Ronald Johnson serves pie and life lessons in Harlem
JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 2/15/2012, 7:17 p.m.
Ronald Johnson is a businessman. He grew up in the Bronx but was always pulled back to Harlem and his grandmother, who lived near 113th Street and Lenox Avenue. The 46-year-old former Wall Street financier was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He went on to Hobart College and New York University, earning an MBA in finance and international business before landing a job on Wall Street. But Harlem kept calling.
"I worked first for the Federal Reserve Bank and then for a chief economist on Wall Street. My last job was in corporate finance at Merrill Lynch. I worked in finance for 15 years, but deep down inside, I knew there was more opportunity on Main Street than on Wall Street. I kept revisiting that but didn't know how to do it," said Johnson.
"I got involved with the franchise business through a program called Neighborhood Franchise administered by Clifford Simmons and the Abyssinian Development Corporation.
"Ten years ago, franchises were new in Harlem. A lot of these franchises had suburban business models and didn't think about doing business in urban areas. For the last 10 years, we've customized this business and made it our own. Mine was the first Papa John's in New York City at 703 Lenox Avenue," he said.
Johnson has opened restaurants on 125th Street, in Hamilton Heights, Morningside Heights and East Harlem and has used his businesses to give back to the community. He employs local high school and college students, giving them a paycheck and, more importantly, an opportunity to learn about business. He also shares his spoils, giving to schools, churches and supporting other community initiatives.
He recently came under fire for an incident at his Hamilton Heights store, where an employee identified an Asian-American customer, Minhee Cho, as "Lady Chinky Eyes" on a store receipt. Cho posted the receipt on Twitter and a firestorm ensued, but Johnson and Papa John's acted swiftly and responsibly. Fifteen minutes after the incident was reported to him, the decision was made to fire the offending employee. Johnson spoke exclusively with the AmNews about the turn of events and how his company has taken steps to make sure this never happens again.
"This is a 16-year-old young lady who lives with her grandmother. When I brought this to her and told her that I would have to fire her, she just broke down in tears. She honestly did not know that she had done something very wrong," he said.
"It's sad, but it presents an opportunity to address potential issues moving forward. I believe that she really did not mean to offend the young lady. She did not understand how it was offensive at that moment, but now she definitely understands. I heard about this at 4 p.m., and by 4:15 p.m. the determination was already made to fire her.
"We've been in Harlem for 10 years. We have 110 employees and this is the only time anything like this has ever happened. It wasn't appropriate, it wasn't right and it should not have happened. I was, frankly, very surprised. We've changed our operation. We've taken steps to eliminate any kind of problem like this in the future. It's a learning opportunity for us. It's a growth opportunity for us. I take this very, very seriously," he said.