JJ Johnson was on the fast track to the high-profile, celebrity-chef life. There were the premier cooking gigs, the TV appearances, the James Beard Award. But a trip to West Africa reset the course of his career. Upon learning more about the African diaspora and the vast range of global foods it influenced—from Brazil to the Caribbean, Portugal to the American South—Johnson knew he wanted to democratize those flavors through the fast-casual model.

And he especially wanted to do it through rice. “Rice is just disrespected. It’s parboiled, it’s bleached, it’s enriched. We’re told it’s not good for you,” Johnson says. “Well, it’s not good for you because of what we do to it. But I realized that rice is culture; we all grow up on rice. It’s the center of the table all around the world, that one ingredient that could break down any barriers or connect us all. I realized I could bring people on a field trip to different places in the world through one ingredient.”

FieldTrip opened in November 2019 in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. The menu is built around rice bowls, with options like the crispy chicken bowl with Carolina Gold fried rice and sticky barbecue sauce; the shrimp bowl with sticky rice, green curry sauce, and toasted coconut; and the seafood gumbo with shrimp, scallops, okra, chicken sausage, and red rice. There are also sides like quinoa bao buns, crab pockets, and yucca chips, and the option to swap out proteins for a plant-based, spicy black bean patty from MorningStar Farms.

FieldTrip’s goal is to disrupt the food scene in urban markets, Johnson says, particularly neighborhoods largely populated by people of color, which lack higher-quality options. The difficult thing about those neighborhoods, he adds, is that guests will call you out on food that is inauthentic. And that’s exactly what happened; Johnson acknowledges that the initial response to FieldTrip was tepid at best, that the local community saw it as “just another fast casual.” It forced him to revisit the menu, which led to developing one of the restaurant’s menu stars: collard greens.

But it wasn’t just the collards that saved FieldTrip. It was also COVID-19. When the virus emerged and New York City went into lockdown, Johnson realized that FieldTrip could be a lifeline to the community.

“People needed food. We needed to keep the hope going. We needed to show the industry was not going to collapse. We needed to be the North Star,” he says. “But also, Popeyes was not closed. McDonald’s was not closed. Chipotle was not closed. … Our competition was open. So we stayed open.”

The impact that had was transformational to FieldTrip. Johnson says customers noticed that he was in the restaurant open to close every single day. They also recognized how FieldTrip immediately started helping frontline workers and others in need. “We were sending produce boxes to families because people were getting laid off,” he says. “People were like, ‘Oh, hold on. FieldTrip is here with us through the darkest moment. But I know they will be here through the brightest moment, and the food’s good. I’m going to spend my money with them.’”

The boost that gave FieldTrip was significant. Johnson says the awareness he built in the first few months of the pandemic likely would have taken a few years to garner normally. It also opened up conversations with developers, and FieldTrip now has three locations around New York, with plans for growth outside the city, too.

True to his initial promise, Johnson hopes that growth will be focused primarily around diverse neighborhoods. “If anybody in the food industry has been doubting brown and Black communities,” he says, “you need to shift now more than ever.”

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Story