Johnston and Co. CEO William Johnston

Johnston and Co. CEO William Johnston is overseeing the development of Epicenter in Agritopia.

Joe’s Farm Grill sits in Agritopia, a master-planned community of over 500 homes at Higley and Ray roads and touts a village-life concept centered around an 11-acre urban organic farm.  

And it is the heart of Epicenter – a residential/retail development - the developer, Johnston & Co., envisions as a unique and vibrant focal point for the community.

In keeping with its motto – “Common food done uncommonly well” – the restaurant dishes up food that for the most part uses fruit, vegetables and herbs picked from the on-site farm or purchased from local farmers.

“It’s the best known of the restaurants on-site,” said William Johnston, CEO of Johnston and Co., his company developed Agritopia from a 160-acre family farm growing wheat, alfalfa and cotton to what it is today.

The restaurant has a ‘60s-era vibe and still retains the slump block façade of the childhood home of Johnston’s dad, Joe Johnston, who founded the development firm.

It was his dad’s vision to have the restaurant serve up produce grown on the farm as the focal point of Agritopia, said Johnston, who lived in the house and noted his former bedroom is now the Grill’s bathroom.

In 2015, the Johnston Family Foundation for Urban Agriculture was formed to protect the 11-acre farm, considered the heart of Agritopia.

The farm includes a citrus orchard, where the public can pick fruit for a fee during the season; a commercial garden grows certified organic produce for local restaurants and for the public; and a community garden where people can lease plots to grow organic vegetables. 

The orchard includes an area to grow Medjool dates and olives and the farm produces its own honey. 

The Farm Grill opened in October 2006, a month after The Coffee Shop, which features a breakfast and lunch menu and fresh-baked sugary treats. The shop’s cupcakes won on an episode of Food Network’s reality show “Cupcake Wars” in 2010.

Barnone followed in 2016, housing 10 artisans of sorts selling their craft such as local fermenter Garage-East, Prickly Pear Paper, Johnston Arms and The Uprooted Kitchen, a plant-based eatery.

William Johnston’s brother James Johnston runs Fire and Brimstone at Barnone, where he creates sandwiches and pizza with a Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean influence using a wood-fired oven. He also has two plots at the community garden to grow produce for his eatery.

The restaurant’s signature dish is the Fire and Brimestone Pizza, it includes house-made merguez sausage and jalapeños topped with an optional fried egg to tone down the spice.

And the brothers’ dad, who earned an electrical and mechanical engineering degree from Stanford University, oversees the Johnston Machine Co., a fabrication shop that conceptualizes, prototypes and tests new cooking tools.

The Johnston family has a heritage of culinary innovation beginning in the late 1800s when Herbert L. Johnston helped pioneer what became the modern Kitchen Aid mixer.

The other retail establishment on-site is The Farm Store, where certified organic freshly harvested produce is sold along with goods such as coffee beans and handcraft soaps from its partners. 

The store is unmanned, relying on the honor system but there is a camera mounted on a wall. About 1,000 customers visit the store each month, according to Johnston.

Soon joining these established local businesses at Agritopia will be 25-plus retailers such as Matt’s Big Breakfast, Peixoto Coffee, Gadzooks, Bunky Boutique, Vintage Home, Wylde Salon, Hooligans Barbershop and The Fit Collective.

They are some of the tenants who have so far signed on to come into the Epicenter, the final piece will complete Agritopia. 

Johnston said the commercial hub’s groundbreaking is expected at the end of this year, early next year on 20 acres of dirt across from The Farm Grill. 

When the project is completed in fall 2021, it will yield 50,000 square feet of retail.

“With Barnone we wanted to focus on small makers who wanted to be involved in daily operations,” Johnston said. “With the Epicenter, it will be local businesses focused on food, health and wellness.”

The tenants also will have an established following, he said, but don’t expect to see any national chains unless it’s Lululemon, an athletic clothing retailer. 

Johnston is a big fan of the Vancouver company and often dresses in its label and Agritopia partners with Lululemon on events. Johnston said the philosophy behind picking the retail tenants at Agritopia is they are people who are passionate about what they do, committed to quality and understand their craft.

Because, he added, people want dining and shopping to be an experience.  If a business is too bland or generic, it drives people to online shopping sites such as Amazon, according to Johnston.

“We want to develop something unique and can’t be replicated,” he said.

Along with the Epicenter’s planned retail are 320 luxury loft-style residential on the top three floors of the shops.

The residences will include units ranging from studios to three-bedroom apartments. As for the rent range, Johnston said the apartments will be “high-end luxury” and one of the more expensive units in the area.

Apartment amenities will include a maker’s space with tools available to residents and a demonstration kitchen for residents to come together, create and connect.StreetLights Residential is building the apartments. The Dallas, Texas-based company just completed a five-story, 254 luxury apartment in Phoenix, which has amenities, including a private bar,  library and courtyard with fireplace.