There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Tom Tom made the world a little blurrier every Thursday. That’s when the bygone bar offered “group therapy,” consisting of four beers and four shots for $10. Bartenders sold hundreds of rounds on a night some people stay in.
From 2002 through 2012, the Adams Morgan bar pulled off the impossible. It drew lines while simultaneously earning some of the fiercest one-star Yelp reviews to tarnish the platform. It was a place where flip cup was deemed a sport and patrons sat on couches, padding their stomachs with wings while Stoli Razberi vodka and Bud Light flowed freely.
Tom Tom might not sound like the type of proving ground to birth a bunch of responsible business owners, but it did. Many of its employees who started out as barbacks or bartenders went on to open their own D.C. bars and restaurants.
This watering hole wasn’t alone. Several places that were in full swing during the start of the District’s hospitality boom in the aughts intentionally or unintentionally readied their staff to become their own bosses. They include the Founding Farmers family of restaurants and the original Passenger from brothers Tom and Derek Brown.
Each management team took a different approach to prepare their worker bees to go forth and shape where D.C. eats and drinks today.
When real estate brothers Soleiman and Iraj Askarinam opened Tom Tom where a tapas restaurant once stood, Brian Vasile was on the opening team. “We didn’t change much because we didn’t have a lot of money to work with,” he says. “We added a sound system and put in an old-school Nintendo before it was a thing. Three got stolen before we locked it up.”
He recounts a few famous visitors who came through, including the Bush twins, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, and professional soccer players. “It was a Top 40 fun bar where people went to have fun and dance and maybe meet somebody without feeling like they need to order a $17 drink to feel cool,” Vasile says.
Vasile was at Tom Tom from 2002 to 2007, when he left to open his first bar, Grand Central, located up the street. Later on he’d open Brickside Food & Drink followed by Capo Deli. He’s been keeping a list of what Tom Tom alumni have gone on to accomplish.
There’s Nic Makris who owns Blaguard and Homestead; Gareth Croke and Colin McDonough of Boundary Stone and two locations of All-Purpose Pizzeria; Paul Holder who owned Town Hall before joining forces with another Tom Tom alum, Jeremy Carman, to open The Salt Line; Tony Kowaleski of DC Reynolds and Moreland’s Tavern; and Matt Croke of Boundary Stone and Moreland’s Tavern.
“I was supposed to be a temporary barback for a couple of weeks while a former classmate was on vacation,” Holder recalls. This was in 2002. “I was good at keeping beer cold and stocking ice so they kept me around.”
A recent Georgetown University graduate, Holder was an asset in other ways. He ensured that current students knew about Tom Tom by plastering campus with bright posters filled with puns written in Times New Roman font. “That was the extent of our advertising and it grew from there,” he says.
Camaraderie was required to get the team through late nights keeping the dance floor quenched. “It was a really collegial group,” Holder says. “We all chose to be there. That’s the best way to describe it. Back in 2002, the restaurant industry hadn’t taken root like you see it now. A bunch of us didn’t know if we’d be lifers. But it evolved as such … I got to learn from people who had been in environments where they had to figure things out for themselves.”
Vasile agrees. “We were happy about each other’s successes,” he says. “There was no jealousy. We just wanted the bar to succeed. It’s rare when everyone gets along and there’s not a ton of drama.”
Makris started as the assistant general manager in 2005 and took over the general manager position from Vasile when he left.
“I was 26 when I bought Blaguard, which is rounding the corner on nine-and-half years in business now,” says Makris. “I learned enough at my time at Tom Tom to do it. Or at least I was ready to try. The climate of managers there was so good. I learned so much from Brian so quickly on how to run a business and treat coworkers. I took those lessons and moved on with them.”
Alumni keep in touch on an ex-employee Facebook group, host the occasional reunion, and fight for points in a fantasy football league. Croke reveals that he and Kowaleski even met their wives at Tom Tom.
Founding Farmers and Farmers Fishers Bakers
The bar talent that poured out of Farmers Restaurant Group was prolific. Current and former employees refer to the company as “The Farm,” and some say they’re part of a “farmaly.”
“I’m not going to say it was all me, but it was all me,” says a confident Jon Arroyo. He’s been with Farmers Restaurant Group since the first Founding Farmers opened in Foggy Bottom in 2008. Today he serves as the vice president of beverage operations.
To prepare to launch Founding Farmers, Arroyo attended BAR 5-Day—an acclaimed bartending training program in New York. His class was a who’s who of craft bartenders, including fellow Washingtonian Derek Brown. “I remember all the laughs I got when I told them my plan to open a craft cocktail bar in a 200-seat, high-volume restaurant,” Arroyo says. “People lost their minds.”
Arroyo made some mistakes at first, like putting a mint julep on the menu without a machine to make pebbled ice, but he largely pulled off his plan to bring craft cocktails to the masses.
Those applying for bartending jobs were coming over from Clyde’s or Maggiano’s, Arroyo explains. They needed to learn how to make a laundry list of classic cocktails quickly and with consistency. Arroyo, who calls himself “hard, but fair,” created rigorous training programs.
“I promise no matter what you’ve done this will be the hardest thing you’ve done, but if you make it through, you’ll be fast and make good money,” he says.
People who endured Arroyo’s bartender’s bootcamp went on to open popular bars, lead major bar programs, or represent top liquor brands. Glendon Hartley and Chad Spangler co-own Service Bar. Chu Yi and Devin Gong co-own Copycat Co. and Astoria. Torrence T. Swain and Duane Sylvestre both ran the bar at Bourbon Steak and currently represent El Silencio Mezcal and Campari, respectively. And Kapri Robinson bartends at Reliable Tavern and heads up Chocolate City’s Best—a cocktail competition for bartenders of color.
Hartley was among the first employees at Founding Farmers. He worked there from opening day through 2010 and returned to work at Farmers Fishers Bakers in 2012. “Glendon lived in Rockville but wanted to learn how to bartend,” Arroyo recalls. “He sucked, but he was a very gifted little student. I remember the first day he worked for me. ‘Will you try this drink I made?’ he asked. ‘Before I try it, what’s in a Martinez? Come back and taste me on that drink when you know.’”
“Every single thing about that job was an ass-kicking,” Hartley says. Bartenders start out making drinks for the breakfast crowd, a shift that starts at 7 a.m. Once they pass a certification test, they could move on to working the out-of-sight service bar in the evenings before eventually graduating to the main bar. “It was very challenging, but I would not have gotten that experience if I wasn’t making 300 or 400 cocktails at night by myself.”
Robinson started at Farmers Fishers Bakers at the beginning of 2013. “To get certified to work a p.m. shift you had to make six cocktails within 10 minutes and they had to be spot on,” she says. “It’s like trying out for a reality show.” She passed. Ready for the next challenge, Robinson signed up for Arroyo’s new 90-day Head Bartender in Training Program.
“It teaches you how to manage a bar financially,” Arroyo explains. That means crunching the cost of ingredients, placing orders, and doing inventory. “You’re learning how to run your own business. Anyone can make a drink, but can you make it profitable?”
“I still have my binder,” Robinson says. “It has so much information on how to calculate your costs and organize your bar.” While doing inventory she gave herself a nickname—the keg whisperer. “Counting beer kegs is hard. You have to shake that shit around and feel it out. You have to listen to where the liquid is. We counted every bottle every Monday. Some places do it once a month.”
“I think I’ve worked for 50 or 60 restaurants and that was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had in the restaurant industry,” Hartley sums up. “It was a chore, but we were building something that was going to last and building a future for ourselves and we didn’t even know it.”
The Brown brothers opened the original location of the Passenger in Shaw in 2009. Derek focused on the upscale Columbia Room located in the back while Tom largely held down Passenger. Both bars closed in 2014 only to be revived elsewhere in the neighborhood a couple years later.
Tom says D.C.’s craft cocktail scene was in its “late adolescence” when Passenger debuted. “There was a lot of interest in it and it was growing, but it wasn’t like it is now where bartenders have to have a certain amount of knowledge just to get a job,” he explains. “It was often an afterthought for restaurants to have a cocktail program.”
That meant there was a host of people eager to learn and ready to work, especially women. “From kitchens to the front-of-the-house, sexism prevailed like any industry in the U.S.,” Brown says. “But the restaurant industry being a slow adopter, it left a talent pool that was untapped.”
One of his first hires was Alexandra Bookless. “When she came to Passenger, we let the hierarchy sort itself out,” Brown says. “We trained everybody the same and gave each person the opportunity to step forward and she rocketed to the top. Within a very short time, she was my right-hand woman.”
Soon Bookless was training others, which some probably agreed was an improvement. “My idea of training somebody is usually throwing them to the wolves and then criticizing them until they don’t want to be criticized anymore,” Tom jokes.
Bookless first connected with Derek when he came into Bourbon in Adams Morgan on Sunday nights. “He had a tasting group,” she says. “They would taste new spirits and liqueurs and talk about it and hang out. I always worked that. They let me taste their cool things. One person brought whiskey with a snake in it.”
The experience made her even more interested in pursuing a craft bartending career. She came on board at Passenger and stayed on until the year it closed. After a brief stint in San Francisco, Bookless returned to the District where she is now the beverage manager for the Eaton Hotel, including cocktail bar Allegory, restaurant American Son, and rooftop bar Wild Days.
Bookless ticks off other prominent alumni of the original Passenger: Mola owner Erin Lingle; Mick Perrigo, who left Left Door to lead the bar program at L’Annexe last year; Jamie MacBain, who has worked at cocktail destinations like Daikaya and Bourbon Steak and now represents Diageo Reserve Brands; Cotton & Reed creative director Lukas B. Smith; ANXO Cidery & Pintxos general manager Jade Aldrighette; and Drink Company partner JP Fetherston, who started out as a Passenger doorman.
They keep in touch and call on each other. Bookless just commissioned former Passenger bartender Julia Hurst to make the mugs for the coffee shop inside of the Eaton Hotel. After bartending at hotspots like Rose’s Luxury and Archipelago, Hurst started her own pottery line.
Bookless says Passenger was a formative place to work because of the freedom it offered. “We could try any spirit we wanted, go wild with creativity, and pass that on to our guests,” she says. Specifically, “Tom allowed us the freedom to be creative and Derek was always there with the technical answers when we needed it, so it was a special environment.”
The tradition of freedom transferred to Passenger’s new location at 1539 7th St. NW, according to its former general manager Andrea Tateosian. She’s currently the president of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild. “It’s a great space to go wild creatively and take initiative to be part of the community,” she says.
During the 2019 government shutdown, for example, Tateosian and her team made way for furloughed federal employees with bartending experience to pick up shifts. “There aren’t a lot of places where you have that kind of trust of ownership where you can go for it and make things happen,” she says.
But before she worked at the new Passenger, which opened in 2016, Tateosian patronized the first one.
“I was really excited about the prospect of working and managing a bar that had meant so much to me in my early days in D.C.,” she says. “The original Passenger was filled with talent and it was a great party.”