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Culinary Stars: Roundtable & Rumble

“If you want to open a restaurant, open your dream restaurant…or do something else.”

That’s just about the best advice you’re ever going to get about opening a restaurant. “Be passionate. The most successful restaurateurs didn’t open a concept. They opened their dream.”
So exclaimed Yama Jewayni, co-owner of the Daikaya Group. He served on a panel on June 19 with five other RAMMY nominees for 2017 Restaurateur of the Year. The panel was held at the historic Uline Arena in DC’s NoMa neighborhood, not far from Union Station. Featured were Katsuya Fukushima, also of the Daikaya Group, Ari Gejdenson of the Mindful Restaurants Group, Ted Xenochristos of the Cava Group, Inc., and Jason and Max Kuller of Fat Baby, Inc. Sponsored by RAMW and NoMa BID (Business Investment District), these culinary stars shared their best ideas about the DC restaurant scene. Prompted by moderator Abha Bhattarai, a business reporter for the Washington Post, they dished on the business of food and the future of the restaurant industry in DC.

Why DC?
First asked why they chose the DC area to start their restaurants, all the panelists emphasized the local connection. Ari Gejdenson was born raised in SE Washington. His mom reminded him of that when he played professional soccer and opened a restaurant in Florence, Italy. Right after the fire at Eastern Market, she asked, “Why are you helping Florence, Italy? You need to be helping DC!” He took her advice and came back to the area to open Harold Black, a Capitol Hill speakeasy named for his grandfather, Ghibellina, named after the street where he lived in Florence, Denson Liquor Bar in Penn Quarter, and Sotto, underneath Ghibellina, along with several new Ivy City locations.
Yama Jewayni agreed. “I’m FROM Washington!” he noted. After traveling and learning in Japan, he opened the Japanese restaurant of his dreams — Daikaya — in Chinatown, followed by restaurants Haikan and Bantam King. Max Kuller, too, had DC connections due to a father who had opened the DC restaurant, Proof. “DC chose me!” Max Kuller said. He worked at Proof and then became assistant general manager at Estadio on 14th Street. “It was the beginning of the movement on that block,” he notes. Now 10 years into the DC restaurant scene with Estadio, Proof, Doi Moi, and 2 Birds 1 Stone, he says, “Many go other places, but my roots are firmly here.”

Challenges of expanding
The panel delved into expansion, specifically, how do you expand into a new cuisine, a new neighborhood? How do you introduce yourself? Several emphasized how key it is to understand the “soul” of the neighborhood and its cultural character. Ari Gejdenson noted that when he got started, there were few restaurants on 14th Street due to drugs and crime. “It’s great to bring back the street,” he said. “It’s an exciting place, with lots of industrial buildings. It has a cool feel.” Several, including Ted Xenochristos, Cava Group’s founder and manager, have opened restaurants in other cities, including New York and LA, and found it difficult to learn the rules, the taxes, and the environment. “In DC, I know the neighborhood. There is a gut feeling…I like this spot, I like this landlord. Once you leave, it gets much more challenging.”
Uber was cited as a big plus in potential expansion. As the restaurant business “moves east” where there is more, and cheaper, restaurant space, people can easily get there by Uber, and they are willing to do so. Max Kuller said, “Now, with Uber, people can get there in 12 minutes. This changes how we look at cities and restaurants.” Jason Kuller agreed. Because of Uber, “the outlying crowd comes in to eat in the city on weekends.”

Dealing with competition
Post reporter Bhattarai queried: A lot of you are at the forefront, but now competition is intensifying. How do you keep customers coming back? On this, the speakers were all on the same page. Ari Gejdenson said, “That IS the biggest challenge. If you deliver a quality experience every day, there is a better chance people will come back.” Yama Jewayni agreed, saying, “It’s a hospitality business, and people notice. Treat them right, they come back. You’ve got to put yourself in the customers’ shoes.” His partner Katsuya Fukushima noted, “Competition is high. You have one chance only. When people come through the doors, you have to capture them then and there with good service and good food.” Cava Group’s Ted Xenochristos said unequivocally, “Service.” The owner Greek tapas restaurants continued, “It has to be enjoyable and effortless for people to eat out. Good service is absolutely key.”

Keeping good staff
But how do you keep a good staff, asked Abha Bhattarai, when competition for good help is at its peak? Ari Gejdenson said, “It’s one of the most challenging things out there right now. We don’t just work on running restaurants…we run life. The closer we are to our employees, the better.” Katsuya Fukushima added, “Once you get them, you gotta make them happy. I’ve got guys with me for 15 years. They are like furniture..they are so a part of me now!” Max Kuller emphasized that staff must be treated as part of a team. “That’s the competitive advantage — team relationships. As employees come in, they see that and want to stay in the fold.” Jason Kuller added, “Someone else can pay a higher salary, but culture keeps people on a team. You’ve got to focus on this.”

Is DC really a food city?
Reaction to this question was swift! Katsuya Fukushima exclaimed, “It’s crap! It’s always been a food city! We have (food) idols here. We got particular recognition in 2016, but we’ve had it forever.” Max Kuller cited the rich range and scope of DC’s ethnic restaurants, giving a shout out to the Spanish restaurant Arroz as an example of an expanding group of Spanish restaurants in the city. He credited Chef José Andrés of Jaleo fame (and much more, of course) with initiating and supporting this trend. Ted Xenochristos said there is an explosion of fast casuals in DC. “This is happening across the country, and they are looking to DC for guidance,” he said, citing Sweet Green as an example. Jason Kuller said, “DC was relatively dissed, and it was comparatively conservative. But it’s now a completely different city. Don’t compare DC with New York and LA. It’s its own city!”

Faves?
And, when asked about their own favorite restaurants, the answers were: Estadio, Two Amy’s, La Fondita in Hyattsville, Obelisk, and Ravi Kebab. The panel was followed by a cook-off featuring RAMMYS Chef Finalists: Sasha Felikson of Doi Moi, Jerry Hollinger of the Daily Dish, Miranda Rosenfelt of Amy’s Middle Name, Rob Rubba of Hazel, and K.N. Vinod of Indique. And the winner of the Rumble for DC’s best — via a poll taken on popsicle sticks, no less — Chef Sasha Felikson of Doi Moi! In the unique and interesting industrial space of the Uline Arena, DC foodies had a great chance to learn and socialize in advance of the big RAMMY celebration on July 30.

About the Author

LISA KEATHLEY is the managing editor of Foodservice Monthly.

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