Working from early doors until late each evening in structured credit in the City, Jonathan Recanati’s diet was a mix of “Pret, Leon, Pod, Itsu” and repeat. “I worked very long hours at Deutsche Bank, and often ate three meals a day at my desk,” he explains. “I very quickly realised that my food options were limited and very bland. It got me thinking that there was a gap in the market for a food brand that delivers on quality, flavour, speed and experience.” Fast forward six years and the 38-year-old, who lives in Notting Hill, is now founder of Farmer J, a healthy purveyor of what it dubs “forkin good food” with eight branches spread around the capital, and turnover set to hit £12.5 million this year.
The first restaurant opened down the road from Recanati’s old London Wall office, in Leadenhall Street, in 2016. It served, the entrepreneur explains, the kind of freshly prepared meal he wanted to eat for his own lunch: a signature dish is the “field tray”, where diners choose a base of rice, grains or salad, some meat, salmon or vegetables plus two sides such as kale and miso slaw, or tahini aubergine. That’s still its bestseller, costing around £13.
Inspiration came from large fast food brands in the US: “Places like Chipotle, Sweetgreen & Cava, who all cook on site and managed to scale up a fast casual brand with counter style service. I figured I could do it better with our style of food,” Recanati explains. “I wanted to offer a customisable meal made up of grains, grilled meats and fish, seasonal veg and salad. I then found a development chef who I worked with to create the menu.
“Working on the brand was the hard part — I knew I wanted it to be bold, professional and cheeky. I went through six agencies before finding one I was happy with.” He needed cash for all that work — initially raising £850,000 from friends and family. Going from banking to restauranting meant learning on the job: “I knew I wanted to start in the City, and was introduced to our Leadenhall Street site through a contact and paid a premium for the lease — the only time I’ve done this,” Recanati explains. “What I didn’t know at the time was that the building opposite was going to be demolished. So we operated for the first two years across from a building site. But it goes to show, if the food is good, people will find you.”
Offering half-price food for the first three days saw it sell out of all food daily, then signing up to Uber Eats for delivery helped boost the brand, and turnover hit £1 million in the first year. Still there was a lot of competition to fill Londoners’ stomachs. Recanati said he had to “differentiate in a few ways: the ingredients we use are fresh and all the food you get at Farmer J is cooked from scratch on site. Another differentiation is flavour. When doing my research, people would say the same thing about our competitors — that the food is ‘not that bad’. I think every average meal is a wasted meal. We’re not shy about using bold flavours and interesting spices.”
After two years, Recanati opened a second Farmer J, on King William Street. “It was a much bigger unit with much higher rent and felt like a risky move.” But the bet paid off, and the chain’s eight branches are now across the City, Canary Wharf, and Regent Street. Canary Wharf was already packed with lunch options, so “we took a small, 600sq ft unit and arrived as the underdog — all our competitors were established in that area. We planned to do three days of training but when we took down the hoarding, people started to queue up so we decided to just open. Canary Wharf management told us it was one of the best openings ever.”
In 2019 Recanati raised £2.5 million from private equity Imbiba, which also backs Pizza Pilgrims; the chain was motoring along until Covid hit. “We were very reliant on the office worker market. We shut at the start of the first lockdown but decided after three weeks to reopen one site, and were surprised by the high level of deliveries into people’s homes. So we reopened the other two sites [which it had at the time] and managed to trade three sites during Covid [despite] the City being completely empty.”
Farmer J now plans to open six sites per year — in London to start, including suburban areas, then in affluent areas across the UK; Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester are mentioned. “We certainly want to expand into international markets but this is a longer-term goal. We’re proud to have gone from four to eight sites in the last 12 months, during the most challenging time for the hospitality industry. Seven of our eight sites are profitable.” Recanati is a pro at trying all of Farmer J’s food: “Since 2016, I’ve probably eaten more than 2500 field trays already,” he grins. “And I’m not bored yet.”