Drive Time for Dining Moguls: D.C. Restaurateurs Get Around to Stay on Top of the Game

By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj might shake more than 100 hands as he makes the rounds of his six dining rooms every night, but his visits are not just for the meet-and-greet. He's also inspecting.

Take one evening at Ardeo in Cleveland Park, where he has stopped to check in with executive chef Alex McWilliams. He examines an appetizer, a salt- and citrus-cured scallop with roasted red plum relish and a dehydrated ginger garnish, and declares: "Let's make the presentation less busy. Let's make it more compact." They talk. McWilliams makes adjustments and hands the plate to the server.

It might seem like a small thing, but when you're trying to keep restaurants profitable, especially during an economic downturn, details add up, as Bajaj knows all too well. As owner of Bombay Club, 701, Oval Room, Ardeo/Bardeo and Rasika, he spends just about every evening walking or driving his Mercedes from restaurant to restaurant, making sweeps through the kitchens and dining rooms. "I work the room," he says, front of the house and back.

Gus DiMillo makes a similar sweep via Circulator bus and on foot. A partner in the Passion Food Group -- which includes Ceiba, TenPenh, Acadiana and D.C. Coast in the District and the recently opened PassionFish in Reston -- DiMillo leaves for work at 9:30 a.m., catching the bus near his Glover Park home. When he is dropped at 14th and K streets in Northwest on one particular morning, he checks in on a new hostess at Ceiba, then heads down to TenPenh for a meeting, taking calls as he walks toward 10th and E. "This is my mobile office," he says, pointing to his briefcase and BlackBerry.

Bajaj, DiMillo and several other area restaurateurs -- Michael Babin of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, Dan Mesches of Stir Food Group and Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's, Brasserie Beck and the newly opened Brabo -- seem to be defying odds. Not only are they staying afloat and even making profits despite the toughest economy in decades, they are opening restaurants.

Besides their attention to detail, the owners have another thing in common: They run multiple units, each of which can benefit the others, creating advantages in staff training and management, stronger buying power and a leg up in real estate transactions.

They need all the advantages they can get. According to the National Restaurant Association's 2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast, released in December, one in three people nationally report not going out to restaurants as often as they would like. So far, Washington doesn't seem to be part of that trajectory. Lynn Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, calls the local industry "amazingly resilient" despite closings in the suburbs.

Although Commerce Department figures show the national economy shrinking at a rate of 3.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008, Moody's Economy predicts a 2.5 percent economic growth in the Washington area between mid-2008 and mid-2010.

According to the Commerce Department, the federal government, private education and the health-care industry are the most stable sectors of this economy. Those sectors will probably be responsible for much of the growth in the region, since they create much of the area's employment.

Technomic, a Chicago-based consulting firm that serves the food industry, estimates that full-service restaurants nationally will see a 6 percent drop in revenue this year. But the National Restaurant Association projects a modest 1 percent growth in the industry nationwide for the year, particularly for full-service restaurants that offer value without detracting from a dining experience.

The recession does come with some benefits. As was the case when DiMillo arrived in Washington in the 1970s, there's no shortage of job applicants now, which his restaurant group discovered when it placed an employment ad on Craigslist for servers at D.C. Coast. After three hours and a flood of applicants, DiMillo took the ad down.

Mesches of Stir Food Group notes similar trends. "We have seen an uptick in people looking for jobs, but no floodgates have opened yet," he says. This month, Mesches and his partners plan to open Potenza, a rustic Italian restaurant, in the former Woodward Building at 15th and H streets NW.

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