Swedish transplant Johan Engman is the founder and owner of Rise & Shine Restaurant Group. Based in San Diego, CA the hospitality collective operates and owns three successful branches of Fig Tree Café (Pacific Beach, Hillcrest, Liberty Station), in addition to Breakfast Republic in North Park, Liberty Station and Encinitas with more locations opening soon in East Village and Carmel Valley.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in the restaurant business?
It sort of just happened. I moved out on my own when I was 17 and needed a job to pay rent, and the only job I could get was as a dishwasher. From there I became a busser, then a server and so on. Over the years I fell in love with the industry more and more.
Tell us about your career path. How did you get your start? How & why did you open Fig Tree Café & Breakfast Republic?
After several years of serving at numerous restaurants I decided to save money to open my own restaurant. I managed to save up $30,000 and scrambled together another $20,000 from friends and family and opened Fig Tree Cafe Pacific Beach on a shoestring budget. We started with plastic tables and chairs and slowly made improvements over the first few years. My idea behind Fig Tree was to have it be primarily breakfast as I thought that was a very underserved market, especially with San Diego being such a breakfast/brunch loving city! In short I was trying to stack the odds in my favor as most new restaurants (with first time owners) generally fail.
With locations slated for East Village & Carmel Valley, in addition to a new breakfast concept in North Park, how has expanding changed your day-to-day relationship with each restaurant?
I have rapidly expanded my corporate team with brand managers, operations managers and corporate chefs. As much as I want to go to each location several times per week there just isn’t enough time as I’m focusing a significant amount of time on the new concepts. Delegating tasks that I used to do myself has freed up time for me to focus on new concepts, such as our upcoming regional Mexican restaurant, El Jardin.
What has been your greatest professional success and biggest setback?
I think these two questions sort of have the same answer. It took me three years to get Fig Tree Cafe Pacific Beach to make money, so that would be what I consider my greatest success, as during those three years people continuously kept telling me to throw in the towel, go get a “safe” 9-5 job and just forget about the restaurant industry. Instead, I got several other jobs at the same time as I was operating the restaurant – just to keep the doors open and pay both my personal bills in addition to the restaurant’s bills. I wouldn’t call this a setback but during that time it was certainly something that felt like a setback. I have had several other setbacks (a failed coffee shop for example) but to me none of these are negative because I learned invaluable lessons from them.
It’s easy to see how much San Diego’s restaurant scene has evolved since you started out in 2008. What kind of effect do you think that has on running & opening restaurants in today’s market?
It definitely makes you bring your A game on a daily basis, which is great. The “bar” has been raised and we (restaurant owners) have to continue to reinvent ourselves and ensure that our concepts don’t become stagnant.
Do you have any kind of management style or philosophy?
Absolutely. I’m very much against micromanaging people. I try to instill an “anti-micromanagement” style across the board. When someone is hired they are hired on their merits, when they go on the floor to do their thing the worst thing I could do is breath down their neck. Good morale across the restaurant and each position is extremely important. These two factors are at the top of my management style/philosophy.
What can you tell us about the creative stamp you put on the design & branding for each of your concepts?
I conceptualize all the design elements. For instance, with Breakfast Republic my whole idea was to have tons of details, everything from the living wall, to the bathroom mirrors and the magnetized door that plays music/quotes when it closes, hidden funny one liners underneath our coffee cups, and so on.
How often do you travel back to Sweden? Any food items you miss from your home country?
I go back to Sweden about every other year and definitely miss homemade Swedish pancakes!
Photography by Sergey Kolivayko/Field Guide.