Chef Jon Mathieson Talks About Why He and His Partners Pulled the Plug on Inox
Last week, chef Jon Mathieson, GM Jonathan Krinn, and sommelier John Wabeck decided to pull the plug on Inox, their experiment in upscale dining in Tysons Corner. Mathieson took a few minutes yesterday to talk about the venture — why it went under, why it was a hard sell in Tysons, and what his future holds. Below is an edited transcript.
Y&H: I’m sorry to hear about the demise of Inox. It’s a loss on the scene. I know it’s not easy on you or the staff to deal with a business that suddenly just goes away...
JM: It’s been a little difficult. I don’t think it’s totally set in yet, because we’ve been doing this a long time to prepare to get this place going. We were starting to hit our stride. It was a sort of shock to everybody.
Y&H: I can imagine. How is the staff taking it?
JM: I’ve had a really good rapport with the staff here. A lot of the cooks and the prep people have been with me for three or four years now. At 2941, I trained a lot of them over there. When they decided to do the venture here, I searched them out and I tried to get them on. So we’ve been together a long time. They’re coming in to see if we need anything or any help. It’s really nice.
Y&H: When did you actually break the news to the staff?
JM: We told the majority of the staff on Saturday morning. I didn’t think it was fair to go ahead and tell them after they put in a hard night’s work. Sit them down and say, ‘Tonight’s the last night.’ So we brought them in the next day. I think some of them had ideas, and of course Tom [Sietsema] had posted his Tweet about the restaurant. So I think they had their ideas, and there were rumblings, because, as you know, back in February, there was some rumblings. So were just fighting through things. We were going through a whole process, just making sure that we were building strong roots. Like I said before, this is a strong community. The Northern Virginia area has really supported us and taken a liking to us. A lot of people came to our defense... They’re a little bit sad. But this isn’t a non-profit. This is a restaurant that set out to make money and do the right thing. When it didn’t seem like it was going to go in that direction, I think it was in everybody’s best interest just to stop.
Y&H: I know it’s still really soon and you probably haven’t had a whole lot of time to sit back and just think about it. But as much as you have, have you thought about what you might do differently, if you had started it up today as opposed to two years ago?
JM: I think you need to figure out what the sweet spot is for the size of the restaurant...I don’t think anybody could have predicted when we opened this restaurant that, two weeks after we opened, we would be in the lowest point in the economic crisis of the United States in history. We were digging out from that. We tried to build a nice 11,000-square-foot restaurant that we thought could handle multi-tiers of dining, from private dining to bar dining to restaurant dining. I think the format works. I just think that if you’re not going to be able to pull the private dining business, which is one of the major business units, to the level that you expect, it makes it really difficult. I think what happens right now, if I was going to do it over again, it would be very hard to forget because you don’t know where the economy is going to go and who is going to spend money and when they’re going to spend money. Would I change the format of the food and the approach? No, I think right now we hit our sweet spot. I think we became a value-driven restaurant. I think our tasting menu was one of the cheaper tasting menus in the area, but we were giving high-quality ingredients. I think our price points were where they probably should have been or should be if we were going to move forward in the future to do something. The food is the food. I would have loved to have been able to do more private dining, because that was driving our business format. The 40- or 50-person pharmaceutical dinner turned into 15 or 20. That’s the big loss. I think we hustle a lot more in sort of finding out what companies were looking to spend and if they were going to actually go out and spend. I think right now the whole new thing is research.
Y&H: I’ve talked to some people who are also in the fine-dining world. I’m trying to get a grasp on what the market has been like in the last couple of years. The consensus seems to be that, for a number of restaurants, the market is still really strong. But they seem to say that the fine dining market has shrunk from, generally speaking, 10 percent to like 2 percent or less. So it’s harder to reach those people. It makes me wonder if you can do a fine dining restaurant in this area or maybe you need the perfect location to do it right now?
JM: I think location is going to be the key. I think you’re going to have to have all the pieces fit into the puzzle. You’re going to have to have a good deal. You’re going to have to have a large enough space. I think a lot of the reasons why fine dining restaurants are in hotels are because [hotels] can afford to give up that space for the amenity. I think it’s going to come down to who’s going to want somebody of this caliber or style of restaurant in their building or townhouse or general area to support. A restaurant like this is a draw to the area. It’s for the community. We serviced a lot of the local McLean and Great Falls and Bethesda people, and there’s not a lot in this area, besides 2941, that’s doing what we do.
Y&H: In retrospect, do you think you might have gone for a different location?
JM: Would I have gone for a different location?
Y&H: In other words, that location played a role in the restaurant’s inability to sustain itself?
JM: You know what, I think with all the construction going on for the Metro and things like that, I don’t think that benefited us in any way, shape, or form. I think one of the things that is more attractive to people, if you want to draw the D.C. crowd, is you need to be near a Metro. Metro gives the ability for people not to have to drive to come see you.
Y&H: What do you think the future of fine dining is, generally speaking?
JM: Fine dining is never going to go away. There’s always going to be a spot for it. I think what’s going to happen is there’s going to be the grand luxe places that are over the top. And then there’s going to be that next little tier where guys are trying to cook really great food but maybe they’re not going to have the…top-flight china. They’re going to have to do it a little bit different. It’s not going to have all the pomp and circumstance of some of the, I guess, corporate or hotel-style places. I think it’s going to change a little bit.
Y&H: When you say not the pomp and circumstance, like maybe fewer employees or less expensive china or tablecloths?
JM: Right, you might not go with the crystal decanters. You want not go with the silver flatware. You might go with the stainless steel. You might have to go with the Steelite china vs. the Rosenthal or something along that line. I think the start-up is going to be a lot different. I think you’re going to have to grow into the grand luxe type of restaurant.
Y&H: This must have been very hard on you and Jonathan Krinn and John Wabeck. You guys, as far as I understand, have been putting this together for years, planning it, thinking about it. How have you guys dealt with it so far?
JM: It’s a difficult situation. I don’t think we’ve really sat down and talked about it. I mean, when John Wabeck and I discussed him coming on with us, he wanted to develop himself as a sommelier and continue in pursuit of his goal of becoming a master [sommelier]. I’ve known John for 10 years and we’ve been good friends for a long time and I wanted to give him that opportunity. I think he feels like he has business that’s not taken care of right now. He has some things he really needs to finish up and do. He was hoping that it could be at Inox, but he understands that things happen. I think Jonathan was starting to find himself out in the front of the house and enjoying it. He’s always been that great reader, that great presence in the dining room, whether it was at 2941 or here. For me, I think it’s a little bittersweet because I just got re-reviewed and we got the three stars. I was starting to put my stamp on the food in the area. I’ve been very fortunate that, locally, I have a great following, but now I was going to pick up a little following from the D.C. market, which was really nice. I guess a lot of good things were being said because we got re-reviewed in such a short period of time. I think we were starting to go in the right direction.
Y&H: How long after you opened did you see that the numbers weren’t working in your favor?
JM: The business plan was set up to take care of those things early on. What was really difficult in the whole situation was we had put together a plan to bring everybody on board and put Inox on the map for a long period of time. So we were talking to various parties about doing that. We were going in the right direction, and then one of the parties decided it wasn’t for them. And that’s when we decided it wasn’t going to work.
Y&H: In other words, investors pulled out?
JM: No, no, no. The investors actually were very loyal and very supportive of the whole project all along. The investors were one of the great parts of this restaurant, the support that we received from our investors, the advice. Because a lot of them were very big in business in the area. It was great, and their loyalty was unbelievable. It just comes down to having three parties working or four parties working together to make the total situation work. When we were looking to sort of, I don’t want to say restructure, but when we were re-evaluating what we were doing, when we sat down with all the parties to see where we could go on this, everybody was very optimistic and very for making it happen. Then last week, it was just one of those things. Someone just said it’s not going to work for them.
Y&H: Was it the owner of the space? The Lerner group?
JM: It’s too soon for me to talk about it. There’s a lot of stuff still in the works. It wouldn’t be…helpful to anybody to just sort of say if it was this, that or the other. It was just four parties and one of the parties decided it wasn’t for them.
Y&H: Obviously, you can choose how much you want to tell me, but one of the things that someone had told me back in February was that the owner was already shopping the space around. I guess the thinking was they wanted someone who could pay the rent on the regular basis. I don’t know if any of that is true...Had you received any wind that they were dissatisfied back in February?
JM: We’ve had a good rapport with the Lerner group the whole time we’ve been doing this, and we still have a good rapport with them now. I would think that if they wanted to talk about anything, it’s something that you might want to ask them. I’m not sure how someone could shop a space around. I don’t know how that all works with a tenant there. That would be something that you’d have to talk to the Lerner group about. They have their thoughts. I’m not sure.
Y&H: You had mentioned earlier that you were coming into your own as a chef. Did you sort of refine your ideas from your opening-day menus into what you were doing at the end?
