What It Takes

Restaurateur Jeff Black

Local restaurateur Jeff Black learned to cook growing up in Houston with four sisters. At 13, he got a job in a restaurant doing everything from chopping onions to scrubbing toilets. By 17, he was waiting tables and tending bar. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he also met the woman who would become his wife and partner, Barbara.

Today, they are the chef/owners of four restaurants -- Black Market Bistro, BlackSalt, Black's Bar and Kitchen and Addie's -- under the Black Restaurant Group.
The couple and partner John Linck, who started with the company as a line chef, are currently working to raise $200,000 through four events to benefit a project at the Children's National Medical Center for children with diabetes. He and Barbara live in Kensington with their sons Simon, 12, and Oliver, 10.

Why he's successful: Black, 46, grew up in a family with a strong work ethic. His father, Robert, had a construction and home repair business. His mother, Susan, was a receptionist at a glass-blowing company. "When my friends went to college, I stayed. By 17, I was getting experience in the front of the house and the back of house, cooking, waiting tables and bartending, so I found I had a passion for working in restaurants. At a very young age, I decided I was going to open a restaurant and just sort of pointed in that direction and moved forward."

His path to success: After graduating from the Culinary Institute, Black headed to D.C. looking for a job that would allow him to be near Barbara, who grew up in Montgomery County. He worked at Bob Kinkaid's now-defunct 21 Federal and Pesce, owned by Jean-Louis Paladin and Roberto Donna. Four years after coming to D.C., he and Barbara opened Addie's, which was named after his grandmother. "I get a lot of gratification from the restaurant process, from conceptualizing the restaurant and the menu to working with designers and contractors, to working with banks to put the financial package together. I am very proud of the restaurants we've built."

Obstacles he had to overcome: "Proper funding. It's just as dangerous to have too much money as not enough. If you borrow too much, you can get more debt than you can handle ... If you are under-financed, you can't finish the project and then you have to borrow money at a very expensive rate and you can't get out from under that. It took years to find the right deal ... Once you get open, you still have to maintain standards and continue to improve your product ... You're constantly climbing a mountain where there's no peak. I tell my managers all the time, 'We have to just keep climbing the mountain.'"

First job: "I think the restaurant was called Aldo's Italian Restaurant. I went with my friend who was interviewing. He was kind of verbose, and I was shy. The owner's wife said, 'I don't like you' -- to him, 'I like you' and hired me."

Worst job: "I worked for a while tending bar at this high-volume nightclub with a bunch of nightly drink specials. It was a real low-end, crummy, cheesy nightclub. I got punched one night. This guy was hitting his girlfriend, and I jumped over the bar and grabbed him ... The girl punched me in the nose and told me, 'Get your hands off my man!' I couldn't believe this woman hit me when I was trying to help her. I quit a few days after that."

Smartest move: Buying, instead of leasing, the buildings to house BlackSalt and Black Market Bistro. "Being an owner and not working with a landlord makes it a lot more front-loaded -- you need more money up front, but later your restaurant will appreciate at a higher rate and make more of a profit."

Biggest misstep: "We now hire managers exclusively from within the company. We've hired people from outside who have taken advantage of situations, some stealing, some mismanaging ... I'm inherently probably too trusting. I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt. A restaurant not run properly can get very expensive very fast and hemorrhage a lot of cash."

What's next: "We want to open a new concept restaurant on 14th Street Northwest -- Pearl Dive Oyster Palace. It'll be a 75-seat restaurant, and upstairs we'll have Black Jack, a whimsical bar. We've been with [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] folks. They've been super polite and enthusiastic ... The reality is there is no lunch trade on that street, so we need another revenue stream. Short of going into catering, our choice is to make it alcohol sales. That's what we're shooting for. We've [planned] the building to keep the noise down because it's heavily insulated. We're trying to be conscientious, and we think they'll know that when they get to know us."

Advice to the aspiring: Be smart. "For whatever reason, when someone goes out and makes a lot of money ... they feel they want to open a restaurant. Unfortunately, the ease of entry allows many who should not open a restaurant to do it ... It's not just cooking. It's not just service. It's not just the bar. It's the whole package -- negotiating the right lease, negotiating the contracts, how you work with vendors and interact with your staff. There are million details, and you have to take care of all of them."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  October 20, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

fredw34907: If he isn't allowed to have a bar upstairs and serve until 3 AM, I am positive he won't be opening......

Posted by: Jsuf | October 21, 2010 6:22 PM
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it is nice that mr. black and his company continue to add locations and develop their brand. i hope the wapo will continue to give equal or greater attention to restaurants where chef-owners will almost certainly be in the kitchen demonstrating their craft rather than engaging in continual marketing of the cult of personality on bravo, food network, etc. after all if i make an appointment with a top rated physician i don't want to be seen by a 2nd year resident suffering from sleep deprivation.

Posted by: george32 | October 21, 2010 12:31 PM
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I am happy that Mr. Black has succeeded in a business where failure is the norm. We have a couple of very successful bars (and grills) in this area. The Hawk 'n' Dove on Capitol Hill, and The Tombs in Georgetown. Of course these are bars more than restaurants but serve decent bar food.

Anthony Bourdain spoke to the risks in "Kitchen Confidential." I have seen both the front and back of restaurants and I know that it is one of the most demanding businesses out there.

Posted by: mortified469 | October 21, 2010 9:42 AM
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My wife and I are happy to have a well-known restauranteur planning to come to our Logan Circle neighborhood, just a few doors away from us. It's a thrill to embrace well-respected and local business owners nearby.

However, I feel the need to respond to this article with another perspective.

Jeff refers to the upstairs portion of his new concept restaurant Pearl Dive Oyster Palace as a 'whimsical' bar called 'Black Jack.' Permitting alcohol sales until 3 a.m. On Fridays and Saturdays as 'another revenue stream' for Jeff's business does not conjure up images of whimsy to me. In addition, there appears to be a proposed back deck where patrons can smoke and drink until 3 a.m. This doesn't sound particularly whimsical either, especially to me and some of my other neighbors.

While Jeff's request for staying open and serving until such a late hour appears to be within the confines of the law, I hope he'll consider and respect the needs and requests of many of his neighbors as he continues to go through the approval process. I'll hope to be one of his frequent patrons if that's the case.

Posted by: fredw34907 | October 20, 2010 9:25 PM
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Major brands always give out their popular brand samples (in a way it is similar to coupons) I use these guys to get mine http://bit.ly/aJWSXv enjoy your samples

Posted by: markballou20 | October 20, 2010 1:51 AM
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Major brands always give out their popular brand samples (in a way it is similar to coupons) I use these guys to get mine http://bit.ly/aJWSXv enjoy your samples

Posted by: markballou20 | October 20, 2010 1:48 AM
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