By Chris Mohney
Marcelle Afram and Rose Previte are the chef and owner, respectively, of Compass Rose and the Michelin-starred Maydan in Washington DC. Previte opened Compass Rose in 2014 and Maydan in 2016. Afram was most recently chef at Bluejacket Brewery before taking over as chef at both of Previte’s restaurants in 2019. Afram and Previte were scheduled to take a lengthy culinary research tour through the Middle East in 2020 before the pandemic forced them to postpone. Lockdown conditions for restaurants continue to evolve in DC as elsewhere, though Maydan recently began offering outdoor dining for the first time.
MARCELLE AFRAM: I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is a suburb of Washington, DC. I was really linked to DC as a city my entire childhood. I went to a private school, which took this really diverse area and made it into a much smaller place than it really was. My parents couldn’t afford the school. They were working really hard to keep me in it. It was weird.
ROSE PREVITE: You forgot the part where for a while you didn’t know where you were born.
MARCELLE: There was this little looseness around my birth, and my parents wouldn’t really talk about it. I thought that was a normal thing until people started asking me, like, “Where were you born? What is this thing? Where do you go to school? We want you to make a matrix of your life and you’re eight years old.” I’m like, well, I started somewhere here. Everybody else had really specific stories. I thought it was really strange that I didn’t.
So I started to believe there was a conspiracy around my birth at a very young age. My uncle—my dad’s older brother who I hadn’t met before, and who had recently moved to Maryland from California—started infiltrating me with all these ideas. And I don’t know if he was joking around with me or what it was, but essentially he was like, “Well, do you know where your parents were when you were born?” I was like, I just figured I was born here. And then he’d say, “Well, we don’t really know.” So I lived with this for a while until finally we unearthed my birth certificate one day when I was rummaging through boxes at my mom’s house. I was 30.
ROSE: You have to appreciate that Middle Eastern people and conspiracy theories go hand in hand. So I can believe that for 30 years you were like, “I could have been born anywhere.”
MARCELLE: Until then, I never saw a birth photo. I never saw a birth certificate. I knew I had a passport, so it couldn’t have been that bad. There was a lot of elusiveness around it, which was pretty sketchy. Mom was born in Beirut, Dad in Damascus. Mom grew up in New Jersey, went there when she was around 10. Dad came to Silver Spring with some of his family when he was 18 or 19, directly from Damascus. They both have eight siblings each, so they came in stages. My dad came with his dad first, while everybody else found their way out in the 60s.
ROSE: My Middle Eastern family was in Detroit, which was a very common place for people from the Middle East to go. I didn’t think of Rockville as having a big Middle Eastern population.
MARCELLE: I had another uncle who was here actually. My dad’s father’s brother owns Afram Jewelers in Washington DC. It’s still there. So he came here before everybody. He helped everybody else come along. So that’s how we ended up in the Silver Spring area. My family is Syriac, which is a tribe of Assyrian people, and we were close-knit to that community growing up. It was very different than the Catholic schooling that I had. It was really interesting to have these two very prominently religious things happening in my life at the same time that were similar, but very, very different. I mean, Catholicism seemed progressive to me, because of what I was growing up with.
At the time, my parents always owned food places. Small mom-and-pop shops. They sold subs and pizza, and along with that they had Middle Eastern fare. My dad was really into pizza, and is still really into pizza. I don’t know where he picked it up. It’s something I need to ask him. He did pass the love on to me, which is really bizarre.
ROSE: Middle Eastern manousheh is a flatbread. It’s a form of pizza.
MARCELLE: And of course he’s from Damascus. He finally talked about the baking programs in Damascus and the bakeries and all these things. It obviously impressed him, in a way, to find his footing and assimilate. Because you can’t show people too much of who you are, but you can extend yourself to them through the things they know, which resonated for a long time, and was also a little inhibiting for a while, too.
ROSE: When we met and Marcelle said her family said her family was Assyrian, I was like, do you mean Persian? Like the ancient empire that doesn’t exist anymore? And she was like, no no no. I think it’s fascinating. As a Lebanese-American whose mother was Syrian Orthodox, I thought that kind of covered everybody, more or less. But this tiny little Orthodox sect where her family is originally from—before the pandemic, we were going to go there in April, and actually get into the food and the history.
