Steve Salis has a phrase that he uses to describe his approach to business: “Everything is under attack.”
The co-founder and former chief executive of &pizza doesn’t suffer from siege mentality. The phrase is just Salis’s way of saying that every facet of every business he owns and operates — a growing list that includes the small Ted’s Bulletin chain, which he recently bought from Matchbox Food Group — is subject to an unblinking scrutiny, no matter how successful they already are.
During a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Salis referred to his attack plan repeatedly, whether talking about Ted’s Bulletin or the barbecue that pitmaster Rob Sonderman serves at Federalist Pig, another Salis venture. On one level, Salis’s audits are a proactive way to keep improving his businesses. On another level, the audits are a reflection of Salis’s concern that his businesses may already lag behind in a hospitality industry that’s evolving by the day — and by every data point that reveals a new trend to exploit.
Salis says, straight up, that he has no interest in being a standard restaurateur. The era of empire builders — restaurateurs who amassed a wide number of concepts under a single umbrella group — belongs to previous generations. Salis, 34, has different ambitions. Yes, he owns Federalist Pig, Ted’s Bulletin, Kramerbooks (and its Afterwords Cafe) and still holds a position with &pizza, but Salis also is also a home builder and a developer. His goal is to combine the talents of his various businesses and create an all-in-one community in which people live, work and play.
“Right now, a lot of our [businesses] have been focused on what I call the ‘play’ side of the ecosystem. These are the restaurant and leisure businesses that require discretionary income,” Salis said. “We really want to focus on the big picture of how can we potentially be the first company to build a multidimensional, multifaceted ecosystem.”
You’ll have to forgive Salis’s penchant for business-speak. He throws around terms and phrases that sound as if they were swiped from a marketing executive’s PowerPoint presentation. What Salis means by “ecosystem” is, apparently, a development that features housing, office space, retail shopping, dining and more. It’s like a village inside a city, all potentially built by Salis and outfitted with Salis businesses, like Ted’s Bulletin, Federalist Pig, Kramerbooks and other potential acquisitions and new companies.
“There’s a high chance that those things will be taking place,” Salis said of all-in-one developments. “We’re in talks with a lot of developers, and I’m a developer as well. There are some things that you will most likely be hearing about in the coming months around how to take things to the next level. . . . We’re not going to do things that are always safe. We need to continue to push forward.”
But for now, Salis is focused on more immediate projects: the makeover of Ted’s Bulletin, the small chain that trades on nostalgia and family fare, and the renovation of Kramerbooks, the beloved Dupont Circle institution that Salis purchased last year. (Incidentally, Salis declined, through his PR person, to share the results of his legal team’s review of complaints at Kramerbooks, which led to the resignation of the old management team.)
Salis and his crews are conducting a top-to-bottom review of Ted’s Bulletin, from restaurant layouts to products, to see what needs to be improved at the chain’s five locations. One area Salis wants to improve is dinner service, which lags behind breakfast and lunch in terms of sales.
“The business today does approximately 80 percent of its revenues systemwide during breakfast and lunch,” he said. “I think there’s been a lot of hubris prior [to us] getting involved in the business as it pertains to the brand. I don’t think there’s been a lot of advancements, so we need to push the envelope and really focus on dinner.”
Which is not to say that Salis is satisfied with the breakfast and lunch side of Ted’s. As the co-founder of &pizza, Salis understands how quick-service restaurants operate, and he wants to make the “limited-service part of our business more dynamic.” That could mean anything and everything, from adding more savory products in the bakery to upgrading the bar program for those customers who just want to drop in for a late-night drink.
One imminent change is the hiring of a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef for the bakery. Salis can’t name the person yet because the contract has not been finalized. But he offered a brainteaser on who it might be: The pastry chef is both local and not local.
“They’re here now, but their claim to fame was out of New York, working with a world-renowned chef,” he said. The baker and pastry chef “really got a lot of their publicity as a result of working closely with that person.”
Salis is also set to launch a major renovation of Kramerbooks next year. Negotiating the renovations was no simple task.
“Kramerbooks is in three different buildings, with three different landlords,” Salis said. “You could only imagine trying to get everyone on the same page to influence what our agenda is for the brand. It’s a very complex, very complicated situation. You got three buildings that are very old. At least 100 years old, so they come with all kinds of interesting things. It’s like a jack in the box.”
Salis’s goal is to upgrade the space, the products and the cafe to prepare it for the next 40-plus years. Kramerbooks was launched in 1976, the year of the country’s bicentennial, and was thought to be the first D.C. business to combine a bookstore with a restaurant. Salis is promising that Kramerbooks 2.0 will be “a high-sensory cultural experience.”
What he’s not promising: that he’ll hire a big-name chef for Afterwords Cafe.
“I have not signed on a chef, and I’m not entirely sure we will,” Salis said. “One of the things about me is that in most cases — you could argue Rob [Sonderman at Federalist Pig] is the exception — I’m very big on letting the brands stand for themselves. I’m more of a brand guy. One individual should never be bigger than any of our brands, and that includes me.”
So does Salis have concerns, then, about hiring a famous pastry chef at Ted’s?
“Not necessarily,” he said. “Let me be very clear: I’m not shying away from bringing in other big names. There are a lot of big names we can work with. What I’m simply saying is, how do they play a role in our business?”
At present, Sonderman is the biggest name among the chefs in Salis’s restaurants, and the pitmaster’s responsibilities could increase in the future. Salis said there has been a lot of interest in expanding Federalist Pig. “There’s a chance that you might see some additional Federalist Pigs,” he said.
Can we assume that future locations of Federalist Pig will feature a real wood smoker, and not a gas-wood hybrid oven, like the one in the Adams Morgan restaurant?
“One million percent,” Salis said. “We want to be able to up the ante a bit, such as our equipment, our smokers and other things. We were unfortunately subject to some of the site conditions that we inherited [in Adams Morgan], but we made it work. But as I continue to say, everything is always under attack, and that means, how can we produce even better barbecue than we’re producing now?”