From Pharmacy To Farmacy

Now To Next With John Rivers

John Rivers started out in his garage sharing his love for cooking as a “barbeque ministry” to help local families in need. Following a 20-year career in health care, he retired as president of a $1.5 billion pharmaceutical company to pursue his lifelong dream of opening a restaurant. John is not a trained chef. He has never cooked in a restaurant or been to culinary school. Despite the fact, in 2009, he created his first concept, 4 Rivers Smokehouse, which quickly became one of the fastest-growing restaurants in the Southeast. Since then, the 4 Rivers business has grown to 22 locations in Florida, including Rivers’ other concepts.

John joined me on my Now to Next podcast to discuss the importance of following your heart to find real meaning and purpose in life. We discussed his journey from the pharmaceutical industry to caring first for his own emotional and spiritual health by following his dream which included caring for the health of his community, and which led to his understanding that food is medicine. We spent a good deal of time discussing this concept which blossomed into his vision for the 4R Foundation.

The Longer You Hold Onto The Wrong Thing You’re Depriving Yourself And The World

John told me that the day he became President of the multi-million-dollar pharmaceutical company, he knew he was done after 20 years of trying to achieve that goal. As a driven, competitive person, John said, “I thought that’s what I wanted. But I always had a passion in my heart for cooking. I made that secondary.”

For 18 years, when John traveled around the country in his executive role at the pharmaceutical company, he sought out the best local barbeque joints and quizzed the owners on how they cooked their brisket. He also started noticing the difference between how almost disinterested he felt Monday through Friday and how joyful he felt on the weekends when he could cook. John told me, “Sometimes you have to take yourself out of the wrong situation to allow yourself to find the right situation. The longer you hold on to the wrong you’re depriving yourself and the world.” According to John, “You have to do what God intended you to do or you’re not going to perform as well as you could.”

When You’re Doing The Right Thing Miracles Happen

Miracles started happening the more John focused on his dream. It began when he met a local family whose little girl had eye cancer and couldn’t afford treatments. John offered them a monetary donation which they refused. But they told him that he could cook for them. He decided to host a fundraiser in his backyard. At the time, John told me he had a single Weber grill. He put the word out for the fundraiser and had over 450 reservations. With no idea how he was going to cook for that many people when he was accustomed to cooking for a maximum of 12 people at a time he just kept going. John excitedly told me how equipment and people just started “showing up.” Someone parked a huge smoker on a trailer in his driveway with a yellow sticky note that said: “Heard you need a smoker. Go ahead and use it. I’ll pick it up when you’re done.”

To say that this event lit a fire in John’s heart is an understatement. The exhilaration he felt at helping the little girl and her family was amazing. He just knew he was meant to have that restaurant – or at least a commissary through which he could sell his brisket and sauces.

Out Of The Garage And Into The Fire Without A Plan

Anyone who lives in the Orlando area knows where John opened his first “restaurant.” I asked him what his plan was for the little building when he first bought it. He told me, “You buy a little building because your wife tells you to get out of the garage.” The building was in no way, shape or form “restaurant material.” John said he thought he was opening a commissary. When he bought the building, he thought he was starting a commissary. There were no tables, no menus, no restrooms, no parking lot. He left the doors open just in case someone popped in and want to order a sandwich.

John didn’t even write up a business plan. He explained that even though he knew how to write a business and marketing plan, he didn’t feel the need to. He said, “When you are doing what is truly the right thing, things start happening. Things fall into place.” People started walking through the door of the tiny 4Rivers Smokehouse. John told me everyone who came in knew him through his service in the community, though he didn’t know them. The lines started forming and wrapped around the tiny building. Finally, the police showed up and told John he was not supposed to be running a restaurant but a commissary. If he wanted to stay open, he had to put in restrooms and a parking lot. The rest is history.

Communities Crumble When Distance Between Food Production And Access Increases

We turned our attention to John’s latest passion, the 4R Foundation. I asked how he came to the food supply side of the business. As John explained it, the foundation initially supported global efforts. He and his wife decided to focus locally and started learning about what the kids were eating in the public schools. What they found out touched their hearts. They discovered that 1 out of 5 students in the public schools in the Orlando area live with food insecurity. I didn’t know what that meant. He explained that the only meals these kids get are at school. They only eat breakfast and lunch. They have no food at home.

Around the same time, John found out that in the state of Florida alone 872 billion pounds of produce goes to waste every year. He put the two things together: 20% of our kids aren’t getting enough food amid so much waste. His idea was to correct this discrepancy. John thought he could give food away to end the food insecurity, yet he was informed by one of the area’s largest food banks that you can’t “food bank” your way out of hunger. He was told that education is the only way to make an impact.

Suddenly John realized there was something much bigger to do. Something more meaningful than starting and running a business would be to make an impact. Another statistic John shared that I was unaware of is that we have just surpassed bringing in more produce than we are growing in the U.S. 51% is being imported. 335 farmers lose their property on average per week in this country. And most produce travels on average 1872 miles before it reaches our plate.

In light of these statistics, education and building community became John’s passion. He and his wife learned through changing their own diets the healing power of food. Most kids, John learned, don’t know that green beans come from the earth. They think they come out of a can from the supermarket.

“The food system goes from the seed to the plate”, John said. He talked about the multitude of constituents involved along the way.  John is building powerful relationships between the community and the earth, between farmers and chefs. The 55-million-dollar 4R Foundation project includes an education campus featuring 8 styles of sustainable farming methods, a ½ mile loop of permaculture forest, a compost company, and the farmer’s market where local produce is sold called the Farmacy. But the real star of John’s vision is a culinary health institute dedicated to the study of how to maximize food as medicine.

It may seem a bit odd coming from the former president of a pharmaceutical company, but John summed up our conversation by saying, “We’re not prescribing food as medicine, that’s where medicine comes from.”

To catch the full interview I had with John Rivers, you can find it on your favorite podcast listening platform. And of course, you can always reach out to me directly with any questions you might have!