Todd Gray’s daily routine was starting to resemble an office courier’s. He’d hop on his bike and scoot between his restaurants at the Corcoran, in the NoMa neighborhood and at his home base on Connecticut Avenue. Between the pedaling and the paperwork at each place, Gray was probably spending as much time out of the kitchen as in it.
Gray’s expanding empire forced the chef and his business partner wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray, to re-examine their priorities. What was most important to them?
“It becomes an identity crisis,” says Kassoff Gray. “What is Todd happiest with? What is Ellen happiest with?”
The couple decided they would happier without the three-meals-a-day hassle of Todd Gray’s Watershed in the Hilton Garden Inn, which opened in April 2011; the operation had become a drain on their resources and their ability to focus on more creative endeavors in the kitchen and dining room. So a little more than a week ago, the Grays turned Watershed’s daily management over to the Dallas-based Culinaire.
“There’s no way we wanted to close Watershed, because it’s a great thing,’ says Kassoff Gray. “Instead we brought in a partner.”
“The way it is now,” adds Todd Gray, “I’m freed up.”
The couple signed a three-year deal with Culinaire, Kassoff Gray says, in part because the company is privately held and in part because it has a genuine interest in cuisine, not just in improving the bottom line of restaurants.
The deal is “just to see how we like each other,” Kassoff Gray notes. ”We’re dating before we get married.”
Regardless of its culinary bent, Culinaire brings bulk buying power to the management of Watershed. Given Culinaire’s ability to purchase ingredients as well as accounting/payroll/insurance services at group rates, the company has already shaved an estimated 35 percent off operating costs, Kassoff Gray says. That’s a significant savings for a restaurant serving a still-emerging NoMa neighborhood.
“I give up the loss I might have incurred in the first year,” Kassoff Gray says of the deal.
Kassoff Gray notes that there could be some disagreements in the coming weeks or months as Culinaire balances its twin objectives of reducing costs and staying true to Todd Gray’s quality, often regionally sourced ingredients. She, for example, could imagine arguing with Culinaire over purchasing Anson Mills grits vs. a cheaper alternative, which could compromise the chef’s flavors.
Still, handing over Watershed’s management will allow Todd Gray to devote more time to other ongoing projects: his cookbook (Sourced columnist David Hagedorn is a collaborator on it), his sandwich-heavy menu at the Muse at the Corcoran, his gig as culinary director with Sheila C. Johnson’s Salamander Hotels and Resorts and further recipe development for all of his restaurants. The chef plans to use the Equinox kitchen as his laboratory for most of the projects, including his ongoing work overseeing Watershed’s food.
“I’ll still run my menus” at Watershed, Gray says. “And I’m still responsible for the flavor profiles.”
He just won’t have to pedal over there on a daily basis.