Ann Marie Taylor presides over a lavish display of bacon-wrapped filets, boneless strip sirloins and "ground gourmet" burgers.
As area manager of the Omaha Steakshop at Chevy Chase Pavilion -- one of Omaha Steaks International's new retail shops located in some of the region's most fashionable shopping settings -- Taylor finds herself pushing pricey, Midwestern corn-fed beef to residents of a largely chicken and pasta town.
It would seem quite a change from a long career in fashion, first as a model and most recently as a district manager overseeing 15 women's clothing stores. She argues, though, that the match between Omaha Steaks and a dedicated subscriber to Women's Wear Daily is not that unlikely.
"It's like a fashion show everyday," said Taylor, 50, a Delaware native who on her 16th birthday took a job at a Wanamaker's department store in Wilmington. "I have the people here opening the boxes of steak like they're opening a box of diamonds."
Indications that the retail clothing business was heading for hard times made the transition from fashion to food relatively easy, but it has required some education.
She traveled to the company's Omaha headquarters, watching the process by which the meats are aged, hand-trimmed and "flash frozen." She said she has become a believer.
The Midwestern bravado that corn-fed beef is better than any other is true, Taylor said.
"When I brought home my first box of filets, I couldn't believe it," she said.
Omaha Steaks general manager Todd Simon said: "Someone like Ann Marie, who is new to the business, is really an asset. She knows sales because she has always done that, but she can work with our customers more as one of them." .
The entry of Omaha Steaks into the Washington area market began years ago with a strong mail order presence, public relations director Marilyn Pred said.
The decision to open a kiosk at Union Station and upscale retail outlets, called Omaha Steakshops, on Rockville Pike and at the new Chevy Chase Pavilion represents an effort to seize on the Washington area's reputation as a place for gourmet tastes and the ready cash to support that appetite.
Taylor said business at the stores, which opened in October, is split between customers used to ordering Omaha Steaks and customers unfamiliar with the company's 38-page color brochure and selections such "The Nobleman," an assortment of 24 filets, strip and T-bone steaks for $244, and "The Elegant Evening," a package of six filet mignons and six boneless strips for $130.
"We settled on an area with people who have some discretionary income," Pred said.
The new Washington area stores, which offer mail-order or take-out boxes of frozen meats, are the company's first outlets outside of the Omaha area and Texas.
Simon said the privately held business, begun in 1917 by his Soviet immigrant relatives, had sales of $90 million last year. Since then, the company has adjusted its inventory to the times, in recent years adding frozen, prepared chicken and fish dishes.
Taylor said she is not worried that a national decline in meat sales might translate into a problem for Omaha Steaks.
"When people do buy meat they're buying a better quality and they'll pay a little more," she said.
It is that appeal to quality that Taylor believes will make Omaha Steaks a fixture in the Washington area, even though it is a market often more preoccupied with the presentation of meat than the meat itself.
For example, a ride up Chevy Chase Pavilion's glass elevator reveals that Willows restaurant is serving a veal chop stuffed with sage, goat cheese and pine nuts.
On the lower level, Taylor and her Omaha Steakshop staff are dispensing their selections unadorned, generally suggesting only the slightest seasonings.
Simon said his employees must be versatile because Washington consumers like to enjoy both the fancy and the plain.
"That won't change, but Ann Marie is accustomed to the tastes there and it's better in that case to not have someone from the Midwest, where the meat choices are simpler," Simon said.
In her Fair Oaks home, Taylor continues her longtime hobby of cooking. When pressed, she said that her favorite cut is now London Broil, but that could change as she experiments.
"It's fun when you can help someone enjoy something in a new way," Taylor said. "Just the other day, I discovered a little nutmeg and tarragon on the steak makes it taste wonderful. The customer, she loved that."