Healthy brand Farmer J’s winning dishes – and the ones they have had to rethink

Founder Jonathan Recanati talks to Food Spark about how development works at the fast-casual chain and the current healthy food market.

29 March 2019
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Farmer J recently learned an important lesson when it came to meddling with its most popular dish on the menu, the harissa chicken.

“In February, we thought people were sick of it and we actually decided to take it off the menu,” Jonathan Recanati, founder of the healthy fast-casual concept, tells Food Spark. “We put on the menu aji amarillo chicken, which is a Peruvian mix, and we thought people would be happy that we were refreshing the menu.

“What we learned very quickly is: don’t change a winning horse. They created a #bringbackharissachicken on Twitter. I learned not only that the other chicken didn’t work, but that some things can’t be replaced, especially in the city.”

Before you feel too sorry for the burgeoning brand’s social media woes, however, the same month also saw it secure a £1.9m investment to support expansion.

Farmer J is the brainchild of Recanati and his wife Ali. The duo launched the first site in Leadenhall in 2016, before delving into an all-day restaurant that opened in London Bridge in September last year. Its third spot only arrived at Canary Wharf in January, but Recanati says he wants to open two more locations this year.

The concept serves up meals from breakfast through to dinner, offering a good range of grains, grilled meat, fish, vegetables and salad. Flavours are inspired by the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia.

Harissa is a dominant ingredient. Apart from the infamous chicken, Farmer J’s whole roasted cauliflower with harissa is also a popular dish. Other bestsellers include its broccoli and kale mac ‘n’ cheese and its seasonal salad with feta, za’atar, cucumber, tomato and herbs.

Field trays

One of the signatures of Farmer J is its field trays – something Recanati saw as essential to the concept.

“The idea was to create healthy food with good sourcing which is delicious, affordable, customisable and served quickly,” he explains. “People need something tangible to buy and we need to put it in a framework. We actually need to create a product. So I made up the word ‘field tray.’ I thought if people can get a grain, main, vegetable and salad with a sauce in something we called a field tray, it’s easier to get – it’s a catchy word and it works.”

At Farmer J, 70% of the menu is vegetables but Recanati admits that kohlrabi has been a hard sell – he has tried it in different formats but it has never worked. Undeterred, he is pushing it back on the menu again from April in the form of a salad.

“It’s almost like a green papaya salad, but with kohlrabi, some spring greens, some crushed peanuts, chilli and lots of herbs,” he comments.

The evening turkey burger, which skips the bun but is marinated in chermoula and topped with tahini and house-made pickled cabbage, is also being brought on to the lunch menu.

“In the summer, we want to do something with charred corn,” he adds. “We are launching a new broccoli salad like a grain mustard dressing, some feta, herbs, parsley, red pepper – I’m excited about that.”

Recanati says he works with his team to change up to five dishes each season, with food development sometimes taking the form of three or four versions before they get it right.

“The next day, we test it in a larger format and put it on our counter and serve it to customers and see what the reaction is. If it’s great. we will cost it up and see if it actually works for us and then launch it four weeks afterwards,” he says.

“We come up with a marketing campaign, come up with the artwork, and then it will be on the menu eventually – once we have trained the team and briefed the suppliers. It’s not an easy process actually.”

Friday is their biggest day for breakfast as customers seek out more indulgent eats like a shakshuka or its Big Boys Breakfast Wrap, consisting of laffa bread, tahini, omelette and pancetta. Most of the week, people are looking for a hot main for lunch, he observes.

Healthy eating trends

Even in Recanati’s relatively short time as a food operator, he has seen consumer desires change.

“I think people are demanding more, even if it’s a quick meal – they still want to have more variety, more of an ability to customise, and they want to know much more what’s in their food,” he comments.

“People are becoming way more knowledgeable about different spices, herbs and regions, so it gives a great stage to experiment as people are open for it – that’s the best thing about opening a food concept in London.”

However, when it comes to the healthy eating space he believes that many of the operators out there are “faddy.” The successful ones are passionate about flavours and put the enjoyment of food first and foremost.

“I think there are a lot of eateries out there that miss the point of why their restaurant exists – it’s not a pharmacy first, it’s a restaurant,” he explains.

With that in mind, Recanati doesn’t see liquid diets becoming mainstream; he isn’t too convinced poke’s popularity won’t trail off either.

What he does expect to see more of is Turkish, Israeli and new generation Italian restaurants, while sustainability and healthy eating will become more closely aligned.

“I think it’s difficult to come up with a concept now that has nothing to do with healthy eating in London,” he adds.

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