Since opening, Garrison has been lauded for its well-executed, seasonally-focused menu and its star treatment of vegetables. Looking back, first-time restaurant owners chef Rob Weland and his wife Amy Garrett are pleasantly surprised by the veg-centric reputation. It turns out it wasn’t all that intentional.
What was intentional is the strong relationships with farmers, the welcoming neighborhood feel, and the couple’s personal devotion to the restaurant. Eater spoke to chef and owner Rob Weland, co-owner Amy Garrett, and general manager Sam Vause about how these hallmarks remained front and center during their first restaurant’s first year of business. The Poste and Cork veteran also divulges his plans for the future as he enters his second year as a restaurateur.
As a chef who has worked in many respected kitchens, how was this solo venture different for you?
Rob Weland: It’s ours. Simple as that. Everything we’re doing, we’re putting our name on it. Every single day we open the doors, it’s our reputation. So it’s a little different.
What’s been challenging about it? What have you learned?
RW: Challenging? I think everything’s challenging about owning a restaurant. Day to day, there’s a new set of challenges. You have to be up for it. And I think you have to find the solution and not be panicked by it, and certainly just roll with the punches. And I think that’s the biggest lesson to be learned.
Amy Garrett: I would say from where I sit, because of my role in this project, is that you’re not just running a restaurant, you’re running a business. So you’re running a restaurant day to day... but you’re also, you know, you have to make sure that all the other corporate-type stuff is done. In a bigger restaurant group, somebody else would be doing all of that.
Local and seasonal sourcing has always been a part of your philosophy and is the philosophy here. How do you feel that Garrison expresses this differently than other restaurants?
RW: I think most chefs these days are concerned about sourcing just as much as I am...We have a couple of community garden plots down the road, we’re growing some heirloom tomatoes. We’ve had these relationships over the years with farmers and goat cheese producers and such, that we’ve just nurtured that, and we’ve become really close friends. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about, is keeping those relationships alive.
AG: Not only does that allow us to source a little bit from our own immediate area, but it also ties us to our neighborhood, because not only are we a restaurant for Washington, D.C., but we very much feel tied to this neighborhood. So it’s kind of fun to go down to the community garden. We all take turns watering, and we get to meet people who live here and see our stuff growing...And we also support Mike Protas, who supports us. That’s the guy from One Acre Farm. He has a CSA and only delivers to the Hill, so again, we’re sort of looped in with his CSA members. They came here for a private CSA dinner a few weeks ago, and we cooked all of his stuff.
RW: Mike’s been a great addition to the philosophy of Garrison...It’s fun when he comes to the back door on Thursday evenings with his truck full of whatever, and that’s the fun part of it, trying to figure out what to do the next day with the stuff.
Your relationship with One Acre Farm was at the forefront from the beginning. How has that relationship evolved since opening?
RW: Basically right after Christmas, we start talking about what we want to bring in, what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. We have a lot of failures; we have a lot of successes...We’re hopefully getting his CSA members more excited about what we’re doing, and his CSA members can also see what we’re doing in the restaurant, so hopefully it’s working hand in hand. It’s a good relationship, so hopefully that will grow and the product list will grow and we’ll minimize the failures and plant some crops that are more successful and more attractive to CSA members and the restaurant guests.
AG: One big difference now is that he’s built this hoop house up, so we’re able to source from him all year, which is awesome.
The focus on produce comes across really clearly on your menu. Why did you choose to put such an emphasis on produce and how has it been received by diners?
AG: Was that a conscious choice?
RW: Probably not. I mean, I love vegetables. I think most chefs love vegetables.
AG: People think it was a conscious choice we made as like a business decision or something, but I don’t think it was...
Sam Vause: Every dish is strong. I think you roll into a lot of restaurants, maybe not so much in these past couple years, but where vegetables are just sort of a dish or an afterthought. [Rob] puts a lot of care and thought into the way that he’s delicately handling vegetables, and so they tend to shine a little bit, and I think people who don’t eat meat... can come into this restaurant and have a nice experience.
Have you found that your clientele is comprised mostly of neighborhood residents, or is Garrison more of a destination restaurant?
RW: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think we’ve been fortunate enough to gain the respect of the neighborhood. We’re part of the neighborhood as well, we live three blocks away, and we’ve been here for 12 years. It’s a great community up here, but we also have people coming up from downtown, and it’s great... we’re happy to have them. And it’s a nice mix.
How are you affected, if at all, by the seemingly unending popularity of Rose’s right in the neighborhood?
AG: I knew you were going to ask that question!
RW: Rose’s, what’s that? (laughs)
SV: We have got a great relationship with all those guys in there. From Aaron, to the general managers there, Andrew is fantastic...If they’re booked they send people our way, we do the same for them. It’s a really great sort of mutually beneficial relationship for the two of us...It doesn’t hurt to have somebody that’s of that stardom down the street from us by any means, but we’re trying to gain our own acclaim. We want people to come here and have fantastic meals and say "Man, this was awesome, I’m going to come to Barracks Row for Garrison."
RW: I couldn’t ask for a nicer neighbor. They’ve been tremendous and I’m so happy for their success. We’re thrilled. Pineapple and Pearls and everything that’s going on there.
When you first opened, there were early, positive reviews. How did that feel and how did that change the way that you were running the restaurant going forward?
RW: Cured my anxiety. Actually, it’s still happening.
AG: Yeah, the anxiety’s still a little bit there. No, it was definitely a huge relief. I think Rob’s right. For me, too. I’m imagining it was a relief for Sam as well. It’s hard, your first time out’s really, really intimidating, and I knew the team was great, but you just never know how it’s going to gel.
RW: We’re not resting on our laurels. I think we’re a baby still, and we know that there’s ways to get better. And every night at the end of service we talk about ways to get better, and I think that can’t stop. That has to continue.
AG: The other thing about the early reviews is they are really early now. And when I first met Rob and got to know this business, you had like five months before you got your first review. And now it’s become earlier and earlier, so that’s really scary when you’re new...We opened in like two months. We signed our lease in late May; we opened July 22nd. Which is really, in hindsight...just ridiculous, but it worked out. That’s where the anxiety came from. We were like, "We’re gonna open, bam!" And some of the big reviewers were in the first week, which was really amazing. But it puts a lot of pressure.
What are some of the biggest things that have changed since opening?
AG: The first six months were like– we were just slammed with the day to day...We’re still slammed with the day to day, because we’re a restaurant. But we do have a little bit more ability to look ahead.
What do you see on the horizon for Garrison? What are your goals for the restaurant?
AG: A successful, continually happy, continually profitable restaurant obviously is what everybody wants. Where we continue to keep people excited about it…There are trends and there’s always a new restaurant opening... What I really want is for this to continue to interest people and continue to be a place where people want to come eat because the food’s just really good, and we’re innovating and keeping up with the seasons and doing new stuff and making people happy.
RW: This will always be the baby, and this will always be what we’ll nurture. We’re not going to do 20 restaurants. This will always be the place in our heart, and we’re always going to take good care of this and make sure that we’re always giving it the attention it deserves.
Do you have plans for any sort of expansion? Of Garrison or of another restaurant?
AG: We’re certainly talking about it...Nothing concrete to announce, but we definitely have our ears open. Like Rob said, I don’t see us owning a massive restaurant empire anytime soon, but another neighborhood spot somewhere in town, or maybe a little wine bar somewhere that kind of riffs off of this. I think we want to keep the brand pretty tight. Rob’s cooking is what it is, and he’s got a very strong identity and a strong passion for that style.