One of the first things Jeff Black inspects is the bathroom. We’re touring a potential restaurant location in Northwest D.C., and the restaurateur wants to see if it meets handicap-accessibility standards. Some owners overlook such things, but given the growing size of his business, Black doesn’t want any liabilities.
As we head back to the kitchen, Black takes note of the bartender cleaning up last night’s mess and the stench of old seafood.
“I guarantee they have vermin in that space,” he tells me later when we hop in his red ’95 Porsche 911 Carrera convertible and head to his newest eatery, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, in Logan Circle. “I have no rats in my restaurants. I won’t tolerate it. I have a fear of rats, actually.”
As we drive, Black rattles off some issues he’s tackling. A sous chef got arrested, he says, and he may have to pick up the shift. Another sous chef has a new soft shell crab dish, but the food cost is 40 percent of the menu price, and that’s too much. Black lets him keep it, but tells him to make another with half the food cost and sell just as many. “You can’t not make money in the restaurant business,” Black says.
The Houston native is as comfortable working business deals as he is the hot line. Over the years, he’s done nearly every job in dining, and it’s served him well in building half a dozen establishments in D.C. and the surrounding suburbs: Addie’s, BlackSalt Restaurant and Fish Market, Black Market Bistro, Black’s Bar & Kitchen, Pearl Dive, and Black Jack—with more on the way.
While the 49-year-old has long been respected by D.C. diners, you’re more likely to find him dealing with construction crews than camera crews. But last week the spotlight was all his. He and his wife, fellow chef Barbara Black, were named Restaurateurs of the Year at the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s RAMMY Awards. Black Jack won hottest bar scene, and BlackSalt won upscale casual restaurant of the year. (Black also stirred up controversy with his acceptance speech: “It’s about the hard work we do. It’s not about the bloggers.”)
This seems to be Black’s moment. His restaurants have always been well-received, but now they’re hot. Still, Black worries it could all crumble. One of his mottos: “Fear is a motivator.”
Black got his first restaurant job at 13. His father’sconstruction business partner had emptied their bank account and disappeared, and the IRS wanted to take their house. So, Black and three of his four sisters went to work. Every day after school, Black scrubbed pots and cleaned bathrooms in an Italian joint. He often didn’t get home until after midnight.
At one point, he tried to quit. “No, you no quit,” said the owner in a thick Italian accent. “You quit, you get lazy. You work.” So he stayed for three years.
A few years later, Black’s older sister Marsha—“the smartest one of all of us”—was diagnosed with lymphoma. Black missed his first semester at University of Texas because he was her primary platelet donor. “It was horrible. I looked like a junkie. I had holes all over my arm,” Black says. When Marsha died in 1982, Black fell into drugs and alcohol.
“I looked around, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life? I don’t do anything anymore,” he says of that time. “I’m going nowhere.”
Even Black’s low-life friend Ziggy—a party guy who never seemed to work—called him a loser. “When a guy like that tells you that, it’s over,” Black says. So he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he met Barbara.
When they met, both were engaged to other people. Within four months, they’d broken off those relationships and started dating. “He was very cute and sweet, and he had a Southern accent,” says Barbara. He’s since lost most of the accent—and his ponytail. Barbara also saw his hard work ethic. “He would not ask of anyone anything that he wouldn’t do.” And that includes scrubbing toilets.
In 1991, Black followed Barbara to D.C., where she had family, and got his first job working with Kinkead’s chef Bob Kinkead at now-shuttered 21 Federal for $10 an hour.
“Nowadays, people go to culinary school because they want a TV show,” Kinkead says. “But he was very focused on learning every aspect of the business. He wasn’t really all that interested in becoming a famous chef, and frankly, it’s served him well.”
Black went on to work for revered chefs Roberto Donna and Jean-Louis Palladin at Pesce before opening his first restaurant, Addie’s, in Rockville in 1995. At the time, all the top restaurants were in the city, but many of their customers weren’t. “Why not just bring that food to the suburbs?” Black thought.
One of the smartest moves he made in expanding the business was buying property, which is very rare for restaurateurs. Today, Black owns three of his five buildings. He paid $2.2 million for the BlackSalt property, which, five years later, he says is worth far more.
Eventually, he hopes to turn the business over to his sons, now 12 and 13. When a friend asked if they wanted to be chefs, Black responded, “By the time they take over the business, it’s going to be a real estate business.”
Unlike most other restaurants that depend on investors for funding, Black prefers to borrow from the bank. That way, he’s his own boss. “When you have a bunch of investors, they’ll literally come in and say, ‘Why’s the uniform a T-shirt? Why do you open at 11 o’clock on Sunday? Why, why, why, why, why? Oh, and by the way I need a table on Saturday night at 8 o’clock.”
Black bought out his investors in Black’s Bar & Kitchen, and now has just two investors with minority stakes in BlackSalt. If they come in at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, Black charges them full price.
But he’s also one of the most generous restaurateurs in town. Last year, he and Barbara established the Black’s Family Foundation to support children’s health. Their oldest son, Simon, has Type 1 diabetes; over the years, the Blacks have hosted and participated in countless charity events, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Black’s big project right now is a restaurant in Merrifield, Va. called Empire Oyster House. (Empire is a nod to his pet peeve: reporters calling his business an “empire.”) He’s also partnering with his longtime chef Danny Wells on a neighborhood bistro opening next year.
Black also likes to bring longtime employees in as partners. For example, Black’s Bar & Kitchen general manager Doug Doyle now owns a piece of that restaurant, and Addie’s executive chef Mallory Buford will own a stake in Empire. Black may not like outside investors, but he wants to see his own people succeed, just like he did.
“He’s never satisfied,” says Buford, who started at Addie’s in 2004 and worked with Black at Kinkead’s a decade earlier. “Having a successful business is never enough. He knows that tomorrow it could all end. He drills this into us all the time: You can’t just rest on your laurels.”
Black has seen even the best restaurant operators fail. Every time he opens a new place, he fears a flop. “I used to say that about Pearl Dive all the time, that this is going to be the one that blows up the company. It’s going to bring us all down,” Black says. “And that fear is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s straight-up fear.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery