Photo: Mark Wemple
Starting in 2020, just at the start of the pandemic, Naked Farmer opened its first location in downtown St. Petersburg.
Naked Ambition: Jordan Johnson
Jordan Johnson wanted to do more than just bring home a good paycheck. His latest venture fulfills a dream.
Naked Farmer, St. Petersburg
After graduating with a business degree from the University of Florida in 2010, Jordan Johnson sought a career that would enable him to “make a difference” and “make the world a better place.” His first job, working for a General Electric financial management program in the Northeast, didn’t work out the way he hoped.
“I was very driven by this idea of change,” says Johnson. “Your energy and your effort are the most valuable things you can bring to any relationship, any job, and the return on investment for me was pretty low (at GE), working on Microsoft Excel all day for a company that could probably move on really well without me. I would have definitely been a lot wealthier by staying there, but that wasn’t the payoff I was interested in.”
So, after two years, he left GE and came home to Florida, where he created two startup companies. The first one, a ride-sharing app for college students called TapRide, thrived. He sold it to another ride-sharing company. The second venture, an app geared toward improving public safety on college campuses, failed. He then went to work for his father-in-law, John Williams, who owns automobile dealerships in Tampa Bay. He later became COO of SoFresh, a fast-casual restaurant chain in Tampa.
The SoFresh job, he says, was the job that finally put his career on a track toward “making change.”
“I got to realize how messed up our food system was,” says Johnson, now 35. “We have all these farms that we drive by all the time in Florida. They’re literally in our back yard. But most of the food we eat at restaurants and most of the food we buy at the grocery store, it’s not from Florida. It’s from California, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras. So, I started to just geek out over the food-supply system, honestly. I just started asking questions, and I was like, ‘Whoa, you mean to tell me that there’s this farm 50 miles away in Punta Gorda that grows summer squash, romaine lettuce, kale and cherry tomatoes, and I can’t buy that stuff unless I go to a farmer’s market?”
His response was to create his own fast-casual restaurant chain, called Naked Farmer — and to source the food from small to medium-sized farmers. In 2019, he began cold-calling farmers and tried to work around two of the most significant obstacles to a restaurant chain sourcing locally — the cost of food and the logistics of transporting the food from farm to kitchen.
The supply chain remedy included Naked Farmer vans picking up produce from farms and also farmers delivering the food themselves, sometimes individually and sometimes with farmers participating in a “truck pool,” delivering produce from several farms.
Food costs proved to be more difficult.
“One of these small or medium-sized farmers can’t sell a head of lettuce for what a big farmer in California can, even with inflation and even with transportation costs across the country,” Johnson says. “It’s still cheaper getting it from the larger farmer because the larger farmers can get to such a scale.”
So, Johnson, while still trying to get the best price he can, is willing to pay more for food than many other fast-casual concepts can or will, while still keeping an average meal cost to around $15. He estimates that he spends up to 10% more buying from farmers nearby than he would if he got his food from national food distributors.
To build up scale, and to pay less for food, Naked Farmer is itself growing. Starting in 2020, just at the start of the pandemic, Naked Farmer opened its first location in downtown St. Petersburg. This year, Johnson opened a second location in Tampa’s Water Street Development and a third location in Coral Gables — and announced plans to open three locations in South Florida — in Sunrise, Fort Lauderdale and downtown Miami, as well as a restaurant in Sarasota. In all, Naked Farmer plans to add about 15 restaurants in Florida within the next three years.