Young and Hungry

Let’s Do Lunch: When Is It Worth Opening Up For Mid-Day Meal Service?

Granville Moore’s started as a place for mussel dinners and late-night beers. Now, five years after it opened, it’s aiming for something new. As the sidewalk chalkboard brags when I walk into the H Street NE restaurant, “LUNCH BUT BETTER!”

Two people are already drinking at the bar when I pull up a stool at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday. At the recommendation of the woman next to me, I order the $10 “Good Doctor,” an egg and cheese sandwich with bacon, avocado, and a side of fries.

A couple walks in and asks for the menu. “We’ve never been here for lunch,” says the woman as she takes a quick glance at the offerings. “Oh, yeah, we’ve got to stay here.”

Within an hour, one more customer sits at the bar and another places an order to go.

“We’re still building it,” the bartender says of the lunch volume. “I see it picking up.”

That seems to be the outlook of a lot of restaurants breaking into the lunch game in growing areas far from government cubicles. With the onslaught of commercial development and increasingly dense residential neighborhoods, sit-down lunch spots are no longer the domain of the downtown office core. Nightlife hotspots like H Street NE and 14th Street NW seem to be on the cusp of breaking into daytime business. Suddenly, many restaurants are launching lunch, or at least considering it.

When Granville Moore’s opened five years ago, the lunch offerings on H Street consisted mostly of Horace & Dickie’s, Popeyes, and a handful of carry-out Chinese and fried chicken spots. “If you wanted it fried, you got it,” says Granville Moore’s chef and owner Teddy Folkman. Now there’s full-service lunch options at Boundary Road, Ethiopic, TruOrleans, Sticky Rice, The Big Board, and more. That could be just the beginning. “Every restaurant that’s opening now [on H Street] has an idea to be open for lunch,” Folkman says.

Why? In part, there’s a domino effect. One restaurant opens mid-day, then another, and suddenly everyone wants to get in on the action. The fact that there are then so many lunch options in the neighborhood lures more diners. There have been more than a few informal conversations amongst H Street restaurant owners about using lunch as a way to draw more traffic and attention to the neighborhood.

The way Boundary Road co-owner Karl Leopold sees it, if someone from the nearby Securities and Exchange Commission walks to The Big Board, they’re going to see that Ethiopoic, TruOrleans, and his own restaurant are open for lunch too, and they’ll be more likely to come back. “It’s just organic growth,” he says.

Folkman says part of the reason he opened up Granville Moore’s for lunch now is that he saw how crowded Taylor Gourmet and newly opened H &pizza were just a block away: “They’re bringing the lunch crowd here, so in essence, another reason to open for lunch is because other people are doing it.”

Adding lunch doesn’t necessarily cost much, depending on the restaurant. At Boundary Road and Granville Moore’s, kitchen staff is already at work prepping for dinner service in the morning, so adding lunch means they only need one or two servers (who make most of their wages in tips). Leopold says opening for lunch this past April was a “no-brainer,” because even if there’s not a lot of traffic, the revenue still helps offset the cost of cooks who are there anyway.

That’s not the case at every restaurant. Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street, which is open for lunch on Fridays only, brings in four or five extra cooks (who are also helping with other projects like making soup stocks) plus three or four servers, a bartender, and a manager for lunch.

Estadio also has four extra cooks dedicated to lunch. The Spanish restaurant was open for lunch five days a week for nearly a year and switched to just Fridays (its busiest day) over the summer.  “Every restaurant is its own beast,” says chef Haidar Karoum. “It’s not like they’re all cookie cutters.” The pace of the kitchen, the menu, the number of salaried versus hourly employees, and the number of diners all factor into how much extra time and resources are needed to make lunch work.

While casual sandwich spot Taylor Gourmet on 14th Street does half its weekday business at lunch, management at both Estadio and Pearl Dive say there’s not enough traffic to justify opening their sit-down dining rooms Monday through Thursday afternoons. Karoum also worries about stretching his staff too thin. Lunch brings in smaller crowds, but nearly everyone comes in at the same time; they want to get in and out quickly. That can easily overwhelm the kitchen. “You run the risk of affecting the quality of the food going out,” Karoum says.

Each meal brings in less money, too. Most lunchtime customers don’t order alcohol (a big moneymaker for restaurants) and tend to order lighter. At Pearl Dive, the average lunch check is about $20 per person versus $35 to $40 for dinner. “Dinner rules the roost,” restaurateur Jeff Black says.

Right now, Pearl Dive breaks even for weekday lunch. Black has tried reworking the menu and changing prices to draw in more people, but ultimately, the traffic isn’t where he’d like it to be. Black tries to have a third of his restaurants’ sales come from meals other than dinner. At Pearl Dive, that’s meant focusing on late night business and weekend brunch.

Still, Karoum says opening for lunch is a worthy goal: “The margins in restaurants are pretty small…You’re paying for a lease and paying for electricity and paying for water and all this stuff; if you have the opportunity to put an extra hundred seats in the restaurant, then by all means, anybody in business would want to.”

Eventually, Karoum and Black think the 14th Street corridor will support more lunch business. Matchbox Food Group co-owner Drew Kim is betting on that. He anticipates Matchbox’s 14th Street location will start lunch a couple months after it opens this fall. Ted’s Bulletin, also owned by the Matchbox team, will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the first day it opens this spring.

A third of the Matchbox group’s total business comes from lunch. “We’re banking this is going to be a lunch neighborhood,” Kim says. “If there’s no one open for lunch, there’s not a reason to come over here, but if we open for lunch and build it slowly, I think we can draw the crowd here.”

Lunch traffic may be growing, but dinner is still what punches a restaurateur’s meal ticket. On Fridays, Pearl Dive does about 60 covers for lunch and 400 for dinner. Granville Moore’s three-week old lunch service has brought in anywhere from five people per day to 50. Compare that to dinner, which brings in at least 150 on Wednesdays and 300 on Fridays. “You have to give everything at least six months,” Folkman says. “A lot of people will open and experience what we’re experiencing, which is unpredictable sales, and within the month close down. And they haven’t given it a chance.”

Even if the volume stays low, Folkman says, lunch isn’t going anywhere. “You never know what’s going to happen in this industry, but you’ve just going to stick around and do it.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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