Inside Track: Paying it forward
A recovered drug addict and former Mel Trotter resident, Smashburger GM helps men get life back on track.
Tony Johnson often spends his lunch hour at Mel Trotter Ministries interviewing possible job applicants to come work for him at Smashburger, where he is the general manager.
Johnson said his mission is to help men struggling to overcome addiction and get out of homelessness, because he was once in their shoes.
“I want to be a blessing to men who are hurting and let them know you don’t have to go through this; I’ve been there,” he said.
Johnson has been to jail 13 times and has been convicted of three felonies. He was homeless for a number of years, as he struggled with drug addiction and depression.
Eventually, he said it just became exhausting, and when he went to jail for the last time, he was determined to beat his addiction and change his life.
“I surrendered my will to God. I asked God to help me,” Johnson said. “I said, this is it, I’m tired, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Johnson was born and raised in Flint and spent his high school years as a successful wrestler. He said colleges were interested in him because of his wrestling, but he didn’t have the grades to get in.
Like many teens, he began experimenting with drugs in high school. After graduation, while working as a firefighter and EMT, he was introduced to crack.
“That was my drug of choice,” he said.
Johnson also got married and had a son.
“When he was growing up, he wrestled and I coached him.” Johnson said of his son. “I didn’t know that would be the high point of my life.”
Johnson said he watched his son go down a similar path as he had, eventually ending up in jail with a life sentence.
“After high school he did the same thing I did, he didn’t go to college, he hit the streets and started hanging with gangs. He wasn’t using crack, he was selling it and running with gangs. He committed a six-felony life sentence with no possibility of parole.”
Johnson’s life unraveled with his son’s conviction.
“When that happened, it was in the paper and the news and it was devastating,” he said. “I couldn’t protect my son anymore; there was nothing I could do for him. I didn’t want to live anymore.”
Johnson left Flint with $15 in his pocket and came to Grand Rapids.
“When I got here, I still had my drug problem. I wasn’t ready to stop. I was drowning my sorrows,” he said.
Johnson said the last time he went to jail, he finally had enough.
“I surrendered my will to God,” he said. “God spoke to me as clear as day, ‘Mel Trotter,’ and right before I was released, I called Mel Trotter and asked for a bed.”
Johnson spent the next year dedicating himself to Mel Trotter’s program.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “They helped with dental, clothes, self-esteem, the counselors they had that I could talk to and the open-door policy and the classes I attended.”
He also had the opportunity to take a job working the desk at Mel Trotter as he worked through the program, which Johnson said was very influential.
“(At Mel Trotter), I worked at the warehouse driving a hi-low and then I started working on the desk with the homeless men, and that hit home — to help these men who have no hope. That really opened my eyes. I wanted to help them. It helped to find a purpose.”
As he was completing the program, Johnson was surprised by a visit from a former employer.
Before his last stint in jail, Johnson had landed a job with Buffalo Wild Wings through the work release program and had worked about eight months with the company. Just before graduating from Mel Trotter, he said his boss at Buffalo Wild Wings invited him back to work.
“When I graduated — and this very seldom happens — I went to work the very next day. And, I’ve been with them ever since.”
Johnson dedicated himself to his work as a cook and spent his free time reading his Bible and focusing on his recovery. He eventually left Mel Trotter and moved into an apartment. He said he was just happy to have a job and to be improving his life and wasn’t thinking about trying to advance with the company, but over time, he became a wing-certified trainer, which meant he was training new staff members, and then one day, the company approached him about taking a management position.
“The owner’s son came to me and said we think you’d make a great manager,” he said.
Buffalo Wild Wings’ parent company CHM was opening a series of Smashburger restaurants in Grand Rapids, and Johnson was hired to the management team. He’s been in management positions with Smashburger since.
In 2016, he was offered the general manager position at the Smashburger located in the food court across from DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Being in management allows Johnson the opportunity to help other men in similar positions as he was — homeless, in recovery and with criminal records.
“I started doing interviews at Mel Trotter,” he said. “I would go eat lunch there with the homeless people and people in the program and do interviews there. I’ve hired quite a few — some didn’t make it and some have.”
Johnson said the key thing he looks for in talking with potential job candidates is the right attitude.
“I want people who want to work,” he said. “I’m looking for attitude. Are you ready to be a productive member of society and father to your kids? If I hear selfishness, you’re not ready.”
Johnson said he’s mentored around 20 men at this point and said it’s fulfilling to be able to help others.
“It makes what I’m doing all worthwhile when I help someone,” he said.
Johnson is happy to see his employees move on to other jobs, too.
“This job is a starter. It takes a job to get a job. I’ve had guys who have gone on to some decent jobs. One guy quit three weeks ago and is making $13 an hour now. I’m not mad, I’m glad for them to move on. It’s a start, not a career.”
Johnson regularly has about 13 employees, and he said the restaurant can get busy with a line wrapping around the corner of the cafeteria. He said sometimes workers are stressed by the line, and he has to help them see it as a blessing.
“When we have a line, I tell them that’s job security. You have to get people to look at things differently.”
Johnson is grateful for his time at Mel Trotter and proud to be able to share his experiences with others who are there now.
He was appointed to the Mel Trotter Board of Directors as a trustee earlier this year. He is the first person to sit on the board that was once a resident of the shelter.
He also regularly does speaking engagements with churches and other organizations, spreading a message of hope.
“I want to just help people to understand that there is a God. There is a way out. You have choices,” he said.