We recently connected with James Johnston and have shared our conversation below.
Alright, James thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. Often the greatest growth and the biggest wins come right after a defeat. Other times the failure serves as a lesson that’s helpful later in your journey. We’d appreciate if you could open up about a time you’ve failed
When planning Fire and Brimstone in 2016 I never actually intended for it to be a pizza focused restaurant, but I’m so glad that it has. As I was planning and working towards opening, the goal was for the restaurant to focus on wood fired cooking in general, not particularly pizza. The menu was much higher end than what we serve now and had quite a few time consuming and difficult to execute dishes on it. I was really proud of the menu that myself and my general manager Matt had come up with, and I really believed we could pull it off and create a really unique place in Gilbert. The main obstacle that I underestimated was seating, and it caused me to get rid of almost the entire menu the day after our grand opening. My business is located in a shared space environment but we only have 50 seats total between the indoor seating and patio and our original menu would have been perfect for that size of a restaurant, however there is also a brewery called 12 West and a winery called Garage East in the same project named Barnone. Each of those businesses has more than twice the seating that we have and didn’t have much in the way of food. I should’ve had more forethought and known that we would be serving closer to 250 seats but I really didn’t know how many people would just come for a quick drink or if each space would become more of it’s own restaurant to some degree where people would come and stay to eat and drink and visit. At the grand opening we cooked the original menu…and it was a nightmare. We were roasting half chickens to order, whole stuffed trout, New York strip steaks, etc. and needless to say we were totally overwhelmed. I should mention that the total square footage of my space, including kitchen, is 850 Sq ft. and that we literally cook everything in a 6 ft wood fired oven. We had no way to cook orders in a time frame that was remotely acceptable and it was definitely one of the most discouraging days I have ever worked in my life, knowing that customers weren’t happy while we were trying to make a name for ourselves, and also that I knew pretty quickly that everything I had planned for the restaurant was about to go out the window. After we finished cleaning and the staff went home, I just sat outside with the menu and started crossing things off. It was reduced down to two specialty pizzas, a build your own pizza, 4 different salads and 3 appetizers if I remember correctly. I was so bummed about all the time and energy spent creating that menu that was lost, but I knew it was necessary. We closed for a day and reset everything for the smaller menu and the following day went better than I could have hoped. During the past 5 years we’ve added many more items on the menu but we remain primarily a pizza restaurant and most of those original dishes will never be available at Fire and Brimstone and I’ve learned to be ok with that.. It wasn’t what I planned but it allows us the joy to serve and share our food with a lot more patrons and I’m actually quite happy things didn’t turn out how I thought they would.
James, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?
My name is James Johnston and I’ve been working both in the front and back of house in the restaurant industry for the last fifteen years and have owned my own restaurant called Fire and Brimstone that specializes in wood fired pizza for the past five years and also partnered in a home made ice cream shop called Cream of the Crop since Feb. 2021. Both businesses are located next to an organic farm called Agritopia Farms and we are proud to use products from the farm as much as possible. The main goal of both businesses is to provide quality food that is fun and exciting but also affordable to the general public. Besides just owning Fire and Brimstone, I also am in charge of running the kitchen there and I love getting to cook everyday along side my awesome staff and coming up with specials and fun events together.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
Obviously Covid was a difficult time for many small businesses and a very uncertain time as well. I knew right away that I didn’t want to lose any staff because we’re all like family and I also wanted to continue serving our guests, especially those who had become regulars and friends. When Arizona restaurants had to close at the beginning of the pandemic, I knew I had to come up with something to keep momentum going and keep the staff paid, so I began going into work, alternating days with my gm, and the two of us would make hundreds of make at home pizza kits. We began selling them at the farmers market store on property and made videos on how to cook them at home on our instagram. The public loved them and it gave families a fun project to do together at home when times were stressful We were fortunate not to lose any employees and were able to pay them until we reopened. We still get requests for pizza kits to this day and it was definitely a silver lining to an otherwise not enjoyable period.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
My degree is actually in design management with an emphasis on industrial or product design. Growing up, my father had always been a restauranteur and I wanted to branch off and do something different, specifically a furniture designer. I really loved design school and was passionate about pursuing a design career but I had to do an unpaid internship first before getting hired and had to make money somehow so I began working nights as a cook, in addition to my internship during the day. I quickly learned to love cooking in a restaurant setting and realized that I found more fulfillment in the food industry than I did behind a desk. It took a while for me to fully commit to a new career, especially after all the schooling I had gone through, but in the end I just knew that it was what I was meant to do and I’ve loved every crazy minute of it since.
- Website: firebrimstoneeatery.com creamofthecrop-az.com
- Instagram: fire_and_brimstone creamofthecropaz james_johnston88
Sarah Roberson, Kate Nelle