After 5 eateries, restaurateurs go retail with ‘Society Fair’


ALEXANDRIA, VA: Julien Shapiro, butcher and charcutier, arranges sausages at Society Fair, a food market from restaurateurs Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong in Alexandria, VA. (Jeffrey MacMillan)
March 2, 2012

Meshelle Armstrong and her husband Cathal operate five restaurants in Alexandria — ranging from the boisterous gastro-tavern Virtue to the four-star Restaurant Eve. So it surprises some loyal patrons that the team’s newest addition, Society Fair, isn’t a restaurant at all.

“The first week we opened, people complained that they couldn’t get hot food,” Meshelle Armstrong said. “Sometimes people expect that the experience one location provides is the same as another.”

Instead, Society Fair is a complete departure from the rest of the Armstrongs’ food empire — part high-end market, part cafe. It also offers cooking demos of food from the Armstrongs’ other restaurants for classes of up to 10 people at a time.

Armstrong is one of a number of D.C. restaurateurs who, having tested and proven one type of restaurant in the area, branch out into a different concept entirely.

“Multiple concepts is a very common strategy if it’s a well-known chef,” said Bob Goldin, Chicago-based vice president the Technomic consulting firm. “It appeals to the consumers who don’t want to eat at chains, because different concepts are perceived as being more individualized and localized.”

In the Armstrongs’ case, the newest branch came out of a desire to sell more of the edibles they offered at their various locations, and to give the restaurants’ butcher and baker more room to prep for each day.

“All our charcuterie and bread is hand-crafted, but Restaurant Eve was so small that they needed more space,” Armstrong said. “And customers were always asking, ‘Where can we get your bread?’ ”

After the bread and meats are prepared at Society Fair, they’re taken to the other restaurants, which are all in Alexandria’s Old Town. Customers can also purchase fresh loaves, wheels of cheese and pates in the store, or order coffee in the adjacent coffee bar.

“This came out of the fact that a place like Society Fair was lacking, and it was a place I wanted to go,” Armstrong said. “Our group does different concepts because there are always different markets for each one.”

More and more new concepts

Armstrong is not alone in her urge to diversify. D.C. has one of the strongest restaurant markets in the country, with sales projected at $2.56 billion this year, up 3.3 percent from last year, according to the National Restaurant Association. Virginia’s and Maryland’s sales are also projected to increase by 3.3 and 3.7 percent respectively, although those states’ statistics capture more than just the immediate Washington area.

“Food is going to be the fastest-growing retail sector for the Washington market,” said Cynthia Groves, a retail consultant with Newmark Knight Frank. “It’s a town that works late, so people are out eating late.”

The vibrant restaurant sector has encouraged some local restaurateurs to expand their offerings after existing locations prove popular. Ty Neal, CEO of the Matchbox Food Group, already runs four of the classic-American Matchbox restaurants, but he recently expanded to two new eateries — a new Ted’s Bulletin, a 1930s-themed spot, and DC-3, a hot dog place.

Last fall, Jeff Tunks and partners Gus DiMillo and David Wizenberg opened Burger Tap & Shake next to District Commons. Jeff and Barbara Black, of BlackSalt, Black’s Bar and Kitchen, Black Market Bistro, and Addie’s, opened Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Logan Circle.

Ruthless restaurateurs

In addition to Restaurant Eve and Society Fair, the various offerings under the Armstrongs’ EatGoodFood Group include a pub-food “chipper,” a speakeasy, the tavern Virtue and the rustic-American Majestic Cafe, which the group took over in 2007.

It all started with Restaurant Eve, which they opened in 2004. At the time, both Meshelle and Cathal were working in the restaurant industry — she as a manager at Gabriel Restaurant and Cathal as the executive chef at Bistro Bis — and they had been dreaming about starting their own venture together for years. When they opened the half-bistro, half-multicourse Eve, they named it after their daughter, who was three years old at the time.

“We had been looking for a spot for two years, and we finally found a space that could accommodate both of our styles,” she said.

The way Armstrong scouts locations for new restaurants sounds like something out of a spy novel. She drives to a new neighborhood, sits in her car and watches for pedestrians pushing strollers.

“Strollers show that there are young families in need of a place to go and eat,” she said. “If I see that, and that there isn’t much around, I see that there’s a need.”

She allows two years in between opening new concepts in order to adequately gauge just how busy a season will be — at least twice over. (Society Fair was a special case, opening just eight months after Virtue because a building the Armstrongs had been eyeing suddenly became available.)

Each of the EatGoodFood branches are run like individual restaurants — both legally and in practice. Each is its own LLC, meaning that one restaurant’s profitability doesn’t boost or hinder another’s.

Every day Armstrong scuttles between the restaurants, checking in, but she says the secret to juggling so many restaurants simultaneously is her Tiger-mom approach to staff training.

The Armstrongs hire people who have virtually no experience so that they can drill servers in the group’s highly specific techniques. Staffers are tasked with studying various ingredients — blue cheese, for example — and then giving research reports to the entire group. Those working at the more casual establishments don’t have it any easier — the intensity level is the same at the fast-food chipper as it is at the four-star Eve, Armstrong said.

Managers, chefs and marketers from all six restaurants meet in separate groups biweekly, and Armstrong expects daily sales reports from each staff. (So far, Eve breaks even, while the others earn a profit.) The managers are expected to be hyper-dedicated, learning the intentions of the owners and applying them to their individual locations.

“We surround ourselves with quality people,” she said. “And we can’t find them, we create mini-mes.”

The delegating style is an improvement over the early years at Eve, when Meshelle and Cathal each worked 16-hour days at the new establishment and were sometimes at each others’ throats.

“There were times when we would scream across the bar at each other,” she said. “I definitely do not recommend that.”

No ordinary ‘chipper’

There are some perks to the multi-concept arrangement. For one thing, the bigger a restaurant group gets, the more leverage it has when buying raw ingredients, and the more they can save by consolidating back-office operations, such as advertising, Goldin said.

What’s more, multiple concepts give a restaurateur the ability to cross-sell items from the various concepts. For example, Society Fair sells cocktail mixes from PX, the Armstrongs’ speakeasy.

Armstrong said the biggest challenge in operating all six at once is relaying the differences between the restaurants to loyal fans — for example, that there will be no confit of fennel bulb at Eamonn’s, the pub-food spot, even though it’s owned by the same company as Eve.

“Recently I got an e-mail from an Eve regular who was at Virtue for the Superbowl,” she said. “They were upset that it was loud and noisy.”

To help manage expectations, Armstrong has started describing each restaurant’s atmosphere and cuisine, in detail, on the menus. It helps to prevent confusion and maintain the original character of each place, she said.

For example, the Web site for Eamonn’s warns with winking Irish slang, “This is not a British chipper, or any other chipper, this is our chipper, if yis don’t like it... hump off.”

Follow Olga and OnSmallBiz on Twitter.

This story is part of our special series on small business success, which will be featured in Capital Business on Monday, March 5.

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