In June of 1987 I took a waiter’s job at Paolo’s in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. General Manager Michael O’Grady was destined to be my mentor and friend. In October 2004 Michael passed away. He was a charismatic pied piper who inspired hundreds of managers, servers, and bartenders. This lesson honors him and explores the practices that made Michael extraordinary.
One summer day I walked into a dusty construction site at the corner of Wisconsin and N Streets, NW, in Washington, D.C., looking to turn some tables and make some tips. I was greeted by none other than Michael James O’Grady, the general manager. With a mischievous smile and a firm handshake, he handed me a hard hat and led me on a magical mystery tour of what was soon to be Paolo’s, an American-Italian restaurant. I got the job and the rest is history. But, my most lasting impression was how Michael’s inspired us to not just serve food and drink but to deliver extraordinary experiences.
1. Restaurant as Theater. “It’s one thing to have a vision—it’s another thing to make it happen. For Michael, Paolo’s was theater where he orchestrated great performances for fun and profit,” says Tom Girard, former dining room manager.
2. Tickets to the Show. Michael’s vision was that the restaurant had many stages within a stage—the first being the French Door Patio. There, guests had front-row seats to the Georgetown show. They were entertained by a parade of senators, congressmen, actors, lobbyists, diplomats, street hippies, and world leaders while luxuriating in a bowl of Tortellini Rose and a bottle of Chianti.
3. The Thick of Things. Next was the booth, bar, and cocktail arena. Here guests could marvel at the marble tile and granite high-top cocktail tables flanked by four booths packed wall to wall with guests. Pink halogen lighting showered down on guests looking as though they’d come straight from a Botox treatment, rubbing shoulders with Robert Downey Jr., Greg Lamond, and Washington Post editor, Ben Bradley. When servers Matt or Julie waited on dignitaries guarded by the “suits” with shades and earpieces, guests felt close to the heartbeat.
4. Bar Stars. To the right was the impressive 26-seat marble-topped bar with guests struggling three deep to grab a J-Paul’s Ale from our pony-tailed long-armed bar star, Eric Brisben. As if lifted up and passed around by a front-of-the stage rock crowd, guests reveled in the hustle and bustle, mingling in the perfume, sweat, and repartee of scores of strangers.
5. Pizza Pizzazz. On the next stage, Mario twirled made-from-scratch pizza dough and then fired his masterpieces in D.C.’s first brick wood-burning pizza oven. “Make sure you get Mario to show off his goat’s cheese and our homemade duck sausage pizza,” Michael reminded his cast of hosts, servers, and managers.
6. The Vino Show. “Then gesture over to the right and point out the wine display. Don’t forget to tell guests our list is all-Italian. Direct them to the whites in the cooler and the reds in the rack. Then open the menu and turn it over and point out our classic Ruffino Ducale Reserva Chianti,” Michael continued.
7. The Main Event. He directed hosts and managers, “Make sure guests take a breath and watched their step when entering the dining room. Blond wood floors playing off mirrors and woodwork and an open kitchen manned by Chef Adam and his supporting cast was impressive. Chef Adam and his crew wearing logoed baseball caps and speckled whites hustled up signature Shell Bowls with flaming splashes of Vermouth and white wine. The Thai busser contingency led by Jess and Hank, darted around setting, clearing and tidying tables and steaming up cappuccinos with breakneck speed and precision. Sales maven Wayne lead the server charge touring the menu, offering wine samples, referencing the pizzas oven and seductively presenting the dessert tray. Michael directed traffic from the expeditor station.
8. Hidden Treasures Revealed. In the end, Michael said, why should guests have to go on a treasure hunt to find our restaurant’s treasures? Paolo’s success was not an accident. Michael fastidiously choreographed his “live show daily” by constantly casting, rehearsing and directing every player in the front and heart of the house. Everyone knew their lines and positions and when, where, and how to enter and exit the stage. Michael made each moment count. Everyone was both actor and salesperson who created experiences that were entertaining, educational, and enriching.
9. Backstage. Behind the scenes, Georgetown-ites pooh-poohed the idea of opening a hip California-style Italian-American restaurant. Over and over we heard “this will never work.” After all, Georgetown was known for its bar scene. But Michael had the guts to stick to his guns. Later the naysayers were slipping the host, Lloyd, a fifty to get in the door.
People came from all over the world to study our success. What made us the busiest restaurant per square foot in 1987? Up and down Wisconsin Avenue, owners of retail stores asked how we found such great people. Michael replied, “It’s not just about finding great people, but painting a clear picture of what you want—then developing the talent that’s already there.”