Open Season: Restaurateurs Go Big Quickly in Expanding Their Businesses
It’s opening day at the Greek-inspired 14th Street NWrestaurant Kapnos, and chef/owner Mike Isabella admits he’s already going gray. For the first time, I notice white hairs salt the 38-year-old’s gelled-up ’do and scruffy beard.
“It’s adrenaline and it’s stress,” Isabella says of opening new restaurants. “You work every day, open to close. And it’s a lot. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of stress, but it is high energy. You’ve got new cooks on the line, all that stuff. It’s intense.” That intensity seems to be catching up with Isabella five hours before the first diners arrive. With a quart container full of water in hand, he tells me he’s fending off a cold.
It’s easy to see why he might be worn down: With Kapnos and G, opening next door in the coming weeks, as well as Graffiato, Bandolero, and his Edison, N.J. outpost G Grab and Go, Isabella will have launched five restaurants in about two years.
I ask him if he finds opening new restaurants addicting. “I enjoy it, but I also sometimes don’t enjoy it,” he answers. “It’s fun to do, but it’s a lot of work. It definitely gives you a lot of gray hairs. I have ’em on my beard. I have ’em on my head. That’s what it does to you. It definitely takes 10 years off your life.”
Then why so many so fast? Isabella points to his mentors and former bosses: Stephen Starr (32 restaurants) and José Andrés (15 restaurants). Both have concepts across an array of cuisines, just like Isabella. “Things sometimes happen quicker than you think they do,” he reasons. “It seems like Graffiato was ages ago.”
Isabella isn’t alone in his quest to go big, fast. Whereas a past generation of restaurateurs may have waited a minimum of two or three years before opening a second restaurant, it’s become fairly common for even first-time or newbie operators to open multiple places within months of each other. And they’re not settling for one or two dining rooms to their names: They’re striving for half a dozen or more.
“It’s a sickness,” admits Joe Englert, who’s opened about 20 taverns and bars, including H Street Country Club, The Pug, Granville Moore’s, and most recently Vendetta. “Everybody should sit down and go to a group psychiatry meeting.” He says a chef in Italy would be perfectly happy to open one 40-seat restaurant and execute the same 10 dishes for 20 years. “Nobody in the restaurant business in D.C. could be in The Who or Hootie & the Blowfish, touring and playing the same shit over and over again.”
Englert has a name for this contagion infecting restaurateurs everywhere with early onset of expansion fever: “Food Network virus.” It’s an appropriate diagnosis, given that being a “successful” restaurateur is no longer just about managing staff and cooking good food; it’s about book deals, interviews, TV appearances, and PR. All the biggest names in the industry—Andrés, Michael Mina, Wolfgang Puck—have at least a dozen restaurants. It’s become rare to be famous with just one or two. To be a brand, you need an empire.
“We’re all sort of guilty of believing we can duplicate success,” Englert says. “If you have one hit, you think you can relive that honeymoon.”
Beyond the ego of it, there’s also a business case to be made for cranking out restaurant after restaurant (assuming you can afford it). In a recent much-discussed piece in the New York Observer, food writer Josh Ozersky opined about how food blogs and media have become a hype machine. To remain under the fickle spotlight and stay relevant amid the constant churn of content, Ozersky argued, savvy restaurateurs fall into a “preventative rhythm, creating wonderful restaurants every two years or so, thus guaranteeing the continuing success of their older efforts, which are, at least, then bathed in the reflected light of their cuter baby brothers.”
I ask Isabella what he thinks of that idea. “It does help,” he says. If you have one restaurant, the first year is usually when you get the most publicity, he says. “It’s your job as a chef or an owner to keep it going, to keep your name out there. And it does help when you are opening more concepts, because every one’s linked to each other.”
Keeping buzz alive is not only critical for attracting diners, but also retaining staff. Restaurateurs say part of the reason they expand is to give their employees opportunities to move up rather than move on. That’s particularly crucial now, with the shortage of experienced staff in D.C. provoking restaurants to poach aggressively from one another.
“Part of building an empire in a company is that the people who have worked for you and paid their dues have the opportunity to step up and take the bigger positions,” says Spike Mendelsohn, who opened Bearnaise, a new steak frites restaurant in Capitol Hill last Friday.
Mendelsohn plans to open his third Good Stuff Eatery in Georgetown in the next couple of weeks, with a fourth coming to Philadelphia. He’s also actively seeking to open a second We The Pizza, which would push him over the half-dozen mark; he opened his first restaurant (Good Stuff Eatery) five years ago. If all goes well with Bearnaise, Mendelsohn sees it expanding nationally as well. “You’ve just got to strike when the iron’s hot,” he says, echoing a common refrain from restaurateurs. “Food’s hot, and people are expanding, and people want to pour money into it.”
I ask Mendelsohn how big he sees his restaurant business growing. “As big as it can grow until it gets crushed,” he says. But for him, it’s a means to an end. “My grand plan is hopefully in five years I’ll be in Maui surfing, opening up a breakfast place, and making smoothies for Hawaiians and taking the afternoon off.”
Another restaurateur expanding operations rapidly is Fiola owner Fabio Trabocchi, who, with his wife Maria, opened their second place, Casa Luca, on Friday (the same day as Kapnos and Bearnaise, coincidentally). Their third, Fiola Mare, is scheduled to open on the Georgetown waterfront this fall. That’s three high-end restaurants in two and a half years.
“This is the surprise baby,” Maria Trabocchi tells me from the dining room of Casa Luca. “It’s like being pregnant with one and the doctor tells you, ‘No, you’re having twins!’” She explains that Fiola Mare was already in the works when the owner of Againn, the previous tenant in Casa Luca’s space, told them the British gastropub was closing. With the massive CityCenter development coming in across the street, the Trabocchis couldn’t resist. “We said, ‘We’re crazy already, why not do it now?’” Maria says.
Maria argues that there are greater forces at play when it comes to restaurant expansion. “The city is demanding that growth,” she says. “I don’t think it’s us as restaurateurs.”
Diners demanding the growth helps, but it’s the investors willing to bankroll new restaurants that really push it. Most restaurants are funded primarily by individuals, not banks, and with the foodie bug sweeping the city, there’s a new allure to owning at least part of a restaurant. The operators I spoke to say it’s become easier to find investor money in recent years. “These are like the lawyers coming home to roost,” Englert says. “They watch Food Network at night and dream about opening their own place and replicating grandma’s tortellini over and fucking over again…. It’s the fetishization of food. They’ve made it such this appealing obsession that that’s what people are throwing their cash into.”
But the obvious question is what gets sacrificed as a result of the restaurant gold rush. At what point is a restaurateur spreading him or herself too thin? When does quantity usurp quality? “Opening two or three in quick succession, I really don’t know how it’s successfully done,” says Passion Food Hospitality restaurateur and chef Jeff Tunks, a partner in seven restaurants, including DC Coast and Acadiana. “You have to have a great support staff and people that are trusted and have the same kind of ownership eyes and same set of pet peeves.”
Passion Food Hospitality has tried to spread its new restaurants out every two to three years. But in the past two years, the group had three openings: Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, District Commons, and the adjoining Burger Tap & Shake. Tunks says he’d rather be known for running consistent restaurants than the quick fanfare around an opening.
“Everybody loves honeymoons,” he says. “But it’s the reality of the long haul of the marriage that separates the men from the boys.”
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery