RAMMYS Milestone restaurateurs speak to restaurant longevity, opportunities, challenges

Owners behind restaurant legends share insights, best practices

In today’s competitive restaurant environment, whether it’s in Washington, D.C. or beyond, there are many more questions than answers on the secret recipe to restaurant longevity. What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for restaurants? Who better to ask than some of the most long-standing restaurateurs in the DMV? After all, several decades of operating successful restaurants can endow their owners with a tremendous amount of expertise.

Such an ideal panel—restaurateurs who have witnessed significant physical changes to the region and an ever-evolving range of customer preferences shift—emerged in the form of a roundtable discussion panel comprised of the restaurant owners behind the RAMMYS 2019 Honorary Milestone Restaurant Awardees.

[Related story: RAMMY Honorary Milestone Restaurant Awards announced]

The setting couldn’t have been more perfect at Tony and Joe’s Seafood on the Georgetown Riverfront. The June 3rd event, hosted by the Washington Business Journal and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), brought together some legendary restaurateurs—many from the Golden Triangle Neighborhood of D.C.

The RAMW “(Restaurant) Industry Leaders on Longevity, Success and Paving the Way” panel was moderated by Rebecca Cooper, senior staff reporter for the Washington Business Journal, and included the following members:

Representing 30-year RAMMY Honorary Milestone restaurants:

  • Ashok Bajaj, The Bombay Club, Knightsbridge Restaurant Group
  • Bob Giaimo, Silver Diner and Silver
  • Alex Momeni, Moby Dick House of Kabob
  • Ramon Pereiras, Taberna del Alabardero
  • Christianne Ricchi, i Ricchi

Representing 40-year RAMMY Honorary Milestone restaurant: Grace Abi-Najm Shea, Lebanese Taverna Group

These legendary restaurant owners were unified when describing the meaning of restaurant ownership. They strongly suggested it was all about a passion for providing hospitality and great food, and that it wasn’t necessarily a road to riches. “Definitely don’t do it for the money,” said Alex Momeni of Moby Dick House of Kabob. “Do it for the right reasons.”

Christianne Ricchi, of i Ricchi, said that many people today were going into it for all the wrong reasons. She posited that they were losing focus. Ashok Bajaj, of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, suggested owning a restaurant would be a “good living,” but that is what a lot of hard work and required a serious commitment. “You have to be passionate about it,” he added.

Restaurant challenges

These restaurateurs, who operate restaurants or restaurant chains that have stood the test of time, admit that the D.C. area has its challenges. When asked about a top challenge, Ricchi said that area residents seem to want the latest and greatest in the food scene. She says that staying relevant is a big challenge, but that at i Ricchi, she has applied marketing and creativity to overcome it. To stay relevant, Momeni recommended that future restaurateurs always share a part of their story when talking about their brands.

“Food is everywhere… You’re competing with non-traditional companies,” said Grace Abi-Najm Shea of Lebanese Taverna Group. With the growth and popularity of food delivery and eating restaurant meals at home, Abi-Najm Shea says restaurants need to find ways to partner with delivery companies. Data from Technomic, a food research consultancy, and other researchers place the restaurant delivery market somewhere between $10B and $24B, so Abi-Najm Shea’s advice bears out.

Grace Abi-Najm Shea represented Lebanese Taverna, a 40-year RAMMYS Honorary Milestone Recipient. Photo by Kalorama Photography.

Another challenge is growth, says Momeni. Moby Dick is looking into automation and technology to help continue growing the band, but without losing its authenticity. There’s a strong desire to keep the restaurant chain authentic and to continue to be known for great Persian food, even as Moby Dick seeks out new equipment and efficiencies. This has been a particularly tough year for the chain, admitted Momeni, with the passing of the chain’s founder, Mike Daryoush. “…very tough times with the passing,” Momeni noted, but the team is keeping the legacy of hard work instilled by its founder.

Best advice for current, future restaurateurs

Getting advice from restaurateurs who have persevered in a challenging environment was a real treat. “Luck is determined by how much calculated risk you’re willing to take,” said Ricchi. She posits that most of the restaurateurs who were around when she started back in 1989 are mostly gone. Why? Because, she says, they were bent on opening restaurant after restaurant after restaurant. She noted that her steps were much more calculated, but she still had to take many leaps of faith over the years.

Bob Giaimo, of Silver Diner, echoed that sentiment. Growth comes slowly, and restaurateurs shouldn’t expect to open three restaurants in the first year or two. Also, he said teams make great successes within the restaurant industry. As a seemingly growing number of restaurants have closed prematurely in the past year in the D.C. market, media and experts have sought out answers to buck the trend.

Giaimo put it this way, “You need someone that knows food and you need someone that has business expertise. You can’t do it without those ingredients.” In other words, restaurant partnerships are grounded by a partner (or expert) with business expertise, not just culinary.

Roman Pereiras, of Taberna del Alabardero, suggested restaurateurs embrace the enormity of running a restaurant. He also said running a restaurant is a passion and it’s not for someone who counts the hours spent working. “If you have the passion, do it,” he said. “You have to run a restaurant like a company,” added Abi-Najm Shea. It’s a serious business, she said, and also suggested that a restaurant’s location is a vital ingredient for success.

When asked for parting words, i Ricchi said “Make connections with your customers, staff and community. Bajaj said “Make memories… Guests now bring in (to his restaurants) their children.” “Food is important,” said Abi-Najm Shea. “It’s one of the most important cultural rituals.”

Photo credit: Kalorama Photography via RAMW

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