Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Food, Wine & Co…and chef.

Food, Wine and Co.
7272 Wisconsin Avenue Bethesda, MD 20814
There are some very unusual things about Food, Wine & Co.  No. 1 on the list is the chef, Michael Harr.  Michael and I have known each other since his days at Butterfield 9. That, in and of itself, isn't strange.  What's strange is that he doesn't like having his picture taken, he's missing the ego.  He likes keeping a low-profile. I'm a pesky blogger, so I took it anyhow.
What else is strange?  Is it the smooth bar with the stools lined up straight?
The wine room and it's big collection of bottles?
The kitchen where everything is lined up just right?
The hand-cranked meat slicer that looks like it just came out of the box?
IMG_7054 (1280x960)
The silverware lined up in an alternating pattern?
It's actually all of these things put together that is strange.  This place looks brand new.  I know they're busy and I know they opened years ago, but they keep it in pristine condition.  That bodes well for the food.
This was my truffle burger with truffled cheese and mayo with a Parmesan crisp.  The burger was excellent as I am a truffle whore.  Just to get it out of the way, the one thing that didn't work was the Parmesan crisp.  It wasn't crisp, it was hard.  Not a big deal and the only flaw of the meal. 
My dining companion had the soft shell crab.  This crab was treated with the lightness and respect due to such a lovely bug.  Very lightly seasoned and quickly sauteed.  The flavor of the ocean came through as it should.
Garlic potato crisps with parm were light and crunchy.
The dessert was the winner of the week as far as tasty restaurant dishes go.  No, it is not lost on me that I was here on 4/20, but I promise you there was none of that going on.
The bomb is a Chocolate gianduja, dulce de leche, hazelnut dacquoise, zinfandel macerated cherry.
Chef Harr, well done.  I look forward to seeing what else is up the sleeve of your chef's coat soon.

Thanks for reading folks.
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Monday, April 23, 2012

Bandolero Take-Over: Muy Caliente!

Fun times were had by all at the Bandolero take-over of the spot formerly housing Tackle Box in Cleveland Park. 
I'd never been to Tackle Box before, so I can't say how much of what was done to the place, but it looked good.  The kitchen was sparkly-clean.
I saw some familiar faces as I came in. From left to right:  me, Mike Isabella's publicist Jenn Resick and food writer extraordinare Nevin Martell.  This photo was shot by City Eats photographer Elizabeth Parker.
This is the requisite wacky bartender.
George Pagonis of Aurole fame is going to head the kitchen here.
This is Bethany and Jonathan Umbel with James Horn.
Mike Isabella chatting with Nevin Martell
First cocktail of the night:
We started out with the three dips from the Bandolero pop-up at 918 F St., but they were different.  Mike had obviously taken the time to tweak the recipes a bit and they were better for it.
Crabby tacos!
Crispy Mahi
Fru-fru drink being quaffed by Jason Hanny.  It was pretty tasty.
The Ernest Hemingway margarita made with fresh grapefruit and lime.
This was my favorite of the night.  The Lamb.
Restaurant work ain't easy...that's Elizabeth Parker to the left and James composing himself in the forefront.
Steak.  Yum.
Spicy mango gelatto.  Really?  Yep.  It works too.  First bite?  No detectable heat.  2nd bite?  Just a tingle at the back of your throat.  3rd?  A little stronger.  Very pleasant.
Last but not least, Elliot Drew.  He's going to be running the kitchen at the new sandwich shop that Mike is going to open as soon as he's recovered from Bandolero.
Best of luck Mike & crew.  I'm sure you'll kill it Cinqo de Mayo.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Think Local First DC seminar on Ingredients for Success - Opening a Restaurant in DC Part III

Part III of Ingredients for Success - Opening a Restaurant in DC
Branding, Greening, Hiring/Retaining, Doing Business Locally
Click the links for Part I and Part II
Branding - How important is it?
Joe Englert said there are three things you need to spend money on:
  1. Good shoes
  2. A good bed
  3. Branding
Look to youth when deciding what outlets to spend your money on.  A lengthy part of the conversation focused on using interns for various duties, but particularly social media. They are in-the-know about what's being used before older folks catch on.  Keep your eye on them though, as sometimes you'll get a wild one in the group.  You don't want them damaging your reputation.

Marry your brand to a good organization that has lots of followers/members.  DC is full of them.  Find a group you can identify with hold on to them.  Make them part of your family.

Think about what you want to do and stick with it.  It's important to stay relevant, but don't spread yourself too thin chasing the next big thing either.  Your core, once established, will let you know how they want to maintain their connections to you.

When doing anything promotions-wise make sure your staff is engaged and on-board.  Customers can smell exasperation emanating from staff.

Logo and web presence - Make sure it is representative of your brand and the business and what customers can expect when they walk in.

Integration is important - you have to be sure that your brand is pervasive and consistent.  All output should have the same look/feel.  Be sure to copyright your branding.

Engage your neighborhood.  Find an employee who's also and artist and can do some great things with sidewalk chalk.  Get your neighbors talking (in a good way).  Give them a reason to stop in.  Don't underestimate the authenticity of small moments.

Find your brand ambassadors and engage them.  These are the people who like you, and like what you do, and are willing to tell people about it.  They will bring their friends in, and encourage those friends to bring theirs.  Treat them well and make them feel like part of the team.

Greening: Be a steward for your community.

There are many ways you can help the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) when you're opening and running your restaurant. 

Try to buy from local farmers as much as possible.  It will support your local economy.  You'll need to be creative, and your menu will have to be seasonal.  Obviously you can't buy EVERYTHING locally, but make the effort where it's possible. 

Use LED lighting.  It's more expensive up-front, but it will save you in energy usage and bulb-replacement costs/effort.

Think about composting.  www.fatwormcompost.com can set you up.  It takes a little more effort on the part of the servers and kitchen folks, but it reduces your garbage pickup dollars and output.  They take it away and do the work for you at a flat rate based on the number of bins and number of collections. They wipe out the bins for you as well so there's no mess.

Make your green initiatives part of your story as well.  People will feel better about being part of something that has more environmental responsibility.  List what you do to be good to the environment on your website or in the restaurant, or both.  Be transparent and tell the story.

Hiring and Retaining Staff:  How to find and keep good people.

Washington DC has some great resources to help you staff your restaurant.  There are numerous programs through One City One Hire and ROC-DC that provide assistance in training employees, sourcing them, and helping you make the most of the resources available at no cost to you.
Not mentioned in this seminar was another great placement program available through DC Central Kitchen. They train people to work in kitchens through an extensive program and it's a great way to get people back to work who need jobs.

Outside of the programs mentioned above, the more hospitality focused resources for finding employees are Craigs List, The City Paper, The Chef Link, and local food blogs.

Many restaurant owners will poach good people from surrounding businesses.  People come and people go from restaurant to restaurant, but always keep in mind how you'd feel if someone did it to you.  Just a thought.

Retaining staff is another issue entirely. Andy Shallal had a lot to say on the subject and I was impressed with his dedication to keeping employees engaged and motivated.  For starters Andy provides his full-time employees with paid health insurance.  His labor costs are higher than your average restaurant, but he feels that the investment is worth it when it comes to reduced turnover and training.  His training pay is $10.25 an hour for FOH, $11.25 for BOH and he provides paid sick leave as well as vacation.
He has regular meetings with staff to keep everyone in the loop and engaged and provides ongoing training.  The training encompasses not only hospitality skills, but life skills that apply outside the restaurant.  If you want to keep your folks happy, make them feel appreciated.  Value their opinions, educate them, and empower them.

Closing points were sometimes funny, often poignant, and a few were contradictory.  This just goes to show that there isn't one specific formula that will work for everyone.  Find your groove and make it yours.  Here is what the experts had to close with:

Trust your instincts and don't be outsmarted by experts.  Listen to what they have to say but don't be swayed easily.

Purchase the real estate, then open the restaurant; if not, make sure you understand the lease.

Understand the work-life balance and leave time for your family.

Bring your family into the business because it's all-consuming.

Savor and understand your failures.

Figure out your weaknesses, and hire someone who does those things well.

I would like to end by saying thank you to Think Local First DC for providing the opportunity to attend this seminar and to the participants and presenters.  This was a great event and I look forward to attending more.

If you have any questions please feel free to comment or send me an email @ dsmelson@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Capital Grille - Got Beef?

Capital Grille
601 Pennsylvania Ave NW
(at N 6th St)
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 737-6200

Washington DC is home to some flashy folks, some fast-talking politicians, and some great places to go talk about your latest power-play with well heeled friends. The Capital Grille is one of the places to have that discreet, yet celebratory conversation.  It's apparently good for families too, as I found out when I had the opportunity to eat there last week.

My friend Jason and I hung out at the bar waiting for our third.  I had a Manhattan and Jason went with a very dirty martini.  Good starts.

This is executive chef Brian Thomas.  He's been with them for quite a while and knows a thing or twenty about beef and wine.  The particular bottle we were discussing here is  a 2008 Freemark created as a collaborative effort between Freemark Abbey's Ted Edwards and The Capital Grille's Master Sommelier, George Miliotes.  For every bottle purchased $25.00 goes to Share Our Strength.

When we went to sit down this was on our table.  No, that isn't a crayfish, the shrimp around the platter were huge, so perspective is lacking.  There were oysters, the lobster, shrimp, and some huge lumps of crab.

This was the second course.  Two perfectly cooked lamb chops.  If you happen to catch Brian at a charity event he's sometimes serving these.  Don't pass on them.
 This was the hot appetizer plate.  Nicely prepared Rhode Island-style calamari with hot peppers and garlic, corn salsa, and awesome crab cakes.  After this course, I was done.  However, we still had the main course to contend with.
I'm not sure how many ounces this puppy was, but it was huge.  We all ordered the prime, dry-aged porterhouse.  I am a bit of a purist with steaks so I got mine with a Montreal rub cooked medium-rare.  Definitely one of the top steaks I've had in DC.

This is what they looked like on the table.  Had to throw that picture in for some perspective.

A wonderful meal.  There were families all around us with young kids (behaving surprisingly well) and everyone was having a good time.
As far as restaurants go, memories are made based on more than just the food.  The service has an impact as well.  The service here was exceptional.  Our server was on the money and could read us like only a well-seasoned professional can.  He never interrupted us when we were talking, he paced the meal perfectly, was friendly, exceedingly knowledgeable about the food and wine, and was definitely the kind of server that you'd hope to have one of in your own restaurant.  From the looks of things there was more than one like him here.  It's tough to keep people like that and takes a concerted effort on the part of the management of any company.  My hat is off to you folks.  Well done.  Hope to be seeing you again soon.
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Monday, April 9, 2012

Think Local First DC seminar on Ingredients for Success - Opening a Restaurant in DC Part II

Part II of Ingredients for Success - Opening a Restaurant in DC
Where to open your restaurant and tips on getting it financed.
Click here for Part I

There was some great info put forth by the panelists regarding how to decide WHERE to put your resaturant.  Some of it is below.

Don’t choose a location based on the proximity to your house.

You can choose to work with a broker. They have done a lot of the homework below already and are experienced, but you have to keep in mind that they make money regardless of the type of deal they’ve worked out for you.

Choosing a location in an up and coming neighborhood may be a bargain as far as rent is concerned, but if you do the math and consider foot-traffic and being busy during the week vs. only being full on Friday and Saturday nights you may find it to your advantage to choose a location in a higher rent area. Look at your business plan and your estimated sales per seat. Can you make it work if you’re less than full all the time?

Base it on the following criteria:

• Population – office and daytime as well as night time. Spend an evening hanging out by the front door. Does it have the feel your target audience will feel comfortable with?

• How many households are with ½ a mile?

• What is the disposable income for those households?

• What are the food expenditures for those households?

• What is the Metro pedestrian count?

• What is the vehicular traffic count?

• What is the average age?

• Are there nightlife/activity generators in the area? Entertainment, theaters, universities, hospitals, other restaurants, what is the retail density? Is it a tourist area?

• The Washington DC Economic Partnership provides free resources to help you with your choices here: http://www.wdcep.com/tools-research

• Some of the suggestions from the group included the Rhode Island Ave. N.E. development area, Lower Georgia Ave. N.W. corridor, Ward 5, and Anacostia.

Regarding site-specific criteria once you’ve chose a general area:

• What is the size?  Is it big enough to do what you want to do?  Does it have enough seats to make the numbers in your business plan work?  Does it have too many for your production capabilities/desires? Can you adjust your business plan to fit the space?  If not, find another space.

• What kind of exposure does it have? We’ve seen multi-million dollar flops because they were a block in the wrong direction or on the second floor of a building with no exposure.

• What is the frontage?

• What is the ceiling height?

• Is the HVAC suitable for a restaurant with a kitchen putting out lots of heat?

• Does it have the proper gas lines? 2.5” lines are required for a commercial kitchen.

• Is the electrical up to spec? It needs to be 225 amps of 120/208 volt, 3 phase-4 wire service.

• Does it have parking? If not, it had better be near a Metro stop or in a high pedestrian-volume area.

• Does it allow signage? Check with your landlord. Also see the note about historical districts in the first post in this series.

• Co-tenancy: give preference to super regional destination oriented venues; key national tenants; transportation complexes.

• Outside seating…we’ve got some nice weather here. It’s so DC!

• Is it highly visible from major access points?


The majority of the people on the panel who voiced an opinion said it’s a good idea to buy the building rather than lease. It gives you some extra stability and proves to the banks that you’ve got skin in the game.

Consider the following regarding leasing:

• The typical commercial lease is what they call Triple Net. That means the tenant pays base rent and expenses including common area maintenance (CAM), taxes, and insurance.

• Space size – identify spaces that support what you want to do. Don’t lease excess space unless you know you’re going to need it in the short-term.

• Base Rent – Annual rental amount. Always check the rents in the area to make sure it’s in line with comparable properties around yours. Find out what they are BEFORE you start negotiations.

• T.I. Dollars – Tenant Improvement Dollars. Always negotiate to get the landlord to contribute to the cost of the build-out.

• Lease/Rent Commencement – Lease commencement will begin upon lease execution, but rent commencement should begin 4-6 months after lease execution. This gives you time for design, build-out, and permitting.

• Term – Length of the lease. Take into consideration the cost of the build-out and amortization period, along with the amount of time it takes to build up the business. Typical terms are between 5-10 years. Always attempt to negotiate option terms equivalent to the primary terms.

Other lease negotiation points:

• Try to get a cap on your CAM costs – helps to control expenses throughout the terms of the lease.

• Percentage rent – use as a negotiating point if you’re trying to get lower base rent or escalations.

• Assignment rights – In the event that you want to transfer the business to someone else because it fails, you want out, or you want to bring in a partner, this needs to be in the contract.

• Make sure there is no rent acceleration in the lease. This is the right of a landlord to accelerate the rent in the of default.

• Restriction of hours – be sure that the lease does not specify hours that you’re not willing to conform to. If you’re trying to open a nightclub and can’t serve past 11:00pm you’re in trouble. Always get the maximum number of hours of business you can specified on your lease as you may want to open early or close late for special events. Make sure you do the same on your business licenses.

• Signage – Be sure you are allowed to have signage that presents your business in the manner you choose.

• Use – Be sure that your use clause is flexible enough to be able to improvise your product mix or business plan as needs warrant.

• Termination rights – Make sure you can terminate without major penalties and without being liable for remaining rent in the event that the business fails.


There are multiple ways to finance a start-up. Some start with the 3F’s. Friends, Family and Fools. Once you’ve exhausted those, you have to go to a bank or run up your credit cards, or be independently wealthy. Usually the vanity restaurants opened by the latter fail as there isn’t the passion driving the business that scrappy independents have.

What do banks want to see?

• 3 years of financial statements and tax returns

• SBA504 financing requires 10% equity

• Credit-debt service 1.2X at a minimum

• Source of repayment – Will you have the cash flow?

• Collateral – what are you willing to put up? You may be able to amass collateral that isn’t worth anything to anyone else, but still has value as collateral.

• Guarantee – who is going to guarantee the loan? Try not to sign a personal guarantee. If you do and the business fails, you might lose a lot more than the business.

• You have to have cash in the deal to show commitment.

That’s it for location and leasing. In part III I’ll go over the build-out, marketing/branding, and more.

Stay tuned!  Part three is coming soon and will focus on

Friday, April 6, 2012

Lunchbox - Doing it right

50 Carroll CreekWay
Frederick, MD

What's wrong with a talented chef whose usual check averages would make any restaurant owner jealous opening up a reasonably-priced sandwich shop?  Nothing that I could see.
Bryan Voltaggio opened Lunchbox in Frederick last year and brought a neat concept into a great little spot along Carroll Creek in Frederick.  You can see my post about the tasting menu at Volt, his first restuarant, here: Table 21 at Volt

They put the sandwiches together, then use panini presses to warm them up. 

There is a decent selection of sodas and Route 11 Chips to choose from.  Bryan's house-made brownies are killer if you get them fresh.

My wife and I both got the Grilled Cheese.  My son got the Nutella with Banana.  He's an addict. I know one reviewer stated that the fillings were minimal here, but I felt they were right on.  You don't always need a pound of filling for something to be tasty. It's a bargain at this price point.

The mushroom soup was a stand-out.  It's nice to have something on the menu at a quick service place like this other than chicken noodle, but then again, this is Bryan Voltaggio.  What did you expect?

The breads are thick and tasty.  Bring some home if you like them.

The spot is a little off the beaten path unless you're familiar with the area.  If you're driving down the street look for The Faux School, you'll see that first.  Then walk along the canal and you'll see Lunchbox on the right.

Pretty view from the bridge.

All in all, nicely done.  It gets a little smokey in the restaurant when it's busy, but you can always take your sandwich and go sit by the creek.  Make sure you try the brownie!
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