The Empire Of Mike Johnson
Hitting One in a Million – Twice!
St. Louis’ Mike Johnson
Written By Johnny Fugitt
Photography By Carmen Troesser
“Most people never get one home run restaurant in their whole career,” says St. Louis restaurateur Mike Johnson. “I got one with Sugarfire, and thought it would be impossible to get a second one, but we do 2,000 people almost every day [at Hi-Pointe Drive-In] with more on the weekends.”
Coming of age in the kitchens of early American celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter, traveling the world of fine dining had its moments, but, ultimately, St. Louis beckoned. Upon his homecoming, Johnson opened a number of popular concepts like BARcelona, Boogaloo and Cyrano’s (with a couple of whiffs as well). While most were successful, none created a buzz quite like the popular barbecue brand Sugarfire, which now includes six locations in the St. Louis area. Investors are chomping at the bits to expand the brand to various parts of the country.
“I said I would never, ever do anything other than barbecue again because barbecue has been so good to me,” says Johnson. The old Del-Taco location at McCausland Avenue and Highway 40, however, proved too alluring. Johnson’s restless creativity wouldn’t allow him to open anything other than a brand-new concept and just about everyone seems to be singing the praises of Hi-Pointe Drive-In these days.
“I think I’ve lost more money in the restaurant business than anybody in St. Louis,” he continues, “and I think right now I’m doing better than maybe anybody.” A burger and shake concept might not seem all that original, but the sandwiches are bold, the space is fun and it’s hard to leave Hi-Pointe anything but full and happy.
Johnson isn’t just doing well in St. Louis; his work is gaining notoriety across the globe. “I won best burger in the world one year,” he says, “and they flew me to Amsterdam to make a hamburger.” Recent trips include a barbecue competition in Australia, a live-fire cooking demonstration in Brazil and regular trips to New York, where he sought revenge for a loss on The Food Network’s show “Beat Bobby Flay.”
Travel is a passion for Johnson and girlfriend/business partner Christina Fitzgerald, herself a former contestant on the reality show “Food Network Star.” Amsterdam and the British Virgin Islands are two of their favorites. The opportunity to cook at the US Embassy in Dublin was a highlight. Whether a wine from a festival in Charleston or spice from a foreign trip, these adventures often influence dishes in St. Louis restaurants. For example, The Mitraillette sandwich at Hi-Pointe Drive-In, a fry-topped double cheeseburger on a baguette, is a play on the popular Belgian street food by the same name, and so, so good!
On another trip, Johnson used truffle-sniffing dogs to hunt the prized morsels in Italy. Triumphantly returning with a pile of culinary treasure (and his usual playful, generous attitude) Johnson stepped into the service line at Sugarfire to shave his bounty onto the tops of customers’ mac ‘n cheese. He gave away thousands of dollars’ worth of truffles, introducing the delicacy to many diners for the first time.
Some of the restaurants’ regulars border on obsessive. “We had somebody yesterday tell us they’ve been here [Hi-Pointe Drive-In] 40 times since we opened,” says Fitzgerald. “We’ve only been open four months,” adds Johnson. “I’ve got a guy that eats Sugarfire…in five years, he’s been there like 500 times. He keeps a logbook of what he had every time.”
“I know how lucky I am,” says Johnson, admitting a number of things fell into place paving the way for his strata of success. But it seems his culinary creativity, relentless work ethic, perfectionist attention to detail and overflowing passion for people have also helped.
Restaurants like Sugarfire or Hi-Pointe Drive-In are one in a million. Mike Johnson has hit homeruns two times in a row, and hungry St. Louis diners couldn’t be happier for his success.
-Hi-Pointe Drive-In together with Sugarfire's six locations prepare a total of six tons of meat each day.
-"The Abaconing" sandwich - a thick pile of Wenneman's bacon, collard greens, bacon bits fried tomato, white cheddar and bacon fat aioli - is the most decadent sandwich in St. Louis.
-Johnson found the rocket in a junkyard, had a friend add neon lights, and says, “People are driving hours just to take their picture underneath it.”
-Sugarfire’s six locations prepare a total of six tons of meat each day. Hi-Pointe Drive-In is quickly growing those numbers with thousands of customers daily.