To call Isabella Eatery, set to open in December inside Tysons Galleria, a game changer is an understatement. Not very long ago, mall food meant Auntie Anne’s pretzels and, if shoppers were lucky, a Chinese restaurant that handed out free samples of orange chicken on toothpicks.
Chef Mike Isabella’s dining hall will feature outposts of his full-scale restaurants including Arroz for tapas and bomba rice; Graffiato for focaccia pizza and antipasti; Kapnos Marketa for gyros, spit-roasted meats, and dips; Pepita for tacos and frozen margaritas; Yona for sushi; and, for raw bar lovers, a version of Requin. It will also include a coffee shop, cocktail bar, and retro ice cream shop serving egg creams.
“Isabella Eatery is going to be the foundation for my company,” Isabella says. All managers and chefs will train there before taking posts in Isabella’s 11 full-scale restaurants in the region. “It’ll be a culinary school for us,” Isabella says.
The offerings at Isabella Eatery draw inspiration from Spain, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Japan, and beyond, demonstrating that Isabella has a grasp of wide-ranging cuisines. But Isabella’s portfolio is diverse in other ways too. Under the umbrella restaurant group Mike Isabella Concepts (MIC), the Top Chef alum also runs ballpark stands, airport restaurants, a partnership with lunch delivery service Plum Relish that supplies office workers with bento boxes from the Kapnos menu, and a large-scale event catering operation.
“We’ve grown really fast,” Isabella says. “Our company is not even six-and-a-half years old.” Chefs by nature are restless and always looking to bring something new to the market and Isabella is no different. But his expansion strategy prioritizes getting his food in front of as many people as possible instead of wowing an elite few. “I want to hit more people, touch more people,” Isabella says. “I don’t want to hit 1,000 people a week. I want to serve millions of people a year.”
Isabella is one of several restaurateurs in the District that are rapidly diversifying their brands—a strategy that’s markedly different from expanding on the same plane. Instead of introducing one fine dining restaurant after another like Fabio Trabocchi or opening a host of upscale restaurants like Michael Schlow, these diversifying restaurateurs are adding more fast-casual concepts into the fold; setting up stands at farmers markets; building pop-ups to incubate fledgling ideas; and entering the grocery market.
And it’s not just empire-builders with major financial backing like Isabella, ThinkFoodGroup’s José Andrés, and Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Michael Babin that are expanding their offerings. Pasta makers Matteo and Daniele Catalani are also figuring out how to bring their food to many different people. As is Erik Bruner-Yang, the chef behind Maketto, four Paper Horse ramen stalls inside local Whole Foods Markets, and two forthcoming restaurants inside The LINE Hotel DC.
These chefs and restaurateurs face specific challenges in getting their food in front of more diners and convincing those diners that their businesses have little in common with national chains that don’t always prioritize high quality products and hospitality. They also reap unique benefits.
One of the biggest concerns for restaurateurs with their hands in many literal and figurative pots is safeguarding a brand’s good standing. If you had a crummy chicken parm sandwich at the G by Mike Isabella stand at Nationals Park, would you be as willing to fork over $150 for dinner for two at Arroz or Requin knowing Isabella was behind those restaurants too?
Isabella says he’s managed to protect the MIC brand from becoming diluted by depending on others he trusts when he can’t be everywhere at once. “Having someone like George [Pagonis] or Mike Rafidi—I know these guys can run their entities,” Isabella says. Pagonis is principally responsible for the Kapnos restaurants and Rafidi leads the kitchens at Arroz and Requin at The Wharf.
Michael Babin also has people to thank for Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s deep portfolio of nearly 20 projects that include everything from a brewery and bakeries to fine dining restaurants and butcher shops. “We’re not putting our eggs in one basket and the way we’ve grown has been around people,” he says. Babin scouts passionate professionals who see eye-to-eye with him on business.
“Bluejacket is a perfect example,” he says. “After working with [NRG beer director] Greg Engert for a while, we wanted to do a brewery even before Birch & Barley and ChurchKey opened.” Similarly, both Nathan Anda and Rob Rubba earned their chops in the kitchen at Tallula in Arlington. Now Rubba has his own NRG restaurant, Hazel, and Anda runs several Red Apron Butchery locations under the NRG brand.
Babin says he isn’t concerned that diners don’t always peg his restaurants and bars as belonging to NRG. His approach of giving his chefs autonomy means there’s less consistency from restaurant to restaurant and few NRG calling cards, save for some design elements and its beer lists.
NRG’s latest venture is its most casual. Babin teamed up with Stacey Price to open Shop Made in DC in October. The retail-shop-meets-cafe features rotating food vendors, coffee, and an Engert-curated drink selection. Adding more casual options to a restaurant group’s portfolio has emerged as a best practice among diversifying restaurateurs.
Until Andrés’ vegetable-driven, fast-casual restaurant Beefsteak landed in D.C. in 2015, most associated the restaurateur with his showstopping minibar or small plate emporiums Jaleo, Zaytinya, Oyamel, and China Chilcano. Now ThinkFoodGroup has a branch called FastGood Concepts that encompasses all Beefsteak locations and its Penn Quarter incubator space ThinkFoodLab, which opened earlier this year. There, diners could initially try food from Andrés’ food truck Pepe. Starting in January, FastGood COO Eric Martino says the lab will take tacos for a trial run.
“The vision is to feed a million people a day with the food we’re able to provide at Beefsteak,” Martino says. Introducing a more casual concept is good business for several reasons. First, it creates a pipeline of employees. Someone who puts in two years at Beefsteak could graduate to another restaurant within ThinkFoodGroup. Fast-casual food also tends to be simplistic, making it easier to expand. There are already five Beefsteaks.
“The labor pool and talent is so thin because there are so many restaurants and hotels,” Martino says. Fast-casual restaurants typically require a smaller labor pool and perhaps one that doesn’t require as much training. That said, Martino says, “Hospitality has to exist in the fast-casual space and that comes with getting great team members.”
Daniele and Matteo Catalani, the uncle and nephew behind the rapidly growing Cucina Al Volo brand, also attribute much of their success to simplicity. “The biggest challenge is staff,” Daniele says. “If you keep things simple and organized, it’s easy to teach somebody. With fine dining, it’s very hard to find people.”
The pair started selling pasta at two D.C. farmers markets in 2015. Like many food entrepreneurs, they worked out of rented commercial kitchen space inside Union Kitchen. Eventually, they were invited to set up a stall in Union Market, where they sell raw pasta to take home and a few dishes to eat onsite.
As their business grew, they needed more production space, but a warehouse felt like too much too soon. “My friend Robert [Broglia] from Pasta Mia called me up and said, ‘I’m retiring,’” Daniele recounts. They negotiated over glasses of wine and in August 2016 Daniele and Matteo opened Osteria Al Volo on the first floor of Pasta Mia’s former home on Columbia Road NW. They run their pasta-making operation out of the basement.
That was just the beginning. You can still try Cucina Al Volo food at several local farmers markets, they have a booth inside Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon Marketplace, and they’ll soon have another in a forthcoming Ballston food hall. They’re also preparing to open two more full-service restaurants—a Cleveland Park trattoria and bar and a downtown pizzeria. “Pasta has a lot of friends that go with it, so it’s easy to venture into something else,” Daniele says.
When it comes to managing money, Daniele and Matteo work to make sure each new project is self-sustainable. “If one business doesn’t work out, we’re not going to keep it open, funded through other businesses,” Daniele says. “If you can’t afford it, you should never step longer than your leg.”
Their diversification strategy has centered around loyal customers. “The only thing we can do against big corporations, big cookie cutter companies, is offer personality,” Daniele says. “You always see one of us involved in the business. That’s what has given us a good following.”
Bruner-Yang agrees that homegrown restaurateurs diversifying locally are different than national chains. “Beefsteak is a place you can go without questioning the integrity of the product and you feel good eating it,” he says.
“I grew up eating Ruby Tuesday but I remember going back with my kids and I was like, ‘This is really fucking bad.’” He says at places like Beefsteak, &pizza, CAVA, and Kapnos the mantra is about the product instead of the deal.
When asked if diversification is key to surviving in a competitive environment like the D.C. dining scene, Babin agreed, to some extent. “There are always going to be giants in the business. They’ll be the people that do one thing over and over again and drive volume and scale that way.” This is true of restaurants at all price points, be it Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Legal Sea Foods, or Chipotle.
“It’s been more interesting to do different things,” Babin says. “It doesn’t have a lot of the same advantages of the first approach, but it has some advantages like built-in resilience. And, for our team, it’s uniquely satisfying. In general there’s going to continue to be a role for both approaches.”
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