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Chef Rene Johnson is a self-taught caterer who has made a name for herself with her vegan soul food company, Blackberry Soul Fine Catering. Formally working in finance, Johnson switched to culinary work and quickly established herself with an A-list client list, serving everyone from Vice President Kamala Harris to Dr. Cornel West.
Her past interviews have covered her food and success extensively, so I asked what she liked to discuss.
Johnson: I want to talk about life beyond the kitchen! What is life outside the kitchen when you’re in the culinary industry? It’s been on my mind for a long time, and what made me think about it is I have a chef that works with me. I’ve known her for 30 years now, and she’s older and still working because she doesn’t know how to transition out of catering. She didn’t focus on the business of catering.
People think all it requires is for you to cook well. It is about business; the business behind the stove, the business behind the desk. That’s why some people with nasty food are successful; they know how to market, pay their bills, manage their money, hire and plan. And all of that is much more important to me than the plates.
What is the most important aspect to know for success?
Johnson: It’s about strategizing your business, and then you can get a marketing team. I have one, but if I didn’t have the business set up, we could be making aprons and doing things that are not relevant, and I could be cooking and making no money. But it’s about the business and setup and your mindset around that.
In the restaurant world, most don’t make it after a year because they don’t have this business mindset. Do you think in the catering industry this happens as well?
Johnson: I do. Because people think they have a good product because their families say it’s good. Do you know how many times people have said to me, “You need to make this, you need to do this,” but that doesn’t mean it’s going to make me money.
I have to have the understanding of how it’s going to make the restaurant or the catering business money; the production part of it. You need to know how you’re going to staff your events or how to staff your restaurant. You need to know the importance of having a kitchen manager, and you need to know how to get out of the way for your business to grow. It happens so often, especially in the kitchen, because we’re holding onto our recipes, nobody can cook them like us, and we have the vision.
Was it hard to envision making vegan and vegetarian soul food and convincing the Black community it’s just as good?
Johnson: It was because we love our grandmother’s cooking and our mama’s cooking, and can’t nobody cook like our grandmothers, our mothers and our aunts. When I share that I am going to make greens without meat, people were not even trying to feel it.
What I had to do was go ahead and put it in their mouths. How I did that is I made everything almost vegan or vegetarian unless it was a piece of protein and they didn’t know. Then they would say, “Oh my God, that was delicious,” and I’d say, “There was no meat in that,” and they’d say, “Oh my God, you’re lying.” So, I had to fool them at first.
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What is some other advice you’d like to share?
Johnson: It takes courage to be an entrepreneur and get out there to follow your dream. We’re only as good as the first plate for Black chefs and restaurant owners. Food can be a very unforgiving industry, and you must always work hard to ensure the food is the same or elevated. You can have five great experiences and one bad, and they’ll remember that bad one.
I’m a self-taught caterer. Everything I’ve learned on my own; that’s why I like to share with people because nobody shared with me.
Also, know how to price your product and make sure to have your target in mind. People always think you have to start low, not realizing that those people are not your ideal customer. Somebody won’t pay you what you’re worth unless that’s your market.
A trick I learned is that I don’t go down on my prices. I give them the real price of the cost, so they know what lane and type of caterer I am. I had to learn to say, “It will cost x amount without taxes, without staff, without all these things added,” so you can know. And it levels you up.
What is the best advice you received?
Johnson: I fed 300 Black women millionaires. It was the best event I have ever done, and I learned two things from it.
I was standing in line and serving this beautiful woman cobbler. She came up to me and asked why I was serving her. I said, “Because I wanted to give you cobbler,” and she said, “Put that spoon down. If you’re giving me cobbler, you need to send somebody home because you’re throwing money away. Or put that spoon down and get over here with the other bosses because you’re a boss.” So, I threw that spoon down and got into the groove with everybody else. And my staff handled everything because I have a great staff.
The second was at the end of it. Some of the entrepreneurs were on stage giving advice, and the same woman got on the mic and said, “Get you a crew. You must have a team that believes in you and will watch out for you. Ones that are not thinking about only money, but are thinking about you. And it’s hard to find, but you can’t stop until you get one. So, get you a crew.” Then she dropped the mic and walked off the stage.
We need a team to grow. You can’t run around doing everything at an event; if you’re pointing and giving directions, you’re respected. Know how to delegate; you need kitchen staff, a sales team and a sales manager. My team told me to stop going to events, and although it was probably because I was on their nerves, that’s when I knew I had made it. I have a good crew.
As Black business owners, we need to give others grace within our business. Teach your clients to think differently. That’s why you get a sales manager when they’re expecting handouts and to secure the check before we drop off the food. Know your value and price in conversation.
Stay tuned as Chef Rene is about to launch “the baddest culinary apparel line anyone has seen.” Until then, check out her apron line, available on her website. Blackberry Soul is also on Facebook and Instagram.