Sometimes what starts as a clear vision, morphs into something else entirely. That’s what happed to Djenaba Johnson-Jones, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, who was on a path to opening her own fitness concierge business when she was laid off from her digital marketing job. As Djenaba moved forward to open a studio, friends asked about food options, so she teamed up with a chef to offer them. But renting a commercial kitchen proved to be difficult, so it sparked a novel idea—co-rent a commercial kitchen space so others looking to grow a food business could be successful. Today, Hudson Kitchen, an 8,000 square foot food incubator business offers memberships where budding chefs share space and resources to get everything needed to start, sustain and scale a profitable food business. And her idea has paid off—in just two years, her company, Hudson Kitchen, created 58 jobs in the community and helped generate 9 million dollars in collective revenue. We caught up with this Jersey City mom of two about the challenges of finding real estate, why she hopes her children end up working for themselves, and which NJ restaurant she goes to when she wants a taste of Texas barbecue. (featured photo credit: Katelyn Perry)
Please tell us a little bit about your family. My husband, Bob, and I have been married for 22 years. After we got married, we lived in Princeton but ended up moving to Jersey City because, at the time, that’s where my husband worked, and it was also a more manageable commute into NYC, where I was working. We have two children, Mason (19) and Nora (16).
What were you doing before you started Hudson Kitchen? I was working as the Digital Brand Development Director for W magazine but had been working towards a personal trainer certification to launch a fitness concierge service. When I got laid off in October 2014 and told friends about my business idea, they’d ask me what my clients would eat, so I partnered with a chef for that business. When we couldn’t find a commercial kitchen in the area, I knew others were having the same trouble finding commercial kitchens. Since the need was great, I decided to build my own commercial space and rent it out to other people.
What do you wish you had known before launching your business that might have helped? No matter what, I would have moved forward anyway, but I thought it would be easy to find real estate. It was extremely challenging—three contracts fell through. I ended up renting an empty warehouse and didn’t realize how much I’d have to spend on an architect and contractor before launch, but it ended up being money well spent.
How did you know you were onto something? I had a “coming out” party for Hudson Kitchen to get the name out there and see if it was real. It was called Finding Your Mix: Following Your Dreams as a Food Entrepreneur, and it was a big success. That’s when I knew the business had legs. I also created a Food Business Bootcamp to continue to create a community around my business and help others grow their own businesses.
What (if anything) does your family do to help support your business? My family is very supportive. When we first opened, my husband was our de facto handyman, plus he has an IT background, so he also set up all the networking. And my kids cheer me on.
What do you hope your children learn from seeing you run your own business? I hope that they decide to work for themselves, too. It’s so rewarding because you have the opportunity to create something out of nothing. At times, it can be challenging, but you find your way through it and end up stronger at the end of the day.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? My dad was in the service, so we moved around a lot but settled in Texas when I was in the 7th grade. I grew up eating barbecue and know good barbecue when I come across it. Red White & Que Smokehouse is outstanding. The pulled chicken sandwich is my go-to there and has a nice taste of home. Another great place is The Bread Stand in Maplewood–that delicious bread smell hits you in the face when you walk in the door, and the Cinnamon rolls and the Cinnamon Morning Bun are the best! And business-wise, I love Tina Pearson Salon in Edgewater. They’re great at doing natural hair!
Where are some of your favorite places to visit in NJ with your family? One of my favorite things to do is the Midnight Market in Jersey City, a foodie pop-up event with a DJ and a bar, too. You pay a small entrance fee, and everything is pretty inexpensive so that you can taste whatever you want without breaking the bank. Another business worth experiencing is Beyond the Plate Food Tours, which is a food crawl with a culinary expert along for the ride. You start with drinks and apps and make your way to dessert while your host makes it extra interesting. It’s available in Jersey City, Somerville, and Red Bank. And I’m also a big fan of Taqueria because it’s delicious, and there’s something for everyone, even my husband, who’s vegan.
What is your best piece of advice for an NJMOMpreneur just starting? Realize that it’s your business, so set your hours and make time for all those precious family moments and other important things. You’ll still work just as hard and accomplish what you need to, but your quality of life will be better.