On, Tuesday, May 14th, industree premiered its speaker series at The Hamilton Live, where guest speakers Hilda Staples, Co-Owner of VOLT, Family Meal, LunchBox and RANGE, Casey Taylor Patten, Owner of Taylor Gourmet and Tom Meyer, President of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, shared their successes and struggles with developing and maintaining a restaurant business. As guests sipped on bloody mary's and mimosas, and nibbled on fruit, biscuits and muffins, each of the speakers "performed" solo onstage before gathering on stage together for a Q & A session.
First up was The Hamilton's own Tom Meyer, President of the Clyde's Restaurant Group. Tom's path was a little different from Casey's and Hilda's, in that he joined Clyde's rather than created it, and he acknowledged this fact during the Q&A session by graciously expressing his admiration for Casey and Hilda, and their ability to create such successful businesses from nothing more than a desire to create what they liked. Even still, Tom's tales of how he's been able to keep Clyde's atop the go to list for both tourists and locals alike provided the most food for thought.
I paraphrase Tom's vision behind Clyde's success by stringing together many timeless phrases Tom quoted throughout his presentation, quotes that are too often forgotten, such as "If it's not broke, don't fix it." With this in mind "you're either getting better or you're getting worse. You have to keep things fresh" as "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Tom also explained that a restaurant is proof of the gestalt theory. All employees, everyone from the porters to the managers and fellow diners as well, contribute to a great restaurant that makes it better than the sum of its parts. Who wants to sit in a restaurant with no customers? After my paraphrase you may think Tom's really good at quoting classic phrases, but he's even better at coming up with quotable phrases of his own. Tom described Clyde's as a place where everyone feels comfortable, "where a cab driver talks to a man in a tuxedo about the Caps loss." (That's the next best thing to everyone knowing your name!) Furthermore, in one of my favorite quotes from the event, Tom stated "it's better to eat a a bar then drink at a restaurant."
Next up was Casey Patten of Taylor Gourmet, who revealed that it took a job at Bennigan's at the age of 15 to make him realize "the back of the house is a hell of a lot more fun than the front of the house." Casey may not enjoy the front of the house, but he appears to greatly enjoy presenting in front of an audience (or maybe he just really dislikes podiums). Where the other two speakers stood at the podium during the entirety of their individual presentations, it only took Casey 30 seconds to request a wireless microphone so he could do his thing on stage.
In a story familiar to many, Casey and business partner David Mazza came up with the idea for Taylor Gourmet after they couldn't find the quality hoagies they were looking for.With an $80,000 budget, Casey and David opened up the first Taylor Gourmet on H St. NE. The part of their entrepreneurial path that may be less familiar to most were the struggles with the Bethesda location. Casey only vaguely referenced hiccups with the Bethesda location before a follow up question during the Q&A session got him to reveal that he and his partner didn't really understand the Bethesda market (it's no H St NE or K St!) With a customer base in Bethesda made up of families and diners who knew what they wanted, Casey and David soon realized they needed to tailor (pun intended) their menu to the audience at this specific location.
Though the boys of Taylor Gourmet may have originally missed the mark when opening up the Bethesda location, they have know how to hit the bullseye when it comes to employee recruitment and development. Casey explained that the secret to success is promoting from within and providing quality training to build a family and a brand, noting that two of their current general managers started off as porters sweeping the floor. (Tom Meyer also expressed a very similar sentimenet during the Q & A period, sharing that beyond numerous donations, the way Clyde's truly gives back to the community is by developing hourly employees into managers). Taylor Gourmet has also hit the bullseye when it comes to social media, using Twitter and Facebook to "make your customer laugh twice a day." As a follower of Taylor Gourmet on Twitter, I can confirm that this strategy is executed perfectly. I know only good things will come from spotting the Taylor Gourmet logo on my Twitter feed.
Lastly, Hilda Staples, Co-Owner of VOLT, Family Meal, LunchBox and RANGE, was the most charming in her recounting of the birth of VOLT. When biographies about Hilda state, "After meeting Chef Bryan Voltaggio in 2009..." by "meeting" what they really mean is "stalking."
Hilda explained that her secret to success was her naiveté. Hilda had never previously worked at a restaurant, but as a bored mom ready to meet people in her new town of Frederick, MD, she decided the best way to meet people was to open up her own bar. After her original bar concept of pickles, nuts and cocktails was shot down by Frederick County, who explained to obtain a liquor license she would need to serve a full menu containing soups, salads, lunch and dinner, Hilda went back to the drawing board aka collected recipes from her “Barefoot Contessa” cookbooks, compiling recipes that would form a full menu she could resubmit to Frederick County. Though Hilda now had a fully developed menu, she soon realized she would need a chef.
While looking through a magazine, Hilda and her husband came across an article about the top chefs, and her husband honed in on the little detail that noted Bryan Voltaggio was from Frederick, MD. At that point Hilda knew Bryan had to be the chef at her bar. Let the stalking begin! Hilda recounted how she first called Bryan at Charlie Palmer Steak house at 7 pm on a Friday evening, explaining to the host that it was an emergency (a clear violation of customer etiquette). Though Bryan rejected her call that first night, since the host told Hilda to call back, giving her the direct line to the kitchen, Hilda continually called Bryan, e-mailed Bryan, and repeatedly dined at Charlie Palmer in hopes that Bryan would come out to speak with her. Hilda noted that Bryan“must have had a bad day,” when he finally decided to e-mail her back and and express his interest in going forward with Hilda's plan for a bar under the conditions that "I'm not doing your menu" and "don't ever tell me what to cook." Hilda's bar concept turned in to a fine dining concept, and VOLT was officially born.
VOLT got off to a rough start during the market crash in 2008, and Hilda basically ran out of money to run the restaurant, but after Bryan left to film Top Chef shortly after VOLT's opening, things quickly changed upon his return. Furthermore, Bryan soon introduced Hilda to Mike Isabella, who requested that whatever she did for Bryan, she do for Graffito. The rest is history.
~~~~~To stay up to date on upcoming Speaker Series events, visit http://www.dcindustree.com and follow industree on Facebook and Twitter. These events are not-to-miss for anyone looking to network within the hospitality industry. Even I, who went in to this event more with the mindset of a consumer, and less of that of an industry member, greatly enjoyed learning about the development of Clyde's, Taylor Gourmet and VOLT. I didn't think it was possible for me to like some of these restaurants more than I already do, but I have so much more respect for each of these restaurants now that I've heard about some of their struggles, and how they've overcome them. It's always great to be able to connect a personal story to your favorite businesses. I was lucky to be able to squeeze two hours out of my work day to come to the launch of the speaker series event, and I'm already planning to come up with a reason to squeeze two hours out of my 9-5 to attend the next event in July.