Feeding People's Dreams

Written by: 
Jessica DeLeĆ³n

Djenaba Johnson-Jones ('93, '13 MPA) knew that starting her own business would be a daunting task.

"It's kind of a blur right now," she says. "I remember waking up every morning, saying, 'You can do this. You can do this.' It was crazy. I had to figure out how I was going to make my dream come true."

She's done it. She founded Hudson Kitchen, an incubator for small food businesses in Kearny, New Jersey, just outside of Manhattan. She recently won $100,000 from the Essence + Pine-Sol Build Your Legacy Contest, which is awarded to an outstanding Black female entrepreneur.

Getting there took years of hard work -- but the kitchen helped her and many others achieve their goals.

Christy Crutsinger, professor in UNT's Department of Merchandising and Digital Retailing, who taught Johnson-Jones when she was a student, has visited the kitchen and was not only impressed by its state-of-the-art equipment and presentation, but by its mission.

"The kitchen is first class," Crutsinger says. "It's innovative and is giving an opportunity for a lot of individuals to get a jump start on their business without an investment -- an example of her servant leadership approach."

Creating a Vision

The business started off after Johnson-Jones turned some bad luck into an opportunity.

As a student at UNT, she served as president of Merchandising Inc., the student organization for students interested in fashion, home furnishings and digital retailing. She graduated with degree in fashion merchandising from the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism, then worked as a buyer for the defunct County Seat Stores in Dallas. She then earned an M.B.A. from Clark Atlanta University, so she could pursue a career in magazine publishing.

Beginning in 1999, she was working in her dream industry -- digital marketing for various fashion publications, including Conde Nast. But in 2014 she was laid off.

Johnson-Jones considered it a blessing in disguise.

She always wanted to start a fitness business. After obtaining her trainer certification, she was thinking about adding a food delivery service -- until she hit a snag.

At the time, New Jersey didn't allow certain foods that were made in personal kitchens to be sold to the public.

Johnson-Jones began her research. She learned New Jersey only had six shared commercial kitchens despite its large population. Food entrepreneurs used church kitchens or restaurants during closed hours, and she wanted to create a space where entrepreneurs could work with little risk.

"I decided I wanted to build my own kitchen," she says. "I found it to be way more exciting than a fitness business."

Drawing on her corporate experience, Johnson-Jones began to host a series of events to gauge interest in her idea and help others launch their own businesses. She hosted a networking event in 2016 that attracted 75 people. She held similar events every quarter and wrote a workshop covering the 10 steps in starting a food business in New Jersey. More than 30 people attended an event about starting businesses at a local community college. When she expanded to the workshop to the Food Business Bootcamp, a course that teaches aspiring entrepreneurs how to create a solid business plan and prepare to sell their culinary creations in a retail environment , it attracted more than 300 people. She then brought along 60 letters of interest when she pitched her idea to a bank.

"We're on to something," she thought.

Getting the Word Out

In late 2019, Hudson Kitchen opened in an 8,000-square-foot location that provides production and storage space to businesses that pay a monthly membership fee.

Then a few months later, COVID-19 shut down the world.

But not the kitchen. It grew during the pandemic, as small businesses pivoted to ecommerce and packaged their food.

In the first two years, the businesses that worked at Hudson Kitchen generated $9 million in revenue and created 58 jobs. Three businesses have moved on into their own production facilities. The entrepreneurs have produced foods ranging from gut-friendly brownies packaged for grocery store shelves, to homemade delivery meals made from organic and sustainable practices and a food truck that serves Italian specialities, including homemade mozzarella and sauces.

"I think that's pretty amazing what people have been able to do in our space," she says.

For the Essence contest, she wrote a business plan and investment deck, and was one of three finalists out of 400 entrants. She and her daughter spent the month of June sending direct messages to all her contacts -- some going as far back as 30 years -- in her social media accounts.

"I consider myself to be an introverted person, but when it comes to my business," she says, "I'm going to talk to you on the street."

That tenacity won her the most votes for the contest. She plans to use the money to turn her flex space into a bakery that will include roll-in ovens, mixers and a second dishwashing area.

But besides helping other realize their dreams, there's one other fun aspect to her business.

"I get to eat a lot," she says. "Whatever people feed me, I'll eat it."