John Rivers is a man with a mission and a ministry. Both are driven by a passion for barbeque and a desire to help those less fortunate.
A former healthcare executive, Rivers spent two decades perfecting his own barbeque recipes and techniques. In 2004 he launched his self-described “barbeque ministry” in his garage, cooking brisket to raise money to feed the hungry.
In 2009, he took the leap of faith that all entrepreneurs ultimately must make. He renovated an old transmission shop and opened his first 4Rivers Smokehouse. Today there are nearly two dozen 4Rivers locations offering what has been named by multiple sources, The Best Barbeque in the South.
Rivers was on a roll when the pandemic hit and his restaurant empire was shut down overnight.
“We lost 50% of our business,” he said. “All of our catering commissaries, all of our trucks, everything went dark. We had to turn them all off. We knew we were in trouble but instead of sitting there, we went to work to fix the business. And recognizing that many people were struggling, we also went to work to provide help.”
River’s restaurants weren’t alone. The entire industry was shuttered and millions of pounds of produce began rotting in the fields. At the same time, classrooms closed and children that relied on school lunches no longer had that daily meal. When many of their parents lost jobs, the inevitable result was a rapid rise in food insecurity. Children and families were going to bed hungry. That’s when Rivers’ non-profit 4R Foundation went to work.
“We had trucks going out all over the state finding produce that was sitting in the fields,” Rivers says. “If the farmer could give it to us, great. But if they needed a little bit of money to harvest it, we would fund that for them. We were taking produce that would otherwise go to waste and bringing it to Central Florida. We rescued produce, hired people to turn it into meals and deliver it to 46 sites all over the state to feed people on a weekly basis. We called it ‘Feed The Need’ and created 322 jobs at a time when everyone was losing theirs.”
Within a year, “Feed The Need” served over 1.7 million meals and nearly 640,000 pounds of fresh, nutritious produce. The program still exists and is evolving to also include culinary education and assistance in helping community organizations build and plant box gardens for hyper-local distribution.
While filling an immediate local need, Rivers became obsessed with the massive inefficiencies in our overall food production and distribution systems.
“We don’t have a problem of a shortage of food,” he says. “We have an issue with connecting that grower to the end user. Our produce today, on average, has traveled 1,872 miles to get to our plate. And with every mile, the taste and nutritional value declines while the cost to the planet and the consumer rises. How do we take out steps along the way?”
That problem led to Rivers’ latest philanthropic passion – the 40-acre, $40M 4Roots Campus. Now under construction in Orlando, the campus is designed to inspire revolutionary change in Florida’s food system through education on sustainable farming, agriculture technology and research in culinary medicine.
“In a word, we’re teaching.” Rivers says. “We’re teaching students, parents, communities, farmers and health care providers.”
The 4Roots Campus will include an educational center with classrooms, a farm-to-table restaurant, and a working farm whose entire yield will be donated to local schools and food-insecure families in the surrounding community.
“I had a period in my life when I lived with food insecurity,” Rivers said. “I know what some of those families are going through. When they say it could be any one of us, it’s the truth. We all need help at some point. The whole community benefits when we can lift up those who need it the most.”
Transforming the entire food industry to the benefit of all is a nearly impossible task and that’s just the way Rivers likes it.
“If your dream doesn’t require a miracle, you’re not dreaming big enough. Why wouldn’t you take the biggest mountain on? Why not try to tackle the world’s biggest problems? That’s the thrill of it. I have learned that when that opportunity presents itself say, ‘Yes.’ You don’t have to know all the details. You don’t have to know how it’s going to work out. I believe that’s where the blessing lies. If we knew the challenges that we would face in order to accomplish something significant, most of us, including myself, would probably cower and never take that first step. The blessing lies in saying ‘Yes’ when the path forward is unclear.”
John Rivers is crystal-clear about one thing. Passion leads to purpose, and the years ahead provide our greatest opportunity to make a difference.
“There is a peace that comes with this season in our life. When it’s no longer about fame or title or money, it’s truly about purpose and family,” he said. “Some of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned are about the impact you can make in people’s lives, just by your words, just by the encouragement you give them or the time that you pour into them.”
John Rivers, the man on a mission, driven by a ministry. Where others see difficulty, he sees opportunity.