Remember the premise for The Perfect Storm? In the movie, it took three raging weather fronts converging to sink Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney in their prime. The Mason Dixie Co. Drive-Thru opening weekend wasn’t much different, as a triplet of forces came together to overwhelm the newcomer.
First, the food media machine cranked out story after story tethering the opening date to drool-worthy pictures of biscuit sandwiches. Second, co-founders Ayeshah Abuelhiga and Jason Gehring were brave enough to offer the first 100 customers a card for one free breakfast sandwich every day for 90 days. And finally, the area around their stretch of Bladensburg Road—home to one of the city’s largest concentration of shift workers—isn’t known for its food, creating immediate demand for something fresh, new, and affordable.
Not to mention that the biscuit company already had darling status in D.C. after selling biscuits out of a stall in Union Market and at events across town.
But when opening day came on Saturday, April 15, Mason Dixie went through 3,000 biscuits and 2,500 pieces of fried chicken in two days. “What sucked is that we thought that would at least get us through Monday,” Abuelhiga says. “We’re going through more than a thousand food items a day and struggling to keep up. It’s a good problem to have, but we really didn’t think it was going to be like this at all.”
Some customers are taking to Yelp and other platforms to kvetch about making the trek to Mason Dixie only to find the restaurant closed. Others complain about waiting in line for hours.
Abuelhiga wants customers to know what separates Mason Dixie from fast food restaurants like Wendy’s and Chick-Fil-A, and how that factors into opening-week hiccups.
“We serve fried chicken. Everyone thinks that it’s supposed to be fast food service, but it’s not,” she says. They fry organic chicken to-order in three small fryers. The meat comes from from a local farm. Nothing is coming out of a freezer or going into a microwave. “To offer quality it does take time, especially if you want to have responsibly-sourced products,” she continues. “We’re not running out because we’re assholes who don’t want to serve you and just want to go home.”
Because the pace is so fast, Abuelhiga says they don’t have “hand-holding time” to walk customers through what differentiates their restaurant from the competition. If they did, Abuelhiga would probably explain that there are no additives in the fryers to accelerate the cooking process. Maybe she would show them the walk-in refrigerator full of buttermilk “straight from a cow” they use to brine the chicken.
Mason Dixie is already making moves to handle volume more deftly. They’re looking to secure new equipment, but point out it could take six to eight weeks to be up and running. And they’re still constrained by the small kitchen they share with their frozen treat partner, Milk Cult.
“This is a third-generation space,” Abuelhiga says. “We tried to do this with our own money—boot-strap it ourselves. We took what we had and turned it into something … the kitchen you see, that’s the only one.”
The restaurant is making some immediate operations changes to smooth things out now that they have enough data. The new hours will be Tuesday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For now, they’ll be closed Mondays.
Mason Dixie will also limit drive-through service to weekday mornings through 10 a.m. for commuter traffic until demand stabilizes. Customers can still go inside to order.
“We’re trying to get people to understand we’re not dicking them off,” Abuelhiga says. “We’re trying to service as many customers as we can.”
Mason Dixie Biscuit Co, 2301 Bladensburg Road NE; (202) 849-3518; masondixiebiscuits.com