Justin Johnson: Life’s too short to play it safe

Suzette Lowe

It is all about destiny.

For Justin Johnson, the desire to manage that destiny has led him to make some changes in his life.

“I’ve always been a searcher,” the 39-year-old said. “Being happy, making my child happy is at the heart of anything I’ve ever done.”

Being open to new experiences has led Johnson to make some major shifts in his life in the last few years. One of those shifts occurred in February of this year.

“I resigned my position as a social studies teacher at Ripley High School,” he said. “I had been with Jackson County Schools since 2009, but I ventured out to start my own restaurant, Hot Johnson’s.”

Many people might question giving up a job with security, but Johnson sees it differently. In fact, he says that he should have done it sooner. This is not because he did not enjoy teaching.

“I loved my students and built many positive relationships, but my mom got sick in 2016 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis which most people know as Lou Gehrig’s disease,” Johnson said. “I look back now and wish I had made the decision to help care for her.”

His new venture into the food service is due in part to his mother. His parents, Jess and Melanie, had operated a diner at one time. Johnson also worked for several years in restaurants.

In 2016, the urge to get back into the food arena caused him to operate a hot dog cart during his summers off.

“Mom had a special slaw recipe and dad had perfected the hot dog sauce,” Johnson said. “I started tweaking the slaw a little bit. Mom said it was better than hers.”

When his mom passed away in 2017, just 16 months after her diagnosis, Johnson had to give up the cart because as he said, “It was too hard, too much work without mom.”

Working with the food cart helped Johnson realize two things. He liked dealing with customers and liked setting his own hours.

This opened his eyes to a new opportunity in a totally different field.

“I had been close friends with realtor Cheryl Donohoe, who owns Cunningham Realty, for several years,” he said. “We had talked for a while about me getting my real estate license and working for her, but as a side job to teaching.”

In 2018, Johnson achieved his goal of earning his license.

Finding success in real estate, Johnson was top producer for his company in 2020.

“I found that I really liked the whole real estate world,” he said. “I love talking to people, researching houses and matching people up with the perfect home for them. It’s all about building relationships.”

He came into the ‘real estate game’ at just the right time. The market is seeing an unprecedented volume of sales. Although Johnson was new to the field, he earned a prestigious title.

“I was the top producer for 2020 with Cunningham Realty,” he said.

With teaching and real estate, things were going well for Johnson. Then tragedy struck again.

In September 2020 his sister, Ciara, was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. She passed away in December.

“I started to take a few days off to help with her care,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to take the same chance with her that I had with mom, so I ended up taking an extended leave. When she passed away so quickly after her diagnosis, my priorities totally changed.”

Having always wanted to get back in the restaurant business, Johnson said he knew Alan and Bobbi Ferrell owned a building that had a commercial kitchen. Finding that it was available, Johnson saw it was his chance to make an important change.

“I really do like being in charge of my own destiny,” he said. “It was also a chance to spend time with my dad. I knew he had the recipe for barbecue and hot dog sauce. I had the slaw. So, I took the plunge.”

Hot Johnson’s opened at its Straight Street location in March and word is getting around about the quality of the food.

“Everybody around here remembers the Big R hot dogs,” Johnson said. “I think mine are the closest to those of any I’ve ever tried. We also have barbecue, hot bologna and soon will offer ribs.”

Johnson, an accomplished musician with a recording studio in his home, said when he was in high school, he was sure he was going to be a football player, pro wrestler or a rock star.

“My band, Goldtown, still performs occasionally,” he said. “We’ve released a couple of albums on Spotify and Apple Music.”

For now, the self-proclaimed searcher says he is enjoying life. He sets his hours which allows him to spend a great deal of time with his daughter. A bonus with his new business is the time he gets to spend with his father.

Justin Johnson is the “prep man” at his restaurant, Hot Johnson’s.

“You’ve heard of a mom-and-pop business,” he said with a smile. “Well, this is a son-and-pop one. He is the guy at the window, taking orders and joking with the customers. I’m the prep guy.”

As for the future, Johnson says, “My mind never stops, never. I am an idea guy. My main goal is to show my daughter that there are so many possibilities out there so don’t be afraid to take a chance.”