Sometimes, for fun, Kala and Maya Johnstone watch the Food Network. When someone walks in and the announcer says, “She was a teacher for 20 years, then she opened a restaurant…”
“They missed so many coins!” identical twins happily scream in unison.
“You can’t just jump into a restaurant,” Kala Johnstone said.
Oh, how they know.
After retiring from the Philadelphia school district, where they had worked for 20 years, the Johnstones, 43, took up the restaurant business full-time with Food Hunters Kitchen. Kala was principal of Edmonds Elementary School in Cedarbrook and Maya was principal of Wagner Middle School in West Oak Lane.
From their part-time restaurant business that they started at the height of the pandemic, they opened FoodChasers’ Kitchen on December 3, 2021 near Elkins Park Station.
The restaurant, combining take-out and delivery with a cheerful and unassuming dining room, is no low-calorie experience. The Johnstones think big – huge plates of lavishly sprinkled breakfast and lunch items: shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, French toast, fried chicken. Anything can be put on a roll and turned into a “steak sandwich,” including chicken, beef, mushrooms, and salmon. Pork is not served.
The Creamy Chicken Jaw Cheesesteak, for example, features chicken and mushrooms cooked in seafood seasoning, topped with cheese, fried onions, mayonnaise, and seafood cream sauce.” #TeamFoodChasers don’t chase us for salads,” the twins wrote on Instagram, referring to their followers. “When we opened we had 3 salads on the menu and we sold 2 in 5 weeks lol.” There’s only one salad offered now, a chicken caesar.
Word of mouth has spread not only from friends, but also from social media personalities such as JL Jupiter.
Maya and Kala Johnstone had been contemplating restaurant life for about 14 years. Kala said she saw an episode of Oprah Winfrey on Creation vision boards – a visual way to chart your dreams.
They created a menu for “Friends Cafe”.
“I taped it to my bedroom wall,” Kala said. “He never fell. But teachers can’t just open a restaurant. And we just kept watching the Food Network.
They traveled around the country on their summer vacation, eating at places recommended by these shows, in turn passing on the advice to family and friends.
Ten years ago, “our friend [TV personality] Quincy Harris said this thing called Instagram just came out,” Maya said. “He said, ‘You should do it.’ We didn’t even have Facebook. We didn’t like social media. We didn’t want to show our faces. He was like, ‘Then don’t.’
The “food hunters” create own account, posting not only the meals they had eaten, but also photos of dishes they had prepared for sporting events such as Eagles games. “People were starting to say, ‘Your food is better than some restaurants. Can we get it? Said Kala. “We said no, but eventually we started hosting dinner parties.”
Then came the pandemic, closing schools and prompting the sisters to rethink their future. “We had a heart to heart,” Kala said. “I said, ‘I’d rather pursue this dream now because it’s now or never.’ I said we should stop. I want to pursue this dream.
“She was like, ‘OK, let’s all sleep on it,'” Maya said. “We should retire, but where are we going to get the money from? I said, ‘I don’t know. We will find out. I just can’t do it anymore.
On April 16, 2021, they got the keys to the restaurant, which had been Park Plates. On July 2, they officially retired from teaching.
Then reality set in. “It wasn’t what you see on TV,” Maya said. “It was advertised as a turnkey restaurant but the floor was falling apart.”
“Gas leaks,” Kala said.
“We learned a lot about leases,” Maya said.
Then come operations. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Maya said. “It’s different cooking in your kitchen with family and friends than cooking in a restaurant and learning to scale recipes. In the beginning, we were getting stuff from Costco. We had to learn how to get a Sysco [wholesale] account and go to Restaurant Depot and buy in bulk. They hired a chef, Naren Gosine, through a godson.
Fortunately, they had their brothers to help them.
“We’re like” two former managers, a former NFL player and a former social worker walks into a restaurant,” Kala said.
To know the Johnstones, who grew up in Mount Airy, is to know their connection to Temple University. Johnstone’s four children – Lance, Brent, Maya and Kala – went to Temple for undergraduate. “We really had no choice,” Kala said. Their late father, Isaac “Ike” Johnstone, a community leader who founded the Bill Pickett Riding Academy which teaches riding to city children, was a 33-year veteran of the Temple Police Department.
“He literally told us, ‘You all go to the Temple,'” Kala said. “Our brothers were really good at football, so they were getting scholarship offers [elsewhere], and he said, ‘No, you’re going to Temple.’ But then Temple had the worst football team.
Maya interrupted him: “Stop! I learned to count by sevens because I kept dreaming that maybe they would score five more touchdowns to win a game.
Brent Johnstone, now 45, who was a running back for the Owls and now runs a nonprofit called FathersLead365, helps his sisters when he can. Lance, 48, a retired defensive end for the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings (and a standout linebacker for the Owls), is at the restaurant every day, helping customers and making deliveries. He was credited with 42 sacks in the NFL. It will trash more orders than that on a weekday.
“When people come in, they always say, ‘How are you?’ We always say, “Live a dream,” Kala said. “You don’t know how much money you’re going to make day to day. But it’s still better than running the school.
“Being a manager is a chore,” Maya said. “And it’s lonely because usually you’re the only school principal, aren’t you?” So it’s another kind of stress.
When people come in, they always say, ‘How are you?’ We always say, ‘Live a dream.’
The Johnstones plan to use FoodChasers’ Kitchen to fulfill a personal mission from their school days: funding “safe rooms” where teachers can send restless students to relax or talk about it instead of arguing with them. “We learned that children need an outlet,” Kala said.
The Johnstone sisters believe that once teachers know the children’s situation, they are in a better position to help them. “Don’t be taken in by the way it’s said. Listen to what is being said and process it,” Maya said.
The Johnstones credit their parents, Ann and Ike, for creating the FoodChasers kitchen.
“It’s just fun having a dream and then trying to make it a reality,” Maya said. “You walk into a bank and ask for a loan for your dream…”
“They’re laughing at you,” Kala said.
“You never get that loan,” Maya said. “We had no restaurant experience. We were directors. We had to manage our school budgets, but we couldn’t get a loan.
By then, their social media following had grown and they had raised $22,000 from friends. “It’s fantastic,” Kala said. “It worked because they were the ones who kept saying, ‘You all need your own restaurant. We were like, ‘OK, put some money behind this.’ And they did.
But they ran out of money between their last day of work at school and the opening of the business. Their pensions had not been paid. Ann Johnstone chimed in with no questions asked.
Ike was a cheerleader. “One day, about 20 years ago, I went to his stable [at the riding academy], and one of the people working there said, ‘Your dad told me you’ll take care of my baby shower,'” Kala said. “And I was like, ‘We’re not caterers.’ When I saw him, I said, ‘Why did you tell that woman I’m a caterer?’ He said, ‘Well, you should be.’ I said, ‘Dad, I’m a teacher. I’m not a caterer. And he said, ‘Well, you should be.’ And he left. “
After his death in 2012, one of his friends told him: “If you see a cardinal, it is an angel who visits you”.
On August 31, 2020, which would have been her birthday, the sisters were preparing food for one of their first restaurant jobs. “I looked out the window and a cardinal landed right in front of me,” Kala said. “I started screaming and crying. In the eight years since he left, I haven’t seen a cardinal. But at that catered event, on his birthday, that cardinal landed in front of me. I just heard his voice: “What you should be, you should be.”
“I always knew we were on the right track.”