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For the HomeFor the GardenFood & EntertainingResourcesArticle Archive

Man About Town

Author: Michelle Jacoby
Issue: March, 2018, Page 142
Photos by Brandon Sullivan

Sporting one of his trademark hats and sitting atop his beloved Vespa, Joe Johnston exudes the casual confidence befitting a man behind some of the most recognized and innovative communal places in Gilbert, including Joe’s Farm Grill, Barnone, Agritopia, Liberty Market and Joe’s Real BBQ.
From Restaurants to Entire Neighborhoods, Developer and Visionary Joe Johnston Is Driven to Creating a Flourishing Community in Arizona

There are few people in this world who are immediately recognized by a singular and distinct item. There’s Sherlock Holmes and his pipe, Charlie Chaplin and his cane, John Lennon and his wire-rimmed glasses.

But for local visionary Joe Johnston—who is responsible for some of the most recognized and innovative projects in his hometown of Gilbert—nothing distinguishes him more than his hat. Fedora, pork pie, cadet—Johnston wears them all and wears them well.

The land Agritopia now stands on was originally a farm owned by Johnston’s parents, Jim and Virginia Johnston, shown in a 1967 photo with their three sons, from left to right, Paul, Joe and Steve.
Take a look closer, however, and you’ll see the hat is more than just a fashion statement; it’s a symbol of the inventive design and fine craftsmanship Johnston is so inspired by.

“I love good design. Whether it’s architecture, cars, dinnerware or hats, I just really like things that are made well by people who take pride in what they do,” he says.

In a way, the hats are also symbolic of the many hats he wears as developer, restaurateur and marketer of his myriad projects, which include three restaurants; a planned community surrounded by urban farmland, known as Agritopia; Barnone, a space dedicated to local craftspersons; a machine shop, Johnston Machine Co.; and the Johnston Family Foundation for Urban Agriculture, which is focused on urban farming. But according to Johnston, if he were to give himself a title, it wouldn’t be any of those. “It would be head cheerleader,” he says. “To move an idea along, you have to be a cheerleader of the idea.”

The couple purchased the homestead in 1960 and built a life for them and their family, growing cotton and wheat
Johnston’s rise began in the late 1980s. After a brief stint in the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating from Stanford with multiple engineering degrees, and working as an engineering consultant, he started Coffee Plantation, the reverent and iconic coffee house on Mill Avenue in Tempe that truly was a pioneer in the industry. In fact, Johnston says, during its heyday, Coffee Plantation was the busiest coffee house in the U.S.

Since then, he has been in a driving force in the local restaurant scene, thanks to opening Joe’s Real BBQ, Liberty Market and Joe’s Farm Grill—three very distinct restaurants that are tied together by a singular concept and vision: the third place.

“The idea is that the ‘first place’ is the home, and that’s a private place,” Johnston explains. “The ‘second place’ is the workplace, where you, of course, go to work. Lastly, there’s the ‘third place,’ where social interactions take place and which glues society together.”

A photo from the early ‘70s shows the original layout of the farm. The grass-lawn section is the location of the family house, which is now Joe’s Farm Grill. Some of the trees remain today.
Johnston says he learned about third places by reading “The Great Good Place,” written in 1989 by Ray Oldenburg, an American sociologist known for touting the importance of public gathering places for a functioning civil society and civic engagement. From the aesthetics and design, to the food and service, Johnston’s restaurants emulate this philosophy.

“The book laid out some of the major characteristics of great third places, and we work very hard to make sure we’re in that category,” he says. “The basic idea is that these places have a low barrier to entry and don’t exclude people. Also, the primary activity is conversation, and therefore, that’s the way these places are designed, from acoustics to flow.”

In addition to appreciating good design, Johnston has an innate curiosity about the inner workings of things. An engineer at heart, he is fascinated by mechanics, whether it’s what makes a fine timepiece tick, a custom scooter go—the Vespa is a favorite—or a train move on its tracks. A true coffee connoisseur, Johnston has always been intrigued by the coffee-roasting process. In turn, he built a commercial roaster of his own at his machine shop.

A bucolic tree-lined street in Agritopia exemplifies Johnston’s commitment to creating welcoming, open communities. Houses are built with open porches and low fences, inviting residents to extend their homes beyond their front doors and gather with friends and neighbors.
Johnston brings that attention to product and process to his restaurants, where he puts much thought into making them run smoothly and efficiently. Tim Peelen, operating partner at Joe’s Real BBQ and co-founder of Coffee Plantation, has seen Johnston’s process firsthand.

“When we started the barbecue restaurant 20 years ago, Joe pored himself into the research,” he says. “We traveled to places known for their barbecue, we talked to people who specialized in it, and, of course, we ate a lot of it. Joe wanted to take what he learned and apply it to Arizona. It was our motivation for learning how to smoke meats, pick out wood indigenous to the area, and make our own signature sauce.

“There’s seeing it, and there’s leading it,” he adds. “Joe leads it.”

Opened in late 2016, Barnone showcases skilled craftsmen and artisans, from winemakers and brewers to woodworkers and letterpress printers. The “craftsmen community,” as Johnston calls it, is housed in a Quonset hut that was built in 1950 using reclaimed aluminum from melted-down World War II aircraft.
And like most visionaries, Johnston takes inspiration from people he’s met and places he’s experienced. Case in point: After he sold Coffee Plantation, he took a sabbatical and traveled to Costa Rica, where he immersed himself in the culture by attending a Spanish language school and staying with a local family.

“By living with them, I came to understand the dynamics of how their neighborhood worked,” he says. “I found that feeling of openness, welcome and close community fascinating, and adapted some of those elements to Agritopia.”

Johnston says when he and his wife Cindy travel, he always looks for things that don’t exist in Arizona and tries to bring them here. They visit big cities, small neighborhoods and communal settings. They especially enjoy going to areas where things are made.

“Cindy and I love visiting manufacturing sites,” Johnston says. “In Italy, we’ve toured factories and museums for Alessi, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Ducati. I like places that show true design and craftsmanship. There aren’t too many that do that anymore.”

A marker in Johnston’s personal garden plot is a sweet reminder of the couple’s love.
For all his travels, Johnston admits his heart will always be in Arizona, particularly Gilbert. In fact, thanks to Cindy, he’s employed a 10-minute rule to how he lives, works and plays.

“The rule says I can’t do anything more than 10 minutes away from our home,” he explains. So whether it’s working at the restaurants, visiting their kids and grandkids (all of whom live in Agritopia) or going to church, Johnston remains close to everything that is important to him in his life.

As for all he’s accomplished, Johnston says he likes to think his success is rooted in the “dreamer/doer” philosophy.

“There are people who have dreams, but don’t fulfill them. Then there are people who, sadly, don’t have dreams at all,” he says. “A dreamer/doer has an idea and makes it happen. I think I’ve got a nice combination of both.”

The farm and citrus groves at Agritopia not only supply fresh produce for Johnston’s eateries, they’re also symbolic of family—the one Johnston came from and the one he’s made with his wife, Cindy.

While The Farm at Agritopia has areas designated for commercial farming, the community garden is devoted to small urban farmers who want to grow their own crops. There are more than 40 individual plots, as well as a communal tool shed, gathering area, sitting areas and pathways.
Johnston’s expertise is in creating restaurants that not only serve fresh, comforting food but also bring people together. Joe’s Farm Grill (right), housed in the Johnston family’s original residence, serves American classics made with fresh ingredients harvested from the farm, while Fire & Brimstone, located inside Barnone and run by Johnston’s son, James, offers rustic, wood-fired cuisine. The Coffee Shop (below) is a gathering place that serves coffee, breakfast offerings and desserts.

Joe Johnston
?2018 Masters of the Southwest Award Winner

When Joe Johnston showed our camera crew around Agritopia, one stop was particularly poignant: Joe’s Farm Grill, which is built on and around the site of his childhood farmhouse. There, in a glass-enclosed niche near the front door, was his boyhood baseball mitt mounted on a pedestal. He pointed to the glove and to the tiny drawings and lettering he put on it decades ago: a hotdog; hamburger and sundae; and, in the middle, “Eat at Joe’s.”

Did the young Joe know that many years later multiple restaurants and then the Agritopia community would be dreams of his that would come true? Not in so many words. But being born into a family of inventors and producers certainly put him on a path of discovery, achievement and innovation. Through his honest hard work, a quiet integrity and easy-going service to others, Joe has burnished the Johnston legacy with many noble accomplishments.

Wisdom and kindness are evident in his character and work, but there are also dichotomies to Joe. He has traveled the world but loves coming home to Arizona; he thinks globally but acts locally; he is a Renaissance man, but cheers for and supports other people’s visions, talents and passions.

What’s ahead for Joe? Whatever the future holds, we’re happy to be on the sidelines cheering on the cheerleader. Congratulations, Joe, on being named a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner.
-The Editors
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