2017 Small Business Leader of the Year

Leading with Verve, Courage and Boldness: Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails Owner Sarah Marie Johnston

By Susan Burnell

There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes before a perfectly-plated entrée reaches the table. Likewise, a vast amount of unseen effort goes into starting and sustaining a successful restaurant business. Sarah Marie Johnston will tell you it takes more than a little moxie to make both happen.

Johnston owns Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails with her husband, chef Tom Gray. Johnston also serves as the restaurant’s marketing director and is known as “The Handler” for the many roles she plays in its operation.

The restaurant is a culmination of a shared vision of Johnston and Gray. After five years together in California’s Napa Valley, the couple moved Jacksonville in 1999 so Gray could accept a position as Executive Chef and founding business partner at Bistro AIX in San Marco.

Determined and hard-working, Johnston worked for five years in administration for a wine and spirits distribution company by day, and as a part-time marketing assistant to Bistro AIX after hours.  She transitioned to full-time marketing for the restaurant in 2004, a position she held until she and Tom departed in late 2012.

“The drive to continue to grow and expand our shared creative vision as entrepreneurs prompted our big leap into bringing Moxie, and our dreams, to life,” Johnston says. Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails opened in the St. Johns Town Center in November 2013.

Creativity, drive, big dreams and bold moves have helped the restaurant gain a series of top honors for its innovative cuisine, impact and architecture. Johnson, who generously lends her energy to community and business advocacy projects, was recognized by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce South Council as its 2017 Small Business Leader of the Year.


A Mindset and a Place

The name Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails was selected for two reasons, Johnston says. “The first is that Moxie is the name of one of Tom’s favorite soft drinks as a child, which he enjoyed on annual family trips to see relatives in Maine. The second is the meaning of the word ‘moxie’ itself – having verve, courage and boldness – which we felt encompassed our own mindset in following our vision.”

When they noticed that Jacksonville’s local food culture was not wholly represented in the thriving Town Center area, Johnston and Gray sought to add a locally-owned establishment to the mix.

“We took a leap of faith that the area would support a locally-owned restaurant in such an unanticipated location, away from the historic neighborhoods where many independent restaurants are located,” she explains. They hoped to share their craft and creativity on a new scale with guests from all parts of Jacksonville and beyond.

It took two years of hard work to bring together financing for the land and restaurant construction. That included an SBA loan, a conventional loan and private investors. After years of planning and design development, plus seven intense months of construction, the 7,500 square foot, 265-seat Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails made its debut. “Our dream, brought to life by countless ‘believers,’ was finally ready for all to enjoy.”


Leading by Example

Other customer-centric organizations can learn from the management examples set by Johnston and Gray.

The restaurant’s core values are shared with each employee through its mission statement and its welcome manual. Those values are reinforced daily through training and coaching.

“With a staff of approximately 75 people, we find ways to help each person see that working can be something more than just ‘reporting for duty,’” says Johnston. “We want them to bring their own moxie to work. That creates an infectious energy that can be felt and appreciated by everyone we encounter.”

The overall mission calls for creating authentic interactions; a vibrant, positive attitude for staff and guests; and gratitude for opportunities to serve. Johnston offers this summary of the core values that address five essential aspects of the business:

Guests: We show pride in our work and maintain our property and its contents to the highest standard. We do not settle for “pretty good.” We strive every day to be great.

Employees: We foster a culture of collaborative ideas and mutual respect. We are helpful and supportive of one other. Everyone takes responsibility for his or her actions and all take ownership of their work.

Products: For the products we source and serve, we are respectful of natural resources, environmentally aware and eco-friendly. We select the highest quality ingredients we can possibly afford, handle them properly, and serve them with care.

Community: We support worthy charitable causes in meaningful ways. We purchase from and/or frequent other locally-owned companies whenever possible, and contribute to a culture of sharing and openness for everyone’s mutual success.

Financial soundness: We make healthy business decisions that support the financial strength of the company so that it may provide an above-industry average return to its investors and stakeholders, provide a secure and rewarding working environment to its employees, and impact our community in a positive manner.


Eye On Long-Term Success

The core values Johnston, Gray and their employees embrace will help the restaurant continue to be financially viable and successful long-term. “We have a very hands-on approach to management,” Johnston notes.

“We are in the restaurant daily, which allows us to be personally involved in all aspects of management. As can be expected, however, there are a great number of moving parts to operating a business that has the lights on nearly 20-hours a day, seven days a week. We rely on our entire management team and staff to help ensure the business is well-cared for. We have open communication lines so we can pro-actively address any issues that may arise at any time of day or night.”

So what’s next? “At three years old, we no longer feel like a ‘new business,’” says Johnston. “We are looking forward to the next three years, during which we can combine our past knowledge of trends, hits-and-misses, enjoy a more seasoned staff, and have a larger core guest base. These are the things that help any business to be stronger moving forward. We will continue to be better at what we do, with improved controls on expenses and efficiencies, while we refine our service and training techniques to deliver the highest level of satisfaction and hospitality to our guests.”


Keeping the Big Dream in Sight

It took a lot of – well, moxie – to overcome the challenges restaurant owner Sarah Marie Johnston faced when she and her husband Tom Gray opened their one-of-a-kind restaurant at St. Johns Town Center in 2013.

With its launch pushed back by construction delays, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails opened its doors during the peak holiday season. Its staff was still in learning mode, and construction crews were still on site up to eight hours a day. Moxie had to turn away holiday parties and large group bookings because private dining spaces weren’t yet ready, and staff still needed more training to handle large events. The circumstances were not ideal for establishing the systems and routines crucial to a hospitality-focused business.

Visibility was a challenge, too. A new retail building sprang up in front of the restaurant almost overnight, completely blocking the view of Moxie from the street.

Yet Johnston, motivated by the “Dream Bigger” philosophy she and Gray share, took all this in stride. She knew Jacksonville was ready for Moxie’s concept: fine cuisine and cocktails, with a focus on eco-friendly, locally-grown and artisan ingredients.

She just had to get the word out so she could build on that dream. “We increased our marketing efforts – including making TV appearances – to gain broader exposure,” says Johnston. “We developed our private dining program to attract groups, delivered a consistent guest experience, and refined our menu offerings and service levels.” In the fall of 2014, a video on Tastemade’s Grill Iron series featuring Gray, a three-time James Beard-nominated chef, started generating buzz. (It has now been viewed more than 785,000 times.)

By the time the holidays rolled around in 2014, Moxie was in a completely different place in terms of its business evolution. It had survived every setback and was poised to tackle its next full year in business.

Moxie continues to earn an impressive array of accolades, and has achieved healthy year-over-year sales growth.

“Competition is all around us,” says Johnston. “We chose the arena we play in because we believed we could meet an existing need and fill a niche other independents had not yet attempted to fill on the scale we planned. By staying true to ourselves, while we adapt to needs we saw in our business model, we are more confident than ever to be able to write the next chapter in Moxie’s book and to continue to ‘Dream Bigger.’”

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