Mama J’s is forging ahead with a multi-phased expansion plan in Jackson Ward and potentially beyond the city limits.
The well-known soul food restaurant at 415 N. First St. is taking over the nearby former Salt & Forge storefront at 312 N. Second St.
Lester Johnson, who owns Mama J’s with his mother Velma Johnson, said the Second Street space will be transformed into Mama J’s Market.
He said the market will be for grab-and-go bulks orders, such as full trays of mac-and-cheese or candied yams that would be kept refrigerated in the shop and warmed up at home.
It’s a service that Mama J’s has quietly offered since its opening in 2009 and has become a growing part of the business with more demand than can be handled from its existing kitchen on First Street.
“It’s been a lucrative business for us. It has grown through word-of-mouth, and we’ve never really promoted it,” Johnson said. “We can’t take all the business we want to take.”
Mama J’s is leasing the Second Street space from David Hahn, who owned Salt & Forge and still owns the building. Hahn shut the sandwich shop down in February after four years to pursue a law degree.
Johnson said Salt & Forge left the space in turnkey condition. Pending a certificate of occupancy from the city and a health department approval, Johnson is aiming to open the market before Thanksgiving to capitalize on holiday demand.
Separate from Mama J’s Market, Johnson said the company is also working to expand and rebrand the restaurant’s catering operations, including opening an expanded commissary kitchen next door to Mama J’s. It’s a plan that was put into motion before the pandemic.
“We were in expansion mode before the world shut down and were working on building out the space next to the restaurant for a new commissary kitchen, which we shelved when the pandemic hit,” he said.
The commissary kitchen will take shape in a building at 411 N. First St. Johnson said plans have already been drawn up and he’ll soon restart the search for financing for the project with hopes of having it operational in the next 24 months.
In conjunction with that expansion, the catering business will get a brand of its own: Mama J’s Mobile.
The new commissary will also help Johnson fulfill the most ambitious part of his growth plan: adding two new Mama J’s restaurants in the Richmond area. He said he’s looking for spots in eastern Henrico and northern Chesterfield and hopes to make a move on those next year.
Johnson said he’s confident in his plans for expansion despite inflation and a tricky labor market because demand has remained steady.
“Everyone keeps hollering about this recession that I think we might be talking ourselves into,” he said. “Business is there. We’re turning online orders off on the weekends because we’re that busy.”
He said costs of goods have flattened out somewhat but unpredictable ups and downs in prices continue. Incremental menu price hikes have served as a buffer, without too much pushback from customers.
“Yes, we have high inflation, but people are still spending money,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen next year. I’m going to be cautious about it but I’m trying to be bullish.”