JM: What I decided to do is to have more fun with it, is to start cooking more for myself. I was getting input from the guests and talking to them and seeing what they were interested in eating. If someone said, ‘Hey, we’re really looking for that nice steak that I could eat over at The Palm but I’d rather come here and eat it here,’ so I put a steak on the menu. Somebody said, ‘Hey, I’d really like to see…different styles of fish.’ I just listened to my clientele. I talked to them as much as possible. I decided I was going to cook the way I’ve always cooked and sort of throw caution to the wind and just do it and enjoy doing it. I sort of got back to what I really did and enjoy doing.
Y&H: How would you say that differed from what you came out of the gate with? What were you trying to do with your opening-day menus?
JM: Earlier on, I think we were trying to be a little conservative, and it seemed a little forced. I think we wanted to bring a quality product to the fold. Early on, even though you have staff with you, in a new restaurant you need to sort of get your feet wet. I think by the time we were into six months of the restaurant, we were really starting to feel and understand what we could do. It was a lot easier for me to sort of drop some of the construction and finalizing, all the knickknacks in the restaurant. After the first couple of months, I could really focus on what I wanted to do with the food.
Y&H: When Jonathan Krinn went into the dining room, I’d be curious on what the decision-making was to go from two in the kitchen to one in the dining room and one in the kitchen…
JM: Jonathan, like I said, has always been an amazing person in the front of the house. Whether he had a chef’s coat on or suit on, he’s been very good with the guests. He’s built great rapport with the guests…Going into the whole project that was the direction we wanted to go in. It was just that I hadn’t sort of staked my claim as a chef in the area, though I had been doing the cooking in many restaurants, many upscale restaurants for a long period of time. I had a couple of kids. I started at 2941 just wanting to sort of be on the back burner and cook food and work in the kitchen and train staff and do things along that way, while Jonathan did his PR tour, and it worked out fine…It was actually very selfish on my part. I was cooking and doing what I love to do and running a kitchen and working with the guys. And he was able to do what he wanted to do and be out talking to the guests and things like that. It also helped us meet people to get Inox started. When the opportunity came about to do the restaurant, our PR person told us, ‘Oh, you need to go with the two-chef concept,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, but it’s really not going to be that way.’ ‘But Jonathan is the more known in Northern Virginia and why would you not use that?’ And we’re like, ‘OK.’ We listened. We knew eventually the transition was going to happen, that Jonathan was going to probably go out front, because he really enjoys it and it was something he really wanted to do. He was an owner, and we felt that it was important one of the owners be out front, touching as many guests as possible and getting them to come down to the kitchen…and meeting more friends.
Y&H: So what’s in your future right now? Do you have some immediate plans? Are you going to kick back for awhile and assess what just happened? Do you need to go back to the kitchen immediately?
JM: I’m never going to leave the kitchen, that’s for sure. What am I going to do? I’m going to look around and see what’s out there. Whether it’s starting a new venture or seeing what the deals are out there, to be honest with you. I’m not in a hurry right now. It’s more that I want the opportunity to do what I do foodwise. There’s definitely particulars. I want to have a strong wine program to go along with it.
Y&H: Will you keep the team together? The dream team as it were?
JM: I think that’ll be all up to each situation…I’m not sure, you know. There’s a lot of personalities and there’s a lot of talent here. We’ll see. Ultimately, if someone came and said, ‘Hey, you guys want to do something again? We’d support you in it.’ Yeah, we would, but I think we have to be realistic to what’s going on in the economy right now and figure it out from that stand point. What’s going to be the best situation? Because I know all three of us right now don’t want to be in this situation that we’re currently in again.
Y&H: Are you thinking the concept that the three of you, by nature, would put together may not be perfect for the current economic environment?
JM: I’m not necessarily sure the direction is to go bistro/brasserie or is it to go what I think are niches and going upscale? I would never say fine-dining because I have certain beliefs on who’s doing fine dining and I’m not necessarily sure we had achieved that level yet. We were working towards it. I think we were definitely an upscale restaurant, giving upscale service and food and beverage across the board. It’s something that I really enjoy, and I think there’s definitely a niche in this area. I just think you need to be in an area that’s going to be able to help support that dream. Tysons is what it is right now. It’s steakhouses and chain restaurants. To break that mentality, I think we were doing it slowly but surely. It takes time, like anything else.
Y&H: If you had your druthers where would you want to do a fine-dining restaurant?
JM: I love it in this area. I love the Northern Virginia-D.C. area. So if I could do something, it would definitely be here.
Y&H: Any particular neighborhood?
JM: Vienna, McLean, Great Falls area is where I live. I’d love to do it in the communities that I frequent and that I live in. My kids go to daycare here. This is my home, so I’d love to have something in my home area. But I also believe that D.C. is a rock’s throw away. I totally support the D.C. restaurant/food scene. I think it’s a great food scene. If there was an opportunity to do something there, I’d more than welcome that, too.