Ari Gejdenson, founder of Mindful Restaurants Group and co-creator of dining establishments all over town ranging from Capitol Hill’s Acqua al 2 and Ghibellina on 14th Street NW to the complementary block of eateries he exported to Ivy City last winter, warns that proposed changes to pay rates for hospitality workers could make opening future restaurants in-town cost prohibitive.
“I’ll probably explore Maryland for a bit,” Gejdenson told Eater during a recent discussion about his diverse empire. “I would continue running wild if I knew that we had a consistent business model for the future.”
The last spot the D.C. native planted in his hometown was Mexican-themed La Puerta Verde. The year-old establishment capped a burst of activity for Gejdenson in the immediate area which included establishing all-day eatery Ari’s Diner and soccer-themed bar Dock FC.
Eater recently caught up with Gejdenson to discuss lessons learned from joining a neighborhood in transition, the importance of authentic Mexican food, and why Northeast could be the next “Williamsburg.”
You own two restaurants and a bar in Ivy City. Will you be opening any other establishments in this neighborhood?
Ari Gejdenson: Honestly, not in D.C. for now. Coming up on the ballot is a proposal to eliminate the tip minimum wage and bring the minimum wage for tipped employees from $3.33 to $15 an hour. Which will change the tip system completely.
If you do get rid of the tip system, you have to put a service charge in — you now start paying your employees hourly. If you make your service charge 20 percent and a guest gets bad service, he’s going to be mad at the restaurant. So some people make their service charge 15 percent and hike up the prices in the menu. The dining system in America is one of the most beautiful things here and there’s no reason to mess with it. Because at the end of the day, changing the system eliminates jobs. We will see more restaurant closings than you can imagine.
Why do business in Ivy City?
AG: I think Northeast is the future of D.C. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that Brooklyn is coming to D.C. — not necessarily something as cool as Brooklyn — but something that is not your Manhattan, not your very expensive, very polished politicians, lawyers and lobbyists. There’s got to be that creative part of the city and that’s going to be moving east. This is like your Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is the start of it.
How has business been going for you at La Puerta Verde?
AG: Weekends are good. Weekdays we need to drive more people. But this is before the neighborhood has come. I was definitely ready for it to be slow — painfully slow — and people have come out and supported it. It can be a little intimidating to go to a part of Northeast Washington that you’ve never been to, but once you realize there’s a parking garage, there’s meters on the streets, there’s security people walking around — it’s fine over here. And they come back as long as the food and the service are proper.
Who’s eating here?
AG: It is explorers. We get anywhere from young people to people in their 70s. Rich people to poor people, black, white, any color you can imagine. You get a lot more artsy people, but these are the things that go with an explorer.
What was the biggest obstacle you faced in your first year at La Puerta Verde?
AG: Our original chef, Carlos Camacho, did a good job, but we had some disagreements. He was born in Mexico and learned how to cook in America, so he wanted to show some of the things he learned, which to me, is fusion. But we didn’t agree and to me, the whole reason for this restaurant is authentic Mexican food, so even the littlest bit of fusion — I wasn’t into it. He was here for roughly five months. (In a statement, Camacho told Eater that while he wishes his former employer the best, he has closed that chapter in his life and is fully committed to his current position as regional executive chef of Richard Sandoval Restaurants. Camacho said he would rather not “stir up old issues pertaining to my last place of employment.”).
What are you most proud of on the menu and why?
AG: I love the seafood that we do. We do a nice whole fish, and the calamari’s phenomenal. We have ProFish right across the street; they’re our fish distributor. Chef Raymundo Oliva walks over and can decide exactly what he wants.
What was the main lesson you learned about opening a Mexican restaurant?
AG: How to get the tortilla game right. I’ve never worked with corn tortillas before. They rise like flour but crust differently and become crunchy at a different temperature. The consistency changes at different temperatures than maybe a pita would. Or a flour tortilla. It’s definitely a thing you’ve got to watch.
What are the challenges of opening a restaurant in an up-and-coming neighborhood?
AG: Most of the residential in the neighborhood only supports the diner; they don’t come to the Mexican restaurant much. So we’re trying to bring people to a neighborhood that they haven’t been to before.
Why do you think the locals tend to support the diner over La Puerta Verde and what can you do to change that?
AG: It’ll be challenging. They want Tex-Mex. People have their idea of what Mexican food is, and unfortunately our authentic Mexican isn’t their version of it.
Would you ever compromise and add a few Tex-Mex items to the menu?
AG: Not here. I think though in time as they see it, they’ll be more intrigued. And then maybe they’ll try something like our spring chicken which you would not think is a quintessential Mexican thing. I’d think everybody would enjoy it, so maybe it starts there and moves onto a whole fish. Tacos are also approachable.
What was the moment you felt everything come together in the first year?
AG: The first menu change with chef Raymundo. He was here probably for two months and he was getting his handle on things, building up his team. That first full menu change, we went to the tasting, and said, ‘Here we go.’ When you love the food, it’s just so easy to be prideful about what you do.
What are some of your personal favorites on the menu?
AG: We’ve got a duck for two. It’s slow roasted and it just falls apart and you get it with a stack of tortillas. The duck is to die for. Duck is the hidden gem, or the whole fish.
With the first year safely under your belt, what will you tackle in your second year?
AG: Service is the main focus. We’ve got to work with the staff to bring higher levels of service. Is the presence at the table there? Do people feel comfortable? Do they feel special? I’d say maybe we’re getting a B-minus right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.