MARCELLE: We were right on the brink of taking a deep dive into my roots. That obviously had to get postponed, but we hope that that’s still the plan in our near future. We want to go to this place that’s the last surviving town of the Assyrian people.
ROSE: And it’s in Southeastern Turkey. But because of the Armenian genocide, her family got pushed into Lebanon and Syria. The fact that they almost connect more with this little town in Southeastern Turkey is so interesting. It was such a fight for so long to be Orthodox in a Muslim city.
MARCELLE: Even among the other Assyrians. I look now at the research and I realize that we were probably kind of fundamentalist, honestly, compared to the other Assyrians.
ROSE: Every Middle Eastern country has this kind of sect, more like Christian Orthodox. They’re always the minority.
MARCELLE: It’s interesting because there were many names they could have stuck onto themselves as identifiers. It’s mostly just the claim of being indigenous people of northern Mesopotamia. It’s kind of like what the Kurds are going through, honestly.
ROSE: You also speak Aramaic. That’s also crazy to me.
MARCELLE: Growing up, I was very close with my dad’s dad. Between the ages of four to ten, my paternal grandfather and my dad’s oldest sister pretty much raised me. I would see my parents occasionally, but I really lived with my aunt, and my grandfather would take care of me most of the time and pick me up from school and do all those things. He taught me Aramaic. We also went to Aramaic school on Sundays. I loved it. Everybody else hated it. I also didn’t really like kids. They’re fine now, but when I was a kid, I was like, “I want to hang out with all the old people. They’re so much more interesting.”
It’s kind of like when I went to Catholic school. I was so excited to talk to people about religion because I wanted to be a theological historian. I was so enriched through my grandfather and all these old people I was around all the time. But at Catholic school, none of the other kids knew anything about their own faith. I was like, I hate them so much. I hated those kids. How can you not know anything about yourself?
Learning Aramaic was a lot of memorization of prayers and liturgy. It started with that. And then my grandfather just really, really schooled me. Whenever we were together, he would speak it with me. It was cool. I felt special. I had the advantage of being able to talk to all these people in that language. And my maternal grandmother liked me because I could do that, and I was interested in it. She and my paternal grandfather are two of the most important people in my life.
My parents ran all these different food places. Always something that had a Middle Eastern thing. My grandfather pulled me out of school early to take me to go work with my dad because he was short-staffed. I’m like 10 at the time. They were pulling me out of the private school they were breaking their back to pay for. It seemed cool then, but wow, that was a little messed up.
However it did get me away from other kids, and it gave me something I could find a passion in. I made a decision even then that that’s what I wanted to do. We didn’t have any college graduates in my family at the time. My parents’ whole thing was, “If you’re going to go to college, we’re only going to pay for it if you study to be a lawyer or a doctor.” They were spending all this money for me to go to private school. I had interests that were academically based—interests about us and our people. I really wanted to study theology. They were like, “No, this is what your life path is going to be and you’re going to work with us.” So I said, fine, I’m going to be terrible at school now, and I’m going to work with you, and that’ll be my life.
If I didn’t construct things in a way that I could be at work with my dad, even though I wasn’t getting paid for it, I would have been at home doing literally nothing—not allowed to watch television, not allowed to go on the internet. At home I was confined to helping my mom, who also worked. I knew that I would be raising my sisters. But I wanted to work.
At one point, my mom got a little shop in Olney, Maryland. It was primarily Middle Eastern. She was pregnant with my younger sister at the time, and she could barely stand on her own feet. In hindsight it seems I was opening the place every day, which was impossible because I was definitely, certainly still in school. On the weekends I was definitely opening. We would prep the entire menu. There were a ton of dips. We were making hummus, babaganoush, tabouleh, meat pies and spinach pies. I would go in and I would practice cooking, and my mom would sit there and delegate to me.
I was learning a life skill set—something that I could do. I didn’t want to be a lawyer or doctor, and that was the only way that they were going to pay for my college. So I worked full time for my dad until I was 17 years old.
Around that time, my parents started arranging calls from the church—calls for marriage. Which pretty much meant the community coming in, asking to get to know me, and once I turned 18, have my hand in marriage. Which I was not about at all, regardless of my queer sexuality.
I wrote my mom a letter, and I left it under her pillow. I didn’t come out to my parents then. I just told them, “I just want you to understand that I’m not interested in this.” I was very careful with my words. My dad found the letter. He was very angry. He kicked me out of the house at 17 years of age. My own son is 17 right now, and I look at him like, “Wow, he’s a child.” He could never survive. He’s also very spoiled and privileged, which is very different from the way I was raised. He’s just a baby inside the form of a large human adult.
My dad was like, “If you’re going to believe that and have those ideas, you can do that out there.” So I said, okay. I left, and I slept in my car for weeks. I wasn’t really connected to anybody. I had a couple of people that I knew from school, but I certainly didn’t want them in on this. I knew their parents would probably get involved, and it wasn’t something I wanted to bring attention to. I had already technically graduated high school at the time, so I didn’t have any of the school obligations. The only people that I really knew were people that worked for my dad. After spending a week in my car, I went and stayed with someone that worked for him.
I realized I’d always been an introvert. I still consider myself a bit of an introvert. But at the time I realized that for basic survival I had to put myself out there and meet people and figure out my living situation. Which I did. I met some friends and ended up working at an Irish Pub—the Irish Inn in Glen Echo, Maryland. I got a job as a food runner and busser. It was my first real restaurant. It totally opened my eyes. It was crazy. Amazing. I worked really hard and I learned how to expedite. There was somebody else expediting, and they frustrated me. I was such an elitist, egotistical jerk at the time, I was yelling at the line, and here I am 18 years old and just being horrible to these people that are running the kitchen. So the fry cook walked out, and the chef was like, “You can work that station.” I said, “Fine, I will.” I had a terrible service. It was the hardest thing ever. I was humiliated. And I was like, “I’ll try to do it again.”
That place was foundational for me. I was there on and off for almost four years, which allowed me to travel and work. I worked on a cruise ship in Alaska for a couple of months. I was a janitor for a year on the Princess Royal. Then I came back. I went to Spain for a year in 2004, and I came back a couple of times. I remember being at the library and at the bookstore in the cookbook section just flipping pages. I couldn’t afford the cookbooks. I was trying to get as much information as I could.
I went to Madrid first and got some stages—some of them at Michelin-star restaurants. Looking back, I don’t even think I comprehended what I was doing. But I didn’t like it. It was too many people working on too many finite things. I wanted to do everything. I just wanted to go on to the next thing that would teach me more about the next thing, and it wasn’t happening fast enough for me.
What I eventually did was end up on the island of Mallorca working on a fishing boat, which was awesome. They let me do everything. They were like, “Who is this ridiculous person who will do all these things without getting paid?” I took that mentality with all my stages. I didn’t get paid for any of them. I didn’t have money to go to culinary school. I wanted to learn what was at the core of everything. After the fishing boat, I worked on an octopus boat. That opened up my world because they were selling their catch to this group of people on a pier who had a live fire going, and they were selling pinchos with the octopus we were catching. From that, I kind of got back to cooking.
Then I headed to Barcelona for a little bit. I did a stage there, and I was like, okay, now I know all these things, and this isn’t teaching me enough. I was so arrogant. I’m a much more humble person now. But throughout my life I’ve often said I’m not going to do things the old way—instead I would do it this way. To me, those traditional kitchens felt like you were working with a bunch of people at the same level as you, doing the same things over and over again. You weren’t learning a skill from a leader in that moment.
I always thought leaders in the kitchen should be tutoring and teaching people rather than having massive groups of laborers peeling potatoes and deglazing with onions and shallots. It seemed brutal. There was just something about those kitchens that didn’t seem right. They were also very macho, and despite my arrogance, I didn’t fit into that. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t afraid to do hard work, but there had to be a smarter way
My grandparents had all died by the time I was 17. I had a ton of memories of cooking with my maternal grandmother, but no actual recipes. A lot of the things I was seeking and wanted to know about, I was trying to find by just digging through my past. I always knew that it was going to come back to who I was and where I was from. That was never a question for me. How that would happen, considering that I wasn’t a part of the community anymore, I didn’t know. But I knew my past was mine and it belonged to me just as much as anybody else. I’m owed a narrative. And also nobody else is documenting anything about it. So I constantly, obsessively researched everything that was going on with the community along the way.
But the reconnection to food happened strangely. It was Lebanese Taverna. When I came back to DC and ate there, I was like, this is very good. It was my first instance of nostalgia being back in the DC and Maryland area, having this food that I grew up with, and not having it attached to my family or my parents.
I ate this sandwich at Lebanese Taverna, and I started crying. That was what I’d been missing—the aromatics, the smells, everything about it took me back. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do. In my spare time, that’s what I studied, that’s what I worked on. Even now, there’s not a ton of information about how to differentiate what food is from where. It was hard to figure out, unless it was like Northern African or Middle Eastern or Lebanese. Everything was Lebanese.
When I was back in DC, I met my wife when we worked for the same restaurant group and developed a relationship. Those restaurants folded. Our relationship grew. About seven years ago, we were having an argument one night out on 14th and U Street. She has her son, who is, of course, my child now, too. Somehow he came up in that argument, and I said, “If he ever left home, you’d have to give him that space.” She said, “I will never, never give him that space. If he chose to leave me, I would always find him, and I would be a part of his life.” I was like, that’s ridiculous. But she was trying to tell me that my own mom misses me. I said, “Whatever. You want to call her? Call her.” She took my phone, and she called my mom, and she just walked away down the street.
At that point, I hadn’t spoken to my parents for 11 years. So I’m sitting there like, “OK, this is really happening.” It felt like a lifetime, but only about 10 minutes later my wife came back and said, “Your mom wants to talk to you.” I got on the phone with her, full of hurt.
After that call, me and my parents just built the relationship back up from there, somehow, some way. It helped my parents to see me raise my son and do well career-wise. I think they missed me genuinely. In all the words that they didn’t use, I know that there’s obviously regret for all the years of not being in touch. My wife was a major, major force in rebuilding that relationship. She’s now my parents’ favorite daughter.
ROSE: Marcelle and I met on a panel last year, and we didn’t even get a chance to talk. I started following you on Instagram, and I saw that at every event you were doing a Middle Eastern dish. You had the falafel burger at the menu while working at Bluejacket, which I thought was the most creative thing at a very American place by the baseball park. A thousand seats, a huge restaurant. So part of the reason I reached out about you taking over Maydan was sensing you wanted to do Middle Eastern food.
MARCELLE: Which was so cool, too, because even when we did that panel and I didn’t know much about you, I thought, “I’m going to do something with her someday.”
ROSE: I was like, I’m just going to see if she wants to have coffee. And you never know if that’s going to be weird. I didn’t know if your boss at Bluejacket was going to be pissed at me. So I got Marcelle’s number from a mutual chef friend. DC is a very tight-knit community. We’re so small. We’ve all kind of grown up together. I bartended in DC for eight years before opening my own place. A lot of us bartenders who served together have our own places. Everyone’s very helpful. Anyone who ever calls me for anything, I help them, and likewise. You just have this network of people you can text or call. So I thought there was a good chance, even though we didn’t really know each other. She was like, “Yeah, I’ll have coffee.” It’s just like a work thing. We talked, and we made the deal really fast.
MARCELLE: Before I met Rose, I had plans with Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Bluejacket. I’d spent six years with them. They’re great people, and I love what they’re doing. They’ve changed the perspective of the beer scene and so many things. I felt like there was opportunity with them, but it wasn’t happening fast enough for me. I’m very goal-oriented when it comes to my timeline. I need to do it when I need to do it. But I’m also very loyal. Six years isn’t nothing. It’s a long time.
But honestly, the week before I left NRG, I told my wife, “Look, I love you and I know you’ll understand this, but if this doesn