San Diego is not only paradise, which we all are so fortunate to live in, it is also full of so many incredible different types of treasures. I know this to be true for myself after living here for 31 years now as of Aug. 18, 2020, as I have encountered a treasure chest full of them. They range from people, places, art, food, historical sites, parks, ocean and anything and everything in between that gives joy to so many that call San Diego home. I try extremely hard to always pay attention to my surroundings and always be open to meeting new people. I had a friend once tell me: “Never judge people before you get to know them, they just might wind up becoming one of your dearest friends.” That has happened more than once in my life.
It excites me to introduce to you one of the treasures I discovered in San Diego. He is a young and kind gentleman I met in 2011 with a mutual friend, Wally Schlotter. He took me to lunch at this brand-new restaurant on University Avenue called the Fig Tree Cafe. After we were seated, Johan came out to say hello to Wally and in return, he introduced me to the restaurant’s owner, Johan Engman. Right away, I was taken by his youth, good looks, and charming way with people. One thing I was immediately impressed with was that Johan offered a food item off his menu that benefited a charity organization. What really touched me was he had chosen the Rob Benzon Foundation to benefit from every burrito that was sold. You see, Rob Benzon was one of my best friends I lost in a drowning accident in Acapulco years before. Several of his dear friends and myself created the Rob Benzon Foundation to keep his name alive by helping others. Sometimes we have signs that pop up in our lives for a reason; I am glad I noticed that one.
Johan is from a small town in north Sweden called Ostersund. You can hear it in his accent when he speaks. Being full of wonder and wanting to experience more of life than he was getting in Sweden, he moved to San Diego when he was only 16 with his mom. Johan’s goal was to see what it would be like to begin high school in the states; he loved it and ended up staying. With the love and support of his incredible sweet mother Leann, while still in high school and at the age of 17, he moved out on his own. Loving the opportunities that San Diego showed him gave him determination to learn and succeed; he worked nights to pay his rent.
After graduating from high school, he signed up to go to City College, went to his first class and then never went back. I love the way Johan tells it: “I did go to college but for only 60 minutes.” It’s not that he did not want to learn but he was itching to be creative, explore and wanted to learn by being hands-on. Johan took it upon himself to start as busboy, waiter, worked in the kitchen, as well as bartended to learn and know what it takes to be able to be successful in every position it’d take to make his own restaurant work. To me, that is true research and hands-on experience, not only learning the craft but realizing that restaurant work is not easy especially after experiencing how hard it was to work each of those positions. He gave himself 2 1/2 years as a goal to open his first restaurant, telling himself if it did not happen, then he would move on to something different. With determination and hard work, his goal became reality. On Oct. 9, 2008, Johan opened his first restaurant, the Fig Tree Café in Pacific Beach, on a shoestring budget of $45,000. Though his first years would be full of ups and downs, he was determined to build his dream.
After three months of losing money, Johan was faced with a tough decision. He was torn with the thought of closing his dream or come up with a way to keep the doors open. People were whispering in his ear, “The economy is terrible, Johan, nobody would blame you for closing.” With his stubbornness and his determination combined, he made the decision that under no circumstances would he throw in the towel. So began his idea of limiting the hours of operations for the restaurant as much as possible. To top it off, he finagled his way into a full-time job with an accounting department of a pharmaceutical company with absolutely no experience. Johan told me he learned to always say “yes” to an opportunity that will knowingly help you, and if you have no idea what you are doing then you better learn fast. Which he did. Johan managed to pay personal bills and offset the losses of the restaurant for three years after first opening until Fig Tree Café finally turned a profit. In 2011, Johan left the corporate job and opened Fig Tree Café’s second location in Hillcrest. This is when and where I met Johan. Then followed a third location in Liberty Station in 2013.
Johan has always been an avid world traveler; it is his way of recharging his batteries, while being inspired by new countries, cultures and cuisines. As Johan told me his story, he vividly remembers being in a hut next to the Danum River in the rainforest of Borneo while it was pouring down rain. Thinking about how to improve Fig Tree Café, he decided to conceptualize a new restaurant, utilizing what he had already learned. Simplifying things for the concept and knowing breakfast was a severely underserved market, he knew he could grow it.
Twelve hours later, the rain was still pouring, and the name California Breakfast Republic was born. Always adding great ideas such as a heavy emphasis on design and branding, a menu was designed that is unique, with hidden puns and quotes throughout the restaurant for customers to discover. Breakfast Republic later dropped the California and opened its doors in North Park. I remember John taking me there before he had even touched it to show and explain to me his vision when it was still the restaurant from before. His attention to detail, quirky quotes printed on the undersides of the coffee cups, funny and sarcastic sayings on the napkin bands, life-sized “egg” chairs, bathroom “music” and mirrors, along with custom-branded T-shirts and caps were a hit from the beginning. With much success, he has created a brand and business that has proven to be rewarding. San Diego now has many choices of delicious recipes to taste because Johan never gave up.
Due to the coronavirus, all businesses — but especially restaurants and bars (and their employees) — have suffered from mandatory shutdowns. But even this horrible and deadly pandemic has not stopped Johan from giving back, offering free meals not only for his own employees but to anyone who worked in the food and bar industry. Johan has set up Rise & Shine, a nonprofit that all his restaurants donate to. These funds are used so Johan can donate money, food and, in general, help to those in need. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, they have donated 6,479 meals (to the tune of $52,363) to laid-off workers and hospital workers.
Johan and his gorgeous wife Yasmin, their son River and their baby girl who is on her way, named Sienna, and their two dogs are truly a San Diego treasure. I am honored and proud to have Johan and his entire family accept me. I have learned so much from Johan and I consider him a huge mentor in my life. No matter our age difference, he continues to teach me and helps me be a better person. He is a man who is loyal, kind, compassionate, fair, and very loving. A stickler for details, Johan left me with this quote: “Never let success get to your head, never let failure get to your heart.” I love you, my dear friend. Thank you for all you have given to San Diego.
@johansadventures is Johan’s Instagram. And www.riseandshinerg.com is the company website which has links to all the restaurants.