Get To Know Lester Johnson, Mama J’s Restaurant Co-Owner

Meet Mama J's Restaurant Co-Creator, Lester Johnson

mama Js

Delicious home-cooked meals served up throughout his childhood by his beloved mother, Velma Johnson, were something that eldest son Lester Johnson was always there for while growing up. As he set out to pave his path, he realized how important it was to him to share his mom's culinary goodness with the world. This desire led to Lester Johnson and his childhood best friend coming up with the concept for Mama J's Restaurant.

While Lester Johnson was eager to share his mom's delicious soul food recipes for macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, collard greens, candied yams, and other comforting classics with others, he also felt a calling to revitalize the historic Jackson Ward area in Richmond, VA. This community was once a hub of African-American business, religion, and entertainment that locals and non-locals frequented.

Lester Johnson's Larger Vision for Mama J’s

V LesterWhen it came to thinking about the best place to make his foray into the restaurant business, Lester Johnson thought to himself that there's no better way to bring life back into the once-bustling Jackson Ward than to put Mama J's there. He figured that if anyone else agreed that his mom's food was as great as he did growing up, the eating establishment would quickly become like a magnet attracting devotees from near and far, revitalizing this beloved community in the process.

That intuitive business sense Lester Johnson had to place Mama J's Restaurant in the Jackson Ward community was on point. This historic Richmond neighborhood has experienced tremendous redevelopment since Mama J's Restaurant first opened in 2009. The eatery has attracted the interest of politicians, Grammy award-winning artists, world-renowned food critics, professional athletes, locals, and tourists. 

The success Lester Johnson has had bringing his family recipes out of the shadows and sharing them with the world has inspired countless others in this tight-knit Richmond community to also pursue their passions and do something entrepreneurial. 

Enjoy Mama J's Restaurant Beyond Jackson Ward

Lester Johnson holds firm that the demand for his mom's food, which has won rave reviews from food critics and has been featured in Southern Living Magazine, on the “50 Essential Restaurants Every American Should Visit” list created by Thrillist, and in other local publications and television shows as well as ones with a national reach.. As Lester has watched as his food establishment grow in popularity with little to no investment in marketing efforts and was able to stay afloat amidst the Covid pandemic, it become increasingly evident that there's more demand for his mom's culinary delights than he can meet at the original Mama J's Restaurant in Jackson Ward.

Growth is on the horizon for Mama J's. Lester Johnson plans to open a Mama J's Market on 2nd Street in the same Jackson Ward community pre-Thanksgiving 2022 to accommodate customers looking to take menu favorites home, warm them up, and serve them to their families. 

Then, within the next 24 months, Johnson plans to open up a commissary kitchen on 1st Street alongside the current Mama J's Restaurant location in Jackson Ward. That catering arm of the business will be known as Mama J's Mobile.

Also in the works is opening up a few new Mama J's Restaurant locations in other parts of Richmond, such as northern Chesterfield and eastern Henrico. Lester intends to open those in 2023. 

Johnson notes that expansion of the Mama J's Restaurant empire can be a bit unnerving at a time when inflation and labor shortages persist. However, the consistent demand for his mom's recipes, despite this, motivates him to continue driving this much-loved and ever-expanding family-run business forward while reviving once-vibrant communities in the process.

Entrepreneurial Lessons Lester Johnson Has Learned Since Opening Mama J's Restaurant

If there are some lessons that Lester Johnson has learned since first coming up with the Mama J's Restaurant concept nearly 15 years ago, it's the value of having a vision and being persistent. High-quality food served with attentive customer service keeps customers coming back for more. Lester Johnson has also learned over the years that growth comes from taking calculated risks and being what he refers to as "bullish." Mama J's Restaurant expansion plans prove he must be doing something right.