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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 25, 2020 1 year ago

Entrepreneur starts farm box program, opens two restaurants amid pandemic

Jordan Johnson says the challenges of 2020 have made Naked Farmer a stronger business.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Before the pandemic gained traction, Jordan Johnson was preparing to open his Naked Farmer restaurant in St. Petersburg.

As things began to look grim, he altered course. Instead of opening April 1 for diners, he postponed the opening and started something else — the Naked Farmer’s Market. The digital market gave customers the chance to pick up fresh produce or have it delivered.

It was a way for Johnson to keep the business going and to continue his mission of increasing people’s access to real food from nearby farms. He had worked for eight months to build a network of farmers, and this was his chance to put it into action, just in a different way than planned. “We pivoted — when we couldn’t open physical doors, we opened digital ones,” says Johnson.

Early indications were positive. In a roughly two-week period, for instance, he sold over 1,000 farm boxes. In November, Johnson brought the farm boxes back after a summer break when it was too hot for farmers to grow produce for the box.

Courtesy. Naked Farmer Founder Jordan Johnson launched a farm box and two restaurants amid the pandemic.

The return of the farm boxes comes after Johnson officially opened not one, but two Naked Farmer restaurants. Doing that in the pandemic is clearly a risk, with lots of hurdles. But Johnson says the challenges have made Naked Farmer a stronger business. “It’s made us a more relevant business to the new normal,” he says. “I think at this point, most people realize the world’s not ever going to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic. This has created a new climate for us, socially and economically. The way we think about business and how to conduct business will never be the same as it was. We view it as a tremendous advantage that Naked Farmer was born into this.”

Since opening the two restaurants, Johnson says both are doing well. The first Naked Farmer restaurant opened in St. Petersburg in June. “We had already introduced ourselves to the community through our digital farmers market we were doing,” says Johnson. “Most people knew who we were, so it was met with anticipation in terms of our prepared food and what kinds of cooks we would be. It’s been great. We’ve been profitable since day one. We have week-over-week and month-over-month increases in revenue and customer accounts.”

Courtesy. In November, Johnson brought the farm boxes back after a summer break when it was too hot for farmers to grow produce for the box.

Despite being at the bottom of a 30-story office building in downtown St. Pete where few workers are working, people are still coming to Naked Farmer. The company also opened a location at Tampa’s Sparkman Wharf in August.

Like all restaurants, Naked Farmer has had to contend with ebbs and flows of the coronavirus outbreak and fluctuations in municipal restrictions. “The only constant has been the change,” says Johnson. Change, he says, has taught Naked Farmer to be nimble, open-minded and able to respond to customer feedback in real time.

Naked Farmer’s farm box is proof of that. “That’s an example of us just really keeping our ear to our community and evolving with them and being with them when they need us,” says Johnson. “That’s the theme of Naked Farmer: all around connecting farmers to community, and for us, it’s as a hybrid model — restaurant and grocery.”

The farm box program is here to stay for Naked Farmer. It will continue to be a hybrid company offering food prepared by chefs along with farm boxes with raw vegetables and grocery selects. A common order from customers, Johnson says, utilizes both facets of the company and includes a combination of items, such as a family meal, individual bowl and farm box.

Courtesy. After a whirlwind 2020, Naked Farmer is already planning more locations.

Naked Farmer doesn’t have any investors now, and Johnson says the company will look for partners when the time is right. And even after a whirlwind 2020, Naked Farmer is already planning more locations. “We have some plans for growth next year right here in Tampa Bay,” he says. “We’re excited because that allows us to serve more folks in the community. It allows us to grow more, allows more of our farmers to grow their businesses and allows us to accomplish our mission of building a better food system in our region.”

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