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Johan Engman

Fig Tree Cafe owner plants charitable roots in community

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Johan Engman, owner of Fig Tree Café, likes to give back to the community -- whether it’s holding events in one of his three restaurants, offering free meals to military personnel or just providing delicious food to his customers.

Engman opened his first restaurant in 2008 in Pacific Beach. About four years later, he opened a Hillcrest location with Chef Alberto Morreale, and in 2013 opened a third Fig Tree Café at Liberty Station.

Engman, 33, does not have a culinary background, but knows the business by moving up the trunk and through the branches of the restaurant industry.

He said giving back to the community has also made the business successful.

“Just being a part of the community is huge,” Engman said. “Here we have tons of fundraisers, and in a way it’s kind of your moral responsibility as a business owner. I don’t do it because I feel obligated. I do it because I want to. And the other end of that, it comes back tenfold. ”

This past holiday season, Engman, his employees, family and friends held Fig Tree Café’s third annual Wounded Warrior Dinner, giving nearly 200 members of the military complimentary gourmet meals.

He added that people including Chris Shaw, owner of several eateries in San Diego, and his mother inspire him to give to those less fortunate and to be part of the community and not just chase a profit.

Engman recalled his mother volunteering her time and helping children and the elderly when he was growing up, and those values were instilled in him.

Originally from Sweden, Engman came to the United States when he was 16 with his mother, who had family in San Diego.

He was planning to stay for a year to finish high school, but when his mother's good friend in Northern California was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she quit her job and left to take care of her.

“It was one of those things that, I can go with her or stay here (San Diego),” Engman said.

He didn’t view his mother's choice to move as abandonment, but that she went to help someone who was less fortunate.

At 17, he got his first taste of the industry as a dishwasher at a small Italian eatery. He moved on to busing tables at Embassy Suites before working as a server at a number of local restaurants.

He saved some money and at age 27, he took over an Italian restaurant before opening up the first Fig Tree Café.

“I think it is a tough industry to be in and make it, but what it comes down to in my opinion ... you need to run it like a business,” Engman said. “You can’t run (a restaurant) like a love affair, where you have your grandmother's recipe for the greatest meatballs and think you are going to be successful. You have to know how to market your business, as well.”

He said that many restaurants fail because they spend too much money on the décor and not enough on staff.

“One thing we really try to do is work with our staff and make sure they feel involved (in the business), that they feel they have a voice,” Engman said. “Good morale is huge.”

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