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Jonny Rhodes On Founding A Sustainable Farm-To-Grocery Pipeline

Shutting down his widely regarded fine-dining restaurant to reopen as an agriculturally powered community grocery.

After a stint in the US Marines, Jonny Rhodes attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. He worked at several high-profile restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern in New York and Oxheart in Houston, before opening Indigo, a neo-soul fine dining restaurant which focuses on dishes inspired by the history of African Americans, in Houston’s Northline neighborhood, where he grew up. Rhodes has since earned a semifinalist nomination for James Beard’s 2019 Rising Star Chef of the Year Award. Currently he’s launching Broham Fine Soul Food & Groceries, where the goal is 100% sustainability with products sourced from his own farm. He plans to close Indigo for good on July 24, 2021.

It’s been pretty busy these last couple of months. With Indigo closing, I just really want to focus on Broham. If anything, the pandemic really exposed the soft points of the food and restaurant industry.

I don’t have mixed feelings at all about letting go of Indigo. It’s a necessary sacrifice. The grocery store has always been part of my larger aspiration. Being able to focus on that is far more important. It doesn’t mean that I’ll never do fine dining or a restaurant again. It just means that Indigo has to leave, to birth Broham. Indigo was always just going to be a stepping stone for us to create something bigger and better for our community.

Indigo has proven itself in under two years. I think I made a difference just through the fact that I did exactly what I said I was going to do. And my community was able to see me doing that.

Guests that come to Indigo talk about the importance of our work. We focus on the social and food history of how we survived agricultural oppression and things like that. Oftentimes, people at restaurants are discussing ingredients and what was made or how it was made, but we don’t usually talk about the social conditions that sparked the creativity to make that food. At Indigo, we just share our experience with that different ingredient. For example, people don’t eat oxtails because oxtails were readily available. Oxtails were scraps that were given to them and that people were forced to eat in different parts of the world.

We also talk about the importance of food apartheid. We talk about people in poverty and food oppression, but anybody that doesn’t own land is actually experiencing agricultural oppression. Even if you’re middle or upper class, if you don’t own any land, you’re experiencing agricultural oppression. Talking about it allows people to see the victims in themselves as well as the victims in the people that have even less than themselves. It’s really an opportunity for us to try to unify people under a common umbrella.

Broham is going to be re-opening inside of Indigo, but we’re actively seeking a larger space in the community. The grocery store is going to require a lot more attention to detail than Indigo, a lot more planning and organization, considering we’re trying to make our grocery store 100 percent sustainable.

Jonny Rhodes in the garden at Indigo. Photo: Amy Scott.

We’re going to have a full-fledged farm, which I’m just in the process of getting started. I’ve already purchased the land, and over the last 120 days we’ve cleared about three and a half acres—enough for us to start growing. I’m hoping that by September we can start planting, which means we can have our first harvest in spring of 2021.

My ultimate goal for Broham and the farm is that over the next 10 years, I want to acquire 1,000 acres and have 25 stores in Black and brown communities, globally, where food is scarce. I will do this totally with my own fundraising. I have pretty strong feelings about not asking the government for help, especially as a Black man. In the last hundred years, Black farmers lost more than 90 percent of their land. I think me asking the US government for financial assistance would be putting myself on their radar, with the potential for my land to be taken away—for whatever reason they might come up with.

A national organization founded by Warren Luckett, Black Restaurant Week, highlights Black-owned restaurants. One of the things they do with the money they make is donate a portion to lawyers to help them fight cases of the United States taking land from Black farmers.

I think as a people globally, we have to realize we have more power than our governments. Governments are made up of people, entities, and banks, but if we decide to actually do things together, fund each other and fund ourselves, we will realize the strength within ourselves. Imagine having an app for social media where you can actually decide what your tax money funds and what it buys.

Photo: Jenn Duncan.

The community reaction to the grocery store, farm, and my food vision has been pretty good. There have been different challenges with the grocery store versus the restaurant. When grocery stores typically sell produce or product to consumers, they’re basically re-selling somebody else’s product. The person selling you the product has to make it extremely affordable for the grocery store to be able to purchase it, and then turn around and sell it for double that price. That’s really difficult to do.

That’s why we’ve decided to be 100 percent sustainable. We can’t sell eggs to people in our community for $6, because we can’t afford to buy them from somebody else for $3. So it’s better for us to just have a chicken coop and sell the eggs ourselves for $3 or $4, and we’re making 100 percent ourselves.

Pricing is an ongoing discussion. Currently we don’t accept any food benefits, like food stamps, which are very important. I would say a large portion of people that live in the United States, regardless of creed, survive off of food benefits. Broham is in the process of achieving registration now to accept food benefits, but with everything going on with COVID, the response times from government entities are pretty slow.

When it comes to educating people to buy healthy food or produce, instead of junk food from the local convenience store—unfortunately, I’m not noticing a change. Institutionalism is a very difficult thing to try to break. It is a psychological stronghold. To tell somebody who has been going into the corner store—even if the kid is only eight years old, and they’ve been doing that for the last eight years—you tell them all of a sudden there’s something better, but it’s more expensive. That’s difficult to do.

Photo: Jenn Duncan.

When you look at the history of the world and the history of war—it was never won or lost with weapons, it was always won or lost with natural resources and food. The thing we collectively have to do is feed each other.

In my community, gardening is becoming more prevalent. Also hunting and fishing. I’ve gotten a lot of kids in the neighborhood to go to the sports shop and get their fishing license for $20. Instead of taking an Uber to the club or Walmart, you take an Uber to the pier and catch fish there all day.

I bring kids into my garden all the time, and now they’ll come by and say, “Hey, do you have more of those flowers you gave us last time?” They’re literally walking by and asking to try out some flowers just because the flavor has expanded their palate.

Since COVID, people definitely seem more interested in food security. But the problem with people finding that security right now is the land. So many people in our community don’t have land or are no longer taking part in agriculture. Many people chased education, getting rid of their land to go get a degree to become a lawyer or doctor.

In the US in particular, they’re giving out stimulus checks, but they’re not giving out acres. I recommend that everybody do everything humanly possible to acquire land. At one point in time, the US was giving out acres by the hundreds of thousands to homesteaders. We need that same effort again, but for the lower middle class. What is going to be required for people to get land is one thing, but what is going to be required to keep it is a whole other conversation.

Photo: Jenn Duncan.

I’m not absolutely sure how change is going to happen. I think for me to say that I had a solution would mean I’ve stopped doing the work. As a collective, we have to decide to put our social and political differences aside and have a common understanding of food and health. By necessity, we have to make that priority number one.

It’s about trying to be persistent, trying to be consistent. Having faith. I’m not doing this for capitalistic gains, but to actually move us forward. I think if this was all about money, my patience would be much thinner.