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On the House: Life With a Third Restaurant

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Welcome to our newest feature, On the House, wherein we hand over the floor to the owners and operators of the great dining and drinking establishments of our fair city. Today, your resident proprietor is Doug Washington, co-owner of Town Hall, Salt House and the recently-opened Anchor & Hope. We asked Mr. Washington how restaurant #3 has impacted things; his words follow.

2008_06_onthehouse.jpgIf you had asked me 10 years ago what my plans were, I would have told you that I want to open a small restaurant and operate it alone. After opening Town hall five years ago, I would have told you I want to open 15 restaurants in different cities, I want an empire! If you ask me now after opening our third restaurant (and having our third child at home), I will tell you that three fine dining restaurants are as many as I'll ever do. A take-out place? A pizza place? Sure, maybe down the road ... but another restaurant? No way. We have a great thing going: three busy restaurants that I can walk back and forth to each night.

I will admit that having three changes something though. There are times when I walk into Town hall and a guest I have known for years is just finishing dinner and it kills me that I wasn't there for their entire experience. Or I run into someone and they say they had dinner at Salt House but I wasn't there. It's not that I need to be there for them to have a great experience — on the contrary — it's just that it feels like someone came over to your house for dinner on a night when you were at the neighbor's house.

There's something you always give up to get something and to own three restaurants. It's an amazing experience, but when you're at one restaurant every day, every meal — you feel like you have your hands all the way around something, that you know every nook and cranny and if anything goes wrong, you feel like you were there to fix it. There's a great deal of letting go that takes place when you open more. You don't let go of your standards or expectations; you let go of your narcissistic notion that you HAVE TO be there for it to go right.

The other small disconnect is with the crew that I work with. To work alongside the same crew every night is incredibly intimate and downright fun. There is a lot of laughing going on. When you open more places, you still see them every day but you're working in three different trenches now. I now work with 250 people in three restaurants. It's still intimate but it's not the same as when you sit down together and eat before every service, set up the room together and then service begins together. Sometimes I walk in in the middle of the crunch and jump in, but there is a rhythm you miss.

I wish I could say that my decision to NOT open any more fine dining restaurants was solely based on some altruistic commitment to guests experience and our employees well-being only — it is that, but also I just want to see my wife Freya and our three gorgeous kids more. I would not change my situation for the world because as much as I talk about the disconnects, there are also some gifts that you get with growth. I am watching people start out as servers and become managers at one of our other places. I am watching people have more opportunities to grow. I now have relationships with over 200 crew members and it feels like the table you sat around for the Christmas when my parents invited everyone on all sides of our family and unexpectedly, they all showed up. There's never a dull moment.

I often think about what I will be doing in 25 years. I can say with all certainty that I will own a tiny little place with a 25 seat counter and me and three other people will do it all ourselves. Open five nights (no lunch — I'll be busy taking lunch to my grandchildren at school) and it ends up being the best thing since sliced bread. We'll serve simple, clean food, play great music, play short films that we shoot, hang my wife's artwork all over the walls, no reservations and no bullshit. I'll probably make more money than I do now. It'll be straight from the heart. No MBA principles at work. Fuck the MBA decisions. And if anyone comes in and is nasty or starts taking pictures of food with their cell phones to put on Yelp, I'll kick them out. And we'll usher in the couple waiting at the door and on she goes...

--Doug Washington

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