Washington Lawyer - September 2016 - 15

Whether running a law firm or a restaurant, creating a successful business requires passion, innovation, and risk-taking. By Thai Phi Le Every day on his way to work at Zaytinya, one of Washington, D.C.'s top Mediterranean dining destinations, chef Mike Isabella would walk by an empty two-story red brick building on 6th Street NW. The structure was nestled between G and H streets in the booming Penn Quarter neighborhood. "I thought this could be a cool [place for] a restaurant," recalls Isabella, who at the time had lived in the city for four years. D.C. was a natural fit for the former Top Chef contestant. He knew the clientele. He knew the purveyors. "I love D.C. There is a lot of camaraderie with the chefs. I just had everything that I wanted." In 2010 Isabella left Zaytinya where he'd worked as executive chef, and signed the lease for the red brick building. The following year he opened the doors to Graffiato, his first foray into owning a business. Five years later, Isabella has opened eight more eateries, written a cookbook, started a catering service, and launched other food ventures under his umbrella company Mike Isabella Concepts. STEP ONE: COOK UP A BUSINESS PLAN Like Isabella and others, Marjorie Meek-Bradley was inspired by a simple reason: a love of cooking. For Meek-Bradley, executive chef at Ripple and Roofers Union, both in Washington, D.C., cooking was always a part of life growing up in California. "I love food. I love bringing people together," she says. Her mom grew fruits and vegetables in the backyard, which were often the highlight of their family meals. Meek-Bradley could also be found near the stove at her parents' soup kitchen. As an adult, she worked with some of the industry's top chefs, from Thomas Keller to Marcus Samuelsson. In 2011 she joined Isabella at Graffiato and served as his executive sous chef before leaving to run the kitchen at Ripple. This past year she also was a contestant on Top Chef and made it to the final round before packing her knives. Isabella grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother in New Jersey. "It was the one thing I knew how to do growing up. When I was younger, I never wanted to own a business," he says. He wanted to cook and travel. Isabella's culinary skills took him to high-profile restaurants in New York City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Photo: Elizabeth Parker However, after years of working under renowned chefs, including José Andrés and Samuelsson, he decided he wanted to take the next step and be his own boss. Like any other business, opening and running a restaurant requires more than passion and a knack for flavor combinations. Being able to whip up a decadent three-course meal does not always translate to a successful three-star restaurant. "A lot of young chefs don't have the ability to either find the financials or know the exact operations when it comes to insurances or contractors or permits," says Isabella. "You can go out of business before you even open it if you don't know how to open a restaurant." Sean Morris, founder of Morris Law Firm, LLC in Bethesda, Maryland, and an expert in restaurant law, urges aspiring restaurant entrepreneurs to talk to a real estate broker and a lawyer. "Those two people can enable you to survey the legal landscape and the actual physical landscape of what the local real estate market is," Morris says. Restaurateurs also need to focus on four key legal relationships: those with their business partner, their employees, with government regulators, and with their landlord. (For tips on what you need to know and what you should avoid when creating those relationships, visit dcbar.org/news.) The key is your lease, says Morris. "Your lease, probably more than any other document, is going to determine whether you make or break it," he says. It controls your monthly costs and can include restrictions on how you conduct your business. Some lease agreements also may require a specific timetable for when you need to get permits issued and when to open your business. "Any opening is going to be super challenging," says Meek-Bradley, whose time working with Isabella proved to be a great training ground for her future business ventures. "I definitely credit Mike Isabella for teaching me that side when we opened Graffiato. I worked for some very talented chefs and had a really strong background in math, but I had never really done the numbers before. I feel like that was a good opportunity to see how it's run from the opening to a year and a half in." Meek-Bradley would later use that experience in opening Roofers Union in 2014. "I had never opened as an executive chef before. I opened as a sous chef and as a cook," she says. There were early missteps, she admits. What's one she learned from the most? "There's a million of them!" she laughs, but goes on to talk about her hurried training of the staff prior to opening. "You only get one shot at opening, and if you rush it or you don't have a clear vision of what you're trying to do before that, you're going to spend so many more months trying to catch up than if you had just taken two weeks at the beginning to do it right," she says. Getting it right is top of mind as Meek-Bradley prepares to open her pastrami shop Smoked & Stacked on 9th Street NW. "I'm not going to rush. I have said from the beginning that I need three weeks from the day we get health inspections to open properly. I've stuck my ground on that," she says. Smoked & Stacked will be Meek-Bradley's first attempt as a business owner, creating a new level of stress for her as she worries about permitting, hiring, and delays. "It was the building of a business plan that I had never done before. I had always done the fun part like eating out," she says. "I did a lot of that, too, but it's definitely a different approach when you're doing it for yourself." FIND THE FRESHEST IDEAS Even after a successful opening, it's critical for restaurateurs to keep the business from going stale. "The industry just keeps getting stronger. Instead of having a few great restaurants, now there are hundreds of them across the country," says Isabella. "You're doing as much as you can now to keep up with the big leagues." Meek-Bradley agrees: "It's definitely an industry where you have to take a lot of risks. It's highly competitive. It's highly judged. It's an instant product. The food is put down and you either like it or you don't." The competition is fierce as restaurants around the world try to set the trends and continue to reinvent dining. In 2001 the famous L'Arpege in Paris shocked the culinary world when it removed red meat from its menu and made organic vegetables the star of the meal. Today vegetarian restaurants have become mainstream. Noma in Copenhagen, considered one of the world's best restaurants, takes its diners through a Nordic journey, emphasizing local cuisine while preparing imaginative meals. The restaurant's drive for continued innovation is so important that it established the Nordic Food Lab in 2008 to explore how food and science can work together. * WASHINGTON LAWYER * SEPTEMBER 2016 15 http://www.dcbar.org/about-the-bar/news/restaurant-key-relationships.cfm http://www.dcbar.org/about-the-bar/news/restaurant-key-relationships.cfm

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