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Chef Geoff Tracy Reflects on His Success — and Failure

Recent closures hurt the career restaurateur, but he’s not done empire building

D.C. chef and restaurateur Geoff Tracy.
[R. Lopez]

Even though chef Geoff Tracy has experienced plenty during his nearly two decades in the local hospitality trade — including playing a part in opening seven restaurants (and regretfully shutting down a few) — he continues to marvel at the patrons that belly up to his network of budget-friendly bars to brazenly pound drinks at all hours of the day.

The local restaurateur has found one constant during his 17 years of catering to the DMV. “People like to get drunk at airports, have good times, and get cocktails on before they go out.”

The now-veteran businessman still vividly recalls joining the D.C. dining scene. “It seems like yesterday and also 100 years ago,” Tracy said. “It’s definitely an accomplishment when you live through more than one lease term.”

Back when he opened the first restaurant in 2000 near Cathedral Heights (at 3201 New Mexico Avenue NW), now-CBS co-anchor Norah O’Donnell was just his fiancee. These days, the married power couple have three kids and a cookbook — with another on the way. They recently met with publishers in New York City about a “saltier” follow-up to their first cookbook Baby Love, called Bacon Love.

Throughout his career, Tracy has looked for growth opportunities when times are tough. “When things are economically troubling we’ve tried to expand a bit,” he said.

He did so accidentally back in 2008 in Tysons Corner, signing a lease there for another Chef Geoff’s outpost just three weeks before the stock market crashed. Meanwhile, opening downtown the year after 9/11 was a conscious decision to put down roots in a neighborhood where “crack whores and bums hung out,” he said. According to Tracy, back then D.C. was a sea of steakhouses and international food — the type of atmosphere where a chef-driven neighborhood restaurant specializing in cheap burgers and cold beer was a lucrative idea.

But in the past seven years, Tracy said he’s had to come to terms with never-ending waves of fresh competition, listing everyone from “Whole Foods to food trucks” as present adversaries. “I don’t think there’s a better time to be a diner in Washington,” he said. “But there’s never been a more competitive time to be a restaurant owner because there are so many.”

Still, Tracy isn’t making drastic changes. In fact, some things have stayed the same at his restaurants since day one. A wild mushroom ravioli (composed of roasted garlic, grape tomatoes, arugula, and truffle pecorino) that debuted just as the Backstreet Boys were first taking off continues to outsell every other menu item to this day. When he tried to take a curry chicken dish originally served downtown after ten years on the menu, Tracy joked that his regulars countered with “death threats.”

But other things have evolved. Tracy used to offer 25 bottles of wine for $25 each, with every glass available for $5.95. These days, his wildly popular happy hour — which runs at every location from open to close on Mondays and Tuesdays, and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. the rest of the week — includes deeply discounted draft beers, cocktails, wines ($6.95 a glass), appetizers, specialty burgers (half price), and gourmet pizzas (under $10).

He’s seen just how fast D.C. is changing through the lens of Lia’s in Friendship Heights. When department store Hecht’s was demolished across the street and another development took its place, he remembers having to have to dust off glassware from construction on the patio.

The dining room at Lia’s in Chevy Chase, Md.
[R. Lopez]

Construction also affected the downtown location he shuttered in 2015. Although he said the restaurant handled “an enormous amount of volume,” the landlord wanted to redevelop the aging site and add more floors. With another five-plus years on the lease, Tracy said the payout from the landlord “secured us financially.”

At the moment, Chef Geoff’s is essentially a debt-free restaurant group. “I like to keep things simple,” Tracy of the family-run business he and his younger brother, Chris, currently manage. “I don’t want to go to bed with $4 million in debt and $2 million owed to the bank and have to answer to investors.”

He considers his “only failure” so far his closure in Rockville, which Tracy called an expensive occupancy he “couldn’t get to financially work.” That shuttered in 2015, two months before the downtown restaurant closed.

Then there’s the airport properties he licensed his name to a few years back. He said the traveler-friendly spot in Terminal C at Dulles International Airport is “killing it” — calculating that the satellite location does 50 percent more in sales than his next-busiest restaurant.

"Put that into perspective: a restaurant that is half the size but doing 50 percent more sales,” he said. Tracy credits its crazy success to alcohol — he said he frequently receives photos of business travelers clinking glasses at the airport locale — noting that the shift in airport dining from corporate chains (T.G.I.Fridays) to local vendors (Chef Geoff’s, Ben’s Chili Bowl, Taylor Gourmet) has been “incredible.”

Tracy said he constantly gets asked when he’s going to reopen somewhere else downtown — there’s even an unofficial poll to pick the next spot on his website — but told Eater he’s going back to the “buy low, sell high” mentality that saw him through the early days.

“We are at a high in the market. There are a maximum amount of restaurants, seats, and rents being paid,” he said. “We are waiting.”

While he waits for the markets to cool down, Tracy did say he and his brother are pursuing a side venture — revealing only that it’s a “non-food and beverage business opportunity” that’s just getting started.

Lia's

4435 Willard Avenue, Chevy Chase, MD 20815 240 223 5427

Chef Geoff's

3201 New Mexico Avenue Northwest, , DC 20166 (202) 237-7800 Visit Website

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