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El Camino Owner Talks Chef Shuffles, Consistency and the Industry 'Breaking Point'

Year one is in the books for El Camino. In year two, the restaurant will add a new chef, a new menu and new cocktails.

El Camino's Tony Lucca
El Camino's Tony Lucca
R. Lopez

The restaurant industry is a notoriously fickle business — even in bullish times when neighborhoods like Shaw and Logan Circle are seeing dozens of new places open in rapid succession.

For the diner, it's exciting. But for the restaurant manager or owner, it's downright stressful.

"Personally, I think we've gone past the breaking point," says Tony Lucca, co-owner of El Camino in Bloomingdale. "There's just so much saturation and money in the market right now."

When Lucca first opened El Camino just over a year ago, his mind was filled with a lot of self-doubt. That quickly wore on his body — he lost 10 pounds in two weeks in between the opening of El Camino and the temporary closing of his other restaurant, 1905, located in Shaw.

Both of his restaurants are moving at full speed now, and, he says, El Camino's anniversary gives him the chance to do a "one year gut check." Lucca has been reflecting on the successes and setbacks, and he's devising a plan for year two, which includes a new chef and menu and a focus on consistency.

Q: What was your biggest fear going into the opening of El Camino?

There were a lot of fears, both personal and professional. On the personal side, you have a lot of self-doubt. It took me years to get 1905, the other restaurant, where I wanted it. Even when things are going well, I'm always second guessing myself and feeling insecure. So there's a lot of self-doubt that goes into taking a leap like this.

Fears with the restaurant are also tied closely to those same feelings. I ask myself — Is this market able to accommodate another 50 or 60 seat restaurant?

It's only been a year, but since we've opened the neighborhood has seen a lot of new places, like The Pub & The People, Costa Brava and Wicked Bloom. So there was certainly fear about filling this place and making it a viable business. We were worried about if the neighborhood would like us or not. And, on a broader note, the restaurant market in D.C. is just exploding right now. Personally, I think we've gone past the breaking point. There's just so much saturation and money in the market right now.

El Camino [All photos R. Lopez]

El Camino [All photos R. Lopez]

Let's talk about day one at El Camino. You opened and quickly took 1905 offline to do some renovations there.

Yeah, that's something I hope that I never have to do again.

As soon as El Camino opened, we shut down 1905 for kitchen renovations. The first day we opened here was November 5th, and 1905 closed within the next two to three weeks. Those three weeks were... I don't even know where to begin with that. I lost about 10 pounds in two weeks, and you kind of feel like you're drowning, but maybe there's an air bubble that floats by every once in awhile to keep you going. You just can't get caught up.

What also helped there was systems. I'm a routine person. My staff at 1905 knows how I like things run, and it was helpful to bring some of that staff over here because they knew how to establish a base level of service.

In the last year, you've certainly seen some changes. You lost a chef and a bar manager. What does the kitchen and bar look like now?

We had an opening chef, Dorothy "Dot" Steck, who left recently. When we first opened, we were coming down to the wire for a chef. We hired someone to write the menu, but we didn't have a chef to execute on it with two weeks to go before opening.

Then, Dot came forward, and she was a very good fit. She joined in October, and she had three weeks to figure out the recipes, but our kitchen wasn't ready yet. Dot — God bless her — she figured it out in a few, short weeks. I was hoping to have the operations stabilized within three to four months, and I think we had the operations stabilized within three to four weeks.

Now when I say that, it doesn't mean that we were coasting. The first few months were brutal, but at least in those weeks we figured out the basics. Dot navigated the start-up process really well. After opening, we got some positive write-ups and buzz, and it wasn't until recently that Dot moved on. She left at the end of October, and I can't blame her. It was a brutal year.

Our bar program was a big focus too. My business partner, Phil Rodriguez, knew Mick Perrigo and contacted him about El Camino. Mick is now going on to work with Tom Brown at Left Door. But, at the time, we engaged with Mick to put together the entire bar program. He's an extremely talented bartender. Mick is an artist, who also understood the science side of the art. He is really good at creating systems at the bar to make the bar consistent and repeatable. He did a really good job of taking the vision of this place and making a cocktail menu that mirrored it. Right now, we are carrying on Mick's menu, but in the next few weeks we'll be transitioning to a new cocktail menu. Still the same price point and still very much tequila and mezcal based. Our cocktail maker at 1905, J.B. Knapp, will be developing the menu here.

Now moving forward in the year ahead, where is your focus?

So one year in, I'm beating the drum of consistency. We have a new chef, his name is Adrian Salazar. He's coming from Mango Tree and before that Zaytinya. He's also from Arizona and has a Southwest approach to cooking. He just started about two weeks ago. Obviously we are changing things around. Our short-term goal is to launch his menu by the end of November. It's very much an opportunity to hit the reset button, and it's a chance to work on consistency.

Milestones like the one-year mark are important, so just naturally I'm doing a one-year gut check. We've got the transition of the kitchen turnover, and now with a year's worth of operations, I just have so much information about what the neighborhood wants. You get a lot of feedback from you patrons, and not just from Yelp. You analyze things, like what dishes are moving, what price points are working, so a year later, I have a lot more information to use. Our biggest issue so far has been consistency. For me I really believe that's where you make or break. Consistency gives you a fighting chance to succeed because your patrons know what to expect.

So what have you heard from the neighborhood so far?

I've been surprised to hear that the neighborhood is looking for more substantial dishes, beside tacos. Originally we thought this restaurant was going to be price-point driven. Our goal was to have people come here two or three times per week and not have to hand over their entire paycheck. Most if not all of our dishes are under $20. The tacos are one of the main drivers for our menu, and if anything, the taco offerings will grow. But, I think we'll be making subtle changes to get the quality and consistency up.

Right now, we have an entree section, but my sense is that people want that part of the menu to expand. When Adrian came on, one of the first things he did was offer a whole fish special. We talked about it because the price point was pretty high, around the low $20s. But, we sold tons of them. This has me rethinking our dishes at certain price points. For me, this still comes down to value. If we're going to push prices up, then the dish has to be substantial, and you should be leaving here full. It's about great food and value.

Also, I'm a Bloomingdale business owner and resident. So I'm always thinking about the neighborhood. In Bloomingdale, we don't have a vast number of restaurants, but given the density and location, we are pretty well served by a variety of restaurants. As I see the neighborhood continuing to expand in terms of dining and restaurant options, it's certainly a little nerve wracking for me as a business owner. And look, I think everyone on the block is a little bit nervous. It's a tiny restaurant market, and you have to ask how many more places can open, but as a resident, it's a very exciting time for Bloomingdale.

El Camino

108 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, D.C. 20001

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