Co-owner, Neighborhood Restaurant Group
When Michael Babin decided to open his first restaurant, the Evening Star Café, he was not only working as a lobbyist but also attending Georgetown Law School. It was 1997, and he knew little about the hospitality industry, other than what he had spelled out in a restaurant business plan that he put together in law school. But it was a good plan, and Babin was confident it would work, particularly after Ann Cashion gave it her blessing when he showed it to the celebrated chef.
The key to Babin’s plan was location. Evening Star would be located in Del Ray, not far from where Babin was living at the time. This was not the Del Ray neighborhood of today. There were no butcher, frozen-custard, or overpriced pet-supply shops, let alone chef-driven restaurants. But there was potential. “You could see what it could become,” remembers Babin, a Yale graduate. Evening Star “felt like the right catalyst to throw into the neighborhood.”
The Evening Star business plan would serve as a model for all future Babin ventures, which, 13 years later, now number 11, including six restaurants, a wine shop, two bars, a bakery, and a catering company, with more to come. Babin is the guiding hand behind the appropriately named Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which never launches a business without doing one thing. “My approach is to get to know the neighborhood really really well,” Babin says. He talks to people, he hangs out. “You spend time in a place, and you gradually pick up on the spirit of the place.”
Specifically, you pick up on what the neighborhood wants, and you cater to it. The Neighborhood Restaurant Group approach has led to serious, chef-driven restaurants in Old Town and Arlington, a bakery whose decorated pastry chef has influence over much of the NRG empire, and, most important, three beer-driven concepts that have redefined how people think about suds in this area. Beer is no longer relegated to second-class status but elevated to an equal partner with cuisine at Rustico, Birch & Barley, and ChurchKey. The concept will likely be Babin’s signature statement for years to come.
That last sentence would undoubtedly make Michael Babin uncomfortable. If there is anything that I’ve learned about him over the years, it is that he likes to spread the credit. Actually, that’s not correct. He likes to emphasize that his role in NRG is small; he has more than 350 employees, and for the general managers and executive chefs in his employ, he gives them autonomy. The hard part, for him, is hiring the people worthy of that autonomy.
“You find great people, give them exceptional opportunities,” says Babin, “then get out of the way. Don’t set up an organizational structure that is stifling.”
One look around the NRG landscape and you see the talented people Babin has hired: pastry chefs Josh Short and Tiffany Macisaac, beer director Greg Engert, chefs Anthony Chittum and Kyle Bailey, charcuterie maker Nathan Anda, wine director Juliana Santos, and many more. They, as much as anyone, are responsible for Michael Babin winning this award.