The town of Gilbert recently received the Arizona Chamber’s 2019 Best City for Business Award. In this special edition of Showcase AZ, Gilbert restaurateur Joe Johnston and Northrop Grumman representative Rick Kettner share their perspectives on the economic growth in the town and how their businesses have thrived in the city.
Before the building that currently houses Joe’s Real BBQ became a restaurant, it was once a church in the heart of Gilbert’s Heritage District. Further back, in 1929, it was a grocery store serving a population of about 700 people.
“It was a pioneering town, and pioneers are kind of can-do people,” said Joe Johnston, owner of Joe’s Real BBQ and several other Gilbert restaurants.
By 2000, Gilbert’s population had grown to more than 115,000 people, according to the town’s Office of Economic Development. And the growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future; the town estimates that by 2030 Gilbert will be home to more than 300,000 people.
Johnston opened Joe’s Real BBQ in 1998. The longstanding counter-service eatery serves house-made barbeque dishes and sides out of its historic Gilbert location. Johnston has since opened several other Gilbert restaurants, including Joe’s Farm Grill and Liberty Market. Johnston was also involved in the planning of Agritopia, a residential community near Higley.
“My normal title is visionary, because that’s what I do — I come up with ideas and just see them through,” he said.
With four generations of family living in Gilbert, Johnston said he has witnessed the town’s growth firsthand.
“There’s a lot of really, really good momentum,” Johnston said. “It used to be considered a bedroom community, but it’s becoming a very well-balanced community overall, with a variety of kinds of jobs.”
Many of those jobs have been in tech-based industries. Aerospace & defense company Northrop Grumman builds satellites at its facility in Gilbert, as well as ground-support systems and other space-centric technologies. The facility has been in operation for more than 30 years and was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2018 — it was previously operated by Orbital Sciences.
“They’ve started to call it the Silicon Desert because we’re starting to develop a lot of high-tech companies here,” said Rick Kettner, director of Northrop Grumman’s Gilbert site.
Kettner said that while the aerospace industry tends to go through cycles of growth depending on a mix of factors, right now it is “definitely on an upswing.”
“There’s a whole resurgence in commercial space, they call it, where there’s now non-governmental monies coming into space for commercial ventures,” he said. “It’s really an exciting time… it’s really driving growth and driving expansion of the industry.”
Kettner said Northrop Grumman’s Gilbert facility has close to 500 employees and is still hiring more. He said Gilbert’s “diverse” and “family-friendly” community makes it a good fit for the types of skills the company is looking for and the type of culture it wants to create internally.
“It’s a great place to raise a family,” Kettner said. “It’s very affordable, when you look at other geographies across the United States. And it’s really centrally located with the universities to draw from … that have those skill sets.”
Johnston said, as a restaurateur, the growth of other industries is key to the success of his businesses.
“People need to eat, and so the growing number of financial jobs, tech jobs, those things, are super important,” he said.
Johnston said, despite the increased saturation of businesses in Gilbert, he still thinks there is a lot of opportunity for small-business owners to create and grow their companies.
“There are still many holes in the market of things that don’t exist that should exist here,” he said. “Properly done, you should have good success, because the population is open to trying new things.”
Kettner and Johnston both agree the Town of Gilbert has created a highly pro-business economic climate.
“The leadership of the town is phenomenal with respect to business,” Kettner said. “They really encourage growth and work very closely with the businesses.”
“I feel as though we have an ear, and that’s all anybody can ask for is to be listened to, and for someone to reasonably listen to their concerns,” he said.
Johnston said he is optimistic that Gilbert will continue to be a good place for business as it evolves in the coming years.
“They’ve been pro-growth, but pro-quality growth, and have had high standards,” he said. “That’s made it the town that it is, and I don’t think there’s a better time to live in Gilbert than now.”