San Diego has a big Swedish Community and there are many Swedish success stories to be told. One of them is about Johan Engman, owner of four restaurants. Mr. Engman moved to San Diego with his mother as a sixteen-year-old and was working as a dish washer during his high school years. At 25 years old he had the idea to open his own restaurant, and two years later in 2008 it became reality. Mr. Engman opened his first restaurant Fig Tree Café in Pacific Beach and now there is one in Hillcrest and in Liberty Station as well. Some years later he opened his fourth restaurant, but this time under the name Breakfast Republic. SACC San Diego got the opportunity to get a word with the Swedish entrepreneur and talk about his business, San Diego and of course Sweden.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your successful Restaurant Fig Tree Café. What inspired you to the Fig Tree Concept?
The inspiration behind the concept was simply from the fact that there were, and still are, so many more dinner restaurants than there are breakfast restaurants. I saw an opportunity of something new with less competition. Everybody loves going out for breakfast and lunch - and that was kind of the reason why I ended up proceeding with that concept.
So, was it more of a consumer demand that made you start your first restaurant?
Well, it was a calculated risk. There were so many telling me that it was crazy for me to open a restaurant in a recession, but this concept was my plan to survive. And of course, I, myself love breakfasts so that inspired me as well.
Has it always been a dream of yours to open a restaurant?
No, not at all. When I was young, my friends and I were always playing basketball with no thought of getting in to that business whatsoever. When I got a little bit older I wanted to get into real estate. I never thought I would end up in the restaurant industry.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your newest restaurant, Breakfast Republic? Is it the same idea behind that restaurant, as with the Fig Tree Café?
The Breakfast Republic is all about breakfast food. There is no brunch or dinner. We only serve breakfast between 7 AM and 3 PM. The idea behind the Breakfast Republic was to create something simple that general public can easily identify with and know what it has to offer. In comparison, the Fig Tree Café has brunch, lunch and dinner and offers everything from pizza and salads to salmon and omelettes. With the Breakfast Republic I wanted to create something that is one thing, and one thing only, and that was breakfast.
In your opinion, what is the best thing about the American business culture?
Coming from outside the U.S. there are a lot of people who see problems with being an immigrant, but I am an opportunist. If I see an opportunity, I go for it. Hard work pays well and especially in the U.S.
What has been the biggest challenge in this industry, and how did you overcome it?
The issues have changed over the years. In the beginning it was to come up with a way to make my restaurant survive. It was by no means an overnight success, it took time. Now when all the restaurants are very busy, the focus is more on getting my staff to get along. I have 180 people working for me, so it is more about fine-tuning the general management. I want to make sure that the concept I created is actually displayed in the restaurants. The bigger you get, the easier it is to lose control.
Do you believe that the management is the biggest factor to your success? Or do you think you owe it to something else?
I think that the staff I hired and trained over the years and the culture we have created, is a big part of it, yes.
It is interesting to hear that the biggest challenge when you first opened Fig Tree Café was to make people come to the restaurant and try it. How did you overcome that challenge?
In the beginning I was so inexperienced that I did not know anything about marketing. I barely did any marketing, which probably was a part of the problem. After a couple of months I started to run out of money and I had to get another job. At that time I was working several jobs, one of them being my own restaurant. I always believed in my concept and I gave people time to find out about the place and let the word spread. Eventually I saw that happening.
It would be fun to know a little bit more about your opinion on San Diego. What is, in your opinion, the best thing about San Diego?
(Quick response) The weather!
It is also nice that you can, within a half hour drive, go to the beach or go hiking. There are so many things you can do in San Diego. You can go to Mexico, the Big Bear Mountain, and even go skiing in the winter. It’s very versatile.
Is there anything you miss about Sweden?
I miss the nature and the Swedish culture where you do not drive everywhere. You take the bike or you walk. That kind of active lifestyle is something I miss.
Could you tell us your best-hidden San Diego gem?
Torrey Pines for hiking, I think that is awesome.
And finally, if somebody would go to Fig Tree Café what should they order in you opinion?
Definitely one of the French toast items, they should try the breakfast sushi, a different and creative dish, and also the meatloaf hash. Those are the three good ones!