Big-wigs in the past have tried getting rich off the success of the Inn at Little Washington, chef Patrick O’Connell’s celebrated restaurant in central Virginia, by opening restaurants or shops down the street and hoping the money would start pouring in.
To this point they all walked away from their plans, tails between their legs.
None perhaps had the maniacal idea-sprouting, real estate expertise and salesmanship of Jim Abdo. An Ohio native and serial entrepreneur who started his own pizza chain out of college, Abdo first made his name in D.C. real estate by flipping homes in Dupont Circle and Logan Circle.
He’s taken on much larger projects since then, including a massive project in partnership with Catholic University, called Monroe Street Market, and the Gaslight Square condominium project in Arlington.
Now he’s focused his résumé for re-using old buildings in Washington, Va., the small town known as Little Washington. He vacationed in the area for 2o years before deciding to bring his work there, but once he made the decision he went after it full bore.
He’s bought centuries-old properties up and down Main Street, courted support from Washington mayor John Fox Sullivan and chef O’Connell, then plotted historic rehabs with partners including designer Jeff Akseizer, furniture maven Debbie Winsor, baker Brian Noyes and restaurateurs Daniel O’Brien and Frederik de Pue. In all, Abdo and his partners have purchased 10 properties through roughly $2.6 million in investments.
The first toe in the water was Abdo’s attempted rejuvenation of a bed and breakfast into the White Moose Inn, a sleek, minimalist place to stay for those who can’t afford — or who want a different experience from — what is famously offered a few blocks away at the Inn at Little Washington.
The White Moose opened this spring, and Abdo says it’s just the beginning. He spoke to Capital Business recently about why he is transitioning away from his focus on the big city to rebuild 1800s-era buildings in a tiny corner of Rappahannock County.
You’ve built your career by overhauling urban D.C. corridors. What brought you out to rural Virginia?
I was introduced to this county by a gay couple who lived in the condo building that I lived in in Dupont. They invited me to come out, they were renting a house out here. I came out and saw this county for the first time and my jaw dropped. This was in the early 90s. I said, ‘This is exceptional. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve laid eyes on.’ And I started digging into why it is as beautiful as it is: The fact that it’s one-third national park that can never be built on; the fact that they’ve instituted these very strict zoning requirements that prohibit subdivisions and all the things that could cause this to be like any other suburban county.
When did you buy your first house out here?
I bought it from [newsman] David Brinkley in 1992 or 1991. It was after a decade [going] there, and I loved that property. I used to romance my wife — the woman who became my wife — out there. I have always been a man of extremes. It’s just my nature. I either want to be right smack in the urban core or I want to be out where no one can see me and I don’t see anyone.
When did you start thinking about doing commercial business in Little Washington?
That just hit me about two or three years ago, after the recession. This place saved me mentally during a very, very tough period. Having this was a relief as a place where my wife and my kids and I could just come to and turn it off. It was just beyond important to me. I work really hard and my mind never stops. It can be exhausting just for people to be around me.
Does this mean you’ve done your last condo deal?
Not at all. If you look at Gaslight Square [in Arlington] we’ve done two of three phases. We’re looking at doing the last phase there, it’s another $30 million of development. Myself along with my partners at Bozzuto and Pritzker Realty, we have sites at Monroe Street Market that have the option to be condo or rental. I have other sites that I own around town where I think the best use will be condo. But my focus at my company right now is on portfolio properties that I’m repositioning, that I’ve owned for a long time, that are going to stay in my portfolio in perpetuity. On the speculative development side, just by chance, most of what I’m doing is hotel, apartment, retail and probably another 40 condominium units over the next 12 months.
This is where you came to get away from work.
Right. I do not have cell phone service here to this day. You cannot get a cell phone call. Up until six months ago I didn’t even have Internet service and now with a 9- and an 11-year-old it’s not even an option, because I can either keep my kids or they’re going to leave and I’ll never get them out here. So I do have Internet access out here, but Little Washington was never something I was focused on developing.
What I realized is right after the recession, I was seeing even more of a decline in that little village. I was seeing buildings right on Main Street that were empty. I have always had the utmost respect for Patrick O’Connell. And I’ve said this before and I mean it wholeheartedly. I really believe he is a gift to this country. He is that exceptional.
Tell me about how you approached him.
I met him at John’s [Sullivan, the town’s mayor] house. It was the first time we actually just sat down. And we talked for three hours. And it was about our philosophies and our history and things that we’ve encountered and done. And it was like we were kindred spirits that were completely on the same wavelength. And to be across from somebody that you have such admiration for — I was completely enamored by him. I recognized just what a great talent he was.
How does that translate to your plans?
Well, I looked at that town and I saw it as in spite of his great talent, in spite of his significant holdings there, I saw this corridor that was literally going in the opposite direction. It was hollow, it was vacant, it was empty. There was no pulse. No pulse. And I thought to myself, I’ve been going into corridors with bigger problems than this before. And I’ve also gone into corridors that didn’t have a catalyst like the Inn at Little Washington. And why isn’t that properly being leveraged? .. People are staying on campus, in the compound. None of that is trickling into the economy for the town. And I said, I’ve got to figure this out. There needs to be a rhythm, a rhythm of life that extends beyond just what Patrick has. And I want that clearly to be good for him and good for the town. I’m not coming here to ever try to be Patrick O’Connell and I’m certainly not coming here to try to compete with Patrick O’Connell. I want to come here and help elevate the town and make it something that is extremely compatible to him. I want more people to access his brilliance. He is a brilliant chef. But is [his inn affordable] for a lot of people? A lot of people that are young, a lot of people that are working, a lot of people with young families. They’ve read about, heard about him, but I don’t want them to miss out on an opportunity to experience one of the finest culinary artists the country’s ever had.
How do you think what you’re doing will help?
I think it complements Patrick tremendously and I also think it creates additional room nights for Patrick. Right now because of the limited number of activities and the limited number of opportunities for dining and retail there is only a one-night stay opportunity at Little Washington. People will check in, they will have that dinner, and then they will leave. When I create a rhythm, a town with a pulse, where now I can go look at furniture, I can go to a design meeting, I can to R.H. Ballard’s store, I can go to the shops at the Inn, I can dine at Red Truck Bakery, I can dine at Tula’s, I can dine at the two other restaurants Jim Abdo is contemplating with top talent from the city. Now I’m saying, let’s make a weekend of Little Washington. Or let’s make a Thursday and add a Friday. Suddenly the town starts to have relevance just beyond Saturday.
How much have you invested so far?
Millions. And when you see what we did with the White Moose Inn, we didn’t cut any corners. I wanted to try a new product that had never been tried in the countryside before.
What has your reception been like here?
Initially I think people were thinking, ‘Gee we need to look into this guy a little bit more.’ We’ve heard about him. We’ve read about him in the paper with what he’s doing in the city but holy mackerel now we’re talking about a serious developer that wants to come and invest in this little town. What does that mean? And so as people do the research and they recognize that I have this staunch commitment to historic preservation, to adaptive re-use, to being very inclusive of people, to being very transparent to the way I do business, they felt very reassured but they still wanted to meet me and hear that from me. And not unlike how I operate in the city — I don’t walk in to these community forums with six attorneys. It’s me, and if you want to throw eggs and scream and yell then we’ll deal with it.
Do you know how to run a hotel?
It was a process finding the right person [to manage it] and during that process, we were open for business. So guess who the innkeeper was? Jim Abdo and Mai Abdo [his wife]. I’m running a company in Washington and I’m racing out here to the Red Truck Bakery to pick up baked goods. I’m serving people, I’m busing tables, I’m scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees, so is my wife. And we’re looking at each other going, what have we done? This was our country getaway.
How will we know if what you’re trying to do is successful?
By walking these streets now, feeling them, watching the lack of rhythm and the lack of pulse that exists, and then coming back here in 24 to 36 months and just seeing what it looks and feels like.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz