Shell Corporation: Leeds and Lewis shuck bivalves, not their workers.
Shell Corporation: Leeds and Lewis shuck bivalves, not their workers.

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Hank’s Oyster Bar is packed on a spring evening. Patrons quaff New Mexican bubbly and wait for a coveted seat on the patio; along the back wall, a server explains the difference between Hama Hama, Olde Salt, and Kumamoto bivalves to a two-top. Just beyond the bar, Chef Jamie Leeds oversees the scene. A tall woman, Leeds dominates any room she inhabits, be it the tiny kitchen or the dining room, where she strides in to deliver a pair of entrees and say hello to someone she knows. Even when it’s this busy, Leeds is at ease. Hank’s is her place, after all.

Leeds and her business partner Sandy Lewis opened Hank’s in Dupont Circle in May 2005. Leeds was previously chef of Washington Terrace Hotel’s 15 Ria and had spent most of her career before then in New York, working under people like Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe. Three years later, she and Lewis—a lawyer who’s managed Jaleo and Zaytinya—have opened another Hank’s in Old Town and are readying a gastro-pub, CommonWealth, due to open in Columbia Heights this summer.

Leeds and Lewis try to open neighborhood restaurants that fall somewhere between fine dining and mom and pops. For the first Hank’s, that meant opening on a street that they felt lacked something between burger-and-Bud joints and Komi’s ambitious tasting menus.

The next time around, Leeds and Lewis envisioned Hank’s as an anchor on a side of Alexandria’s King Street that had so far resisted the revitalization to the east. And in booming Columbia Heights, the idea is that a locally owned restaurant will add character among corporate neighbors like Target, Starbucks, Best Buy, and Marshalls. Leeds and Lewis call CommonWealth “the people’s gastropub.” It’ll have 150 seats, a patio, a private dining room, and a pub area that seats 40. They plan on taking the farm-to-table approach to pub food, offering a wide selection of British and microbrewed beers, plus an extensive wine list.

But canny business plans alone don’t explain why Leeds and Lewis are thriving in a field where the demanding hours and physical work seem to favor charismatic, macho loose cannons like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay. Leeds attributes much of their success to staff loyalty. The partners say they try to keep their employees happy by offering balanced hours, insurance, and a 401(k). “We have very low turnover,” says Leeds. “We pay more along the way, but in the end, it pays off.” (It doesn’t always work out: Hank’s Alexandria chef, Troy Walker, left unexpectedly for personal reasons.)

It may also come from their efforts to accommodate employees with children. Fifty percent of Hank’s employees are parents. Leeds has a 5-year-old son herself and recognizes how tough it can be to balance career and child care. “We always accommodate it when people need time off,” says Leeds. So much so that Leeds has found and paid for babysitters for a staff person who has worked for them since the beginning.

Leeds and Lewis also invest in professional development such as wine tasting or visits with oyster growers. They also hold on to extras like staff meals during a time in which a tougher economy means cutting back on such rituals.

To accommodate their growing organization, the women are working on the creation of an umbrella management company based on the progressive model of another of Leeds’ former employers, Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You, whose gimmicky restaurants are known for flexible scheduling for employees.

“We don’t want it to be corporate,” says Leeds. “It lets each restaurant develop its own personality but puts systems in place for finances, management, and service.” The plan is to have nearly 120 people working for their yet to be named company—about 60 at both Hank’s Oyster Bars, and the same at CommonWealth.

Even though Leeds and Lewis have worked to make it easier to balance family and restaurant lives, Leeds acknowledges it’s still tough.

“I almost wouldn’t choose this profession if I felt I had a choice,” jokes Leeds. “But I was drawn to it and taken by it.”

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