After spending just 15 minutes on the phone with Johan Engman, it was easy to hear the passion, creativity, and drive that he has to create community around many people’s favorite meal of the day: breakfast. When he was just 16-years-old, Johan and his mother moved to San Diego from Sweden with the intention of staying for only a few years. But at 17, Johan moved out, got a job as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant, and never looked back. Is there anything he misses about Sweden? “Maybe nature and things like that. I go back and visit at least every other year. I feel like I hit the city jackpot with San Diego.” A statement that rings true for anyone who calls this beautiful city home! In 2008, his dream of opening a restaurant of his own became a reality when he opened Fig Tree Café in Pacific Beach. Now, eight years later, he oversees three branches of Fig Tree Café (one of which is here in Liberty Station) and two locations of Breakfast Republic, the newest of which joined the Liberty Station neighborhood this summer.
Although Johan loves breakfast, his vision for opening “breakfast only” restaurants was really a calculated risk. He explained that at the time he started dreaming up his restaurants, he noticed how much San Diegans seemed to love going out to breakfast and brunch, but the market was saturated with primarily dinner restaurants. “I was a 27-year-old guy who, the money I had to do the restaurant was all I had. So I needed to make sure I could make it succeed. Most breakfasts are pretty boring. With Breakfast Republic I really went crazy to create all this new stuff that you really don’t see. I think that’s why it’s been such a hit because it’s a lot of stuff that you don’t necessarily see. A lot of times it’s a diner with the staple dishes and there is no chef being creative.” From the Breakfast Jambalaya (Johan’s personal favorite) to Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes, the menu at Breakfast Republic delights the taste buds of every guest, and provides an exceptional all around experience. Having started at the “bottom” in the restaurant industry, Johan feels like he learned a lot by working his way up and has a greater appreciation for the employees in the back of the house that often go forgotten. “I’ve worked all those positions,” he said, “so I know how much hard work it is. I worked for every dollar to open my first restaurant. I have a better appreciation for employees. I want good morale. I put big emphasis on morale and the employees.”
Breakfast Republic is about redefining those “classic” breakfast dishes, but it’s also about so much more. Johan’s emphasis on employee morale sets the overall experience apart from many restaurants you will visit. “Making sure you have a culture and environment where everyone feels like they have a voice, and they are part of it and they aren’t just a number [is important]. Having people buy into the concept and wanting to see it succeed. You can do the coolest design and most creative menu items, but if you go into the restaurant, and you can just tell servers are waiting for their shift to end, there is something missing.” Johan is proud to have two restaurants in the Liberty Station neighborhood. He joked that when he decided to bring Breakfast Republic in, he figured it was better to have two of his own restaurants in there so he was competing against himself. “I figured, hey why not be the guy who does all the breakfasts in Liberty Station?” He loves the vision that the team behind Liberty Station has for the future of the businesses and community and says he has fully bought into it. As the neighborhood evolves into a new hot spot for San Diegans to spend their time, Johan’s restaurants have contributed to the growing community by bringing people around a table to enjoy creative meals and conversations over that very important meal: breakfast! For more information about Johan and his businesses visit Rise and Shine Breakfast Group and for information about Breakfast Republic visit breakfastrepublic.com.