing on TV shows – he has been on Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters,” Food Network’s “Burgers, Brew & Que” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” and has a revenge episode on the latter coming soon – Johnson understands the value of being in the public eye.
And when he’s not traveling for competitions and TV spots, he literally doesn’t stop moving. During our interview, Johnson was simultaneously bouncing his 9-month-old son, fielding texts from his 13-year-old daughter, running next door to pick up a coffee he ordered for me by phone and explaining how his franchises work.
“I still worry every day,” he said. “If it’s raining, I’m worried no one is going to come in.”
(Side note: It was raining. The place was about to run out of food before 4 p.m.).
“I look at sales every day. I run social media. I do the specials. I stop in at the restaurants to make sure the quality is there.”
Johnson wants nothing more than to see everyone around him succeed because he intimately knows how the other side feels.
“I take nothing for granted. I know what it’s like to have a shit restaurant. I’m never going back.”
Johnson’s restaurant history is a bit like that character actor whose name you can’t remember but whose face you always recognize from the three dozen hit movies he’s in. Or according to Johnson, instead of hits, “some good ones, terrible ones and some breakevens.”
If you’ve lived in St. Louis at some point in the last 20 years, chances are you’ve frequented a Mike Johnson restaurant without even knowing it. Ownership in more than 11 restaurants is remarkable by itself, but what makes Johnson’s run extraordinary is that not only has each spot been an entirely distinct concept – Spanish, Greek, Creole, Asian, to name a few – but also, several of them have failed, and each time Johnson picked himself up and went on to create something different and new.
“Every time I open a restaurant, I think it’s the best idea for months,” he laughed. “Then right before it opens, I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
To be fair, in an industry where the majority of new places fail, most of his restaurants have been hits – BARcelona, Cyrano’s, Momo’s, Boogaloo – but a couple years before Johnson opened Sugarfire, he experienced a decently big fail with Fu Manchu, an Asian-inspired spot in Maplewood.
“I can tell in the first two weeks if a restaurant is going to fail,” Johnson explained. “Every restaurant in St. Louis has a honeymoon. If you’re not killing it in the first two weeks, you have to get out.”
This insight is perhaps why Sugarfire doesn’t usually close until the food is gone for the day. “If you’re not busy every day in this industry, you’re screwed,” Johnson said. “Once you realize you’re not busy Monday through Wednesday, it’s over. Because of that, at Sugarfire, we don’t turn anyone away, ever.”
With Fu Manchu, Johnson knew the writing was on the wall practically before the spot even opened. “It was a terrible idea, bad location, bad concept,” he said. And then not too long after Fu Manchu closed, Johnson decided to sell his ownership in Boogaloo. He was beyond burned-out, working double shifts and always worried he wasn’t making enough money to pay back his investors. “I was doing terribly. I was working too much. I hit a wall.”
He was so over restaurants that he even contemplated leaving St. Louis all together. “My dad wanted me to be an EMT. But I realized that I don’t like having people tell me what to do. I don’t like listening to instructions.” Johnson laughed and then paused. “I might be unemployable. Owning restaurants might be all I can do.”
While Johnson was trying to figure out what his next restaurant should be, Carolyn Downs, co-owner and pastry chef at Cyrano’s, approached him about partnering on something involving her pies. At the time, Johnson had been playing with a smoker and ended up attending competitive barbecue guru Myron Mixon’s school in Unadilla, Georgia. With pies and barbecue on their minds, the idea for Sugarfire was born.
Johnson liked how barbecue was old-school and hands-on. Best of all, it was nothing like fine dining – something he had 100-percent gotten out of his system. Those who only know Johnson from his St. Louis restaurant streak or Sugarfire fame may not realize it was even in his system to begin with, but before any of that, he had quite the first act.
Johnson’s introduction to the culinary world came about a bit like winning the lottery (though, don’t let that fool you into thinking his success has been anything but hard-won). As the story goes, when Johnson graduated high school, his dad put him in touch with a young chef in New Orleans who could possibly hook him up with a job, so he moved there with little cooking experience. His new boss just happened to be Emeril Lagasse, and Lagasse liked Johnson so much, he brought him over when he opened Emeril’s and then introduced him to Charlie Trotter. Johnson worked for Trotter’s legendary namesake restaurant in Chicago, and then spent some time in France training at Le Buisson Ardent in Paris and then under Belgian master chef Daniel Joly at Mirabelle Restaurant at Beaver Creek in Colorado. His final stop before returning to St. Louis was Napa Valley where he worked under Joachim Splichal of Pinot Blanc.
When he returned to St. Louis, Johnson’s first spot, Café Mira, was fine dining, as expected from his pedigree. During the 20 years since, his concepts have slowly become more casual, but it wasn’t until Sugarfire that he fully embraced fast-casual.
“I like to eat fine dining, but I don’t miss anything about it,” Johnson said. “Barbecue is actually harder than anything in the restaurant business – the volume, controlling the temperature. It’s a lot more work,” Johnson said. “But you get to have a lot more fun.”
Another reason Johnson likes barbecue is the lifestyle. The hours are better for having a family – he and Fitzgerald have five kids between them – and the money is better. Plus, there’s less risk. Instead of inventing a new restaurant concept every year, he’s learned that going with what works can prove to be even more fun than the shiny and new.
Johnson’s team, to whom he attributes all his success, feels the same. Many have done the fine dining thing and, according to Johnson, could easily be running their own big-name restaurants. Yet, they have chosen to be mostly nameless at Sugarfire.
“Many of them have families now and want more time,” explained Fitzgerald. “They still have the ability and talent for fine dining, but they’re burned out. They need more return.”
“And we pay them more than anyone else in town,” added Johnson with a smile. “We have the volume to support their incomes. We want to keep the quality of the food, and to do that, we pay for the talent.”
It also helps that Johnson gives his team total freedom. “If they ever miss fine dining, they can order duck, foie gras, whatever they want for specials – we do Wagyu Wednesdays and always lose money, but it’s fun and delicious, so who cares?”
Who knows where Sugarfire will be in five years – if Johnson has anything to do with it (and he does), we’ll be eating Sugarfire’s brisket cheesesteak and pork belly hush puppies in Paris and Dubai.
Even though the plan for Sugarfire seemed flawless before its flagship opened in 2012 – Johnson’s barbecue was on-point, Sugarfire wasn’t located near any other barbecue joint and Carolyn and Charlie Downs were well-known and respected restaurateurs – Johnson still had his typical doubts.
“Before Sugarfire opened, I told Carolyn, ‘I promise I won’t lose your money,’” Johnson said. “But then the week before it opened, I called her and Charlie and said, ‘We have to think of a way to get out! We’re going to ruin our lives!’”
Perhaps that is Johnson’s biggest secret. He’s unwilling to take his foot off the gas while bouncing over speed bumps and potholes and swearing he’s going to die.
“No matter how successful we get, I’m still going to worry about my businesses every day. But I’m also not going to let that worry keep me from putting truffles on my menu. And because of that, I know how lucky we are.”
“And your hat?” I asked, pointing at his hat with “Hi.” on it.
“Oh, that,” Johnson said. He knew what I meant: his new restaurant, Hi-Pointe Drive-In – the burger place that’s going through 2,000 buns and 600 pounds of meat a day since it opened six months ago. Opening a new, highly marketable – even franchisable – fast-casual concept doesn’t seem like the move of a guy content with mixing up the specials at just one empire.
Johnson smiled sheepishly. “I couldn’t resist.”
Mike Johnson’s restaurants, past and present
Café Mira “It started my growth as a chef and was my real introduction to St. Louis.”
BARcelona “Home run – a big home run.”
Momo’s “I love Greek food, so that was one of my favorites.”
Boogaloo “Another one of my favorites, but I’m glad I’m out.”
Figaro “Good sales, but it just didn’t work out.”
El Scorcho “It was a lot of fun to set up, and it had a great name!”
Cyrano’s “I love it. It’s a classic.”
Roxanne “I thought it was good, but it didn’t get a good reception.”
Fu Manchu “Probably the worst idea I’ve had.”
Sugarfire Smoke House “Best idea ever!”
Hi-Pointe Drive-In “It’s looking like my second-best idea ever.”
sugarfire smoke house, various locations, sugarfiresmokehouse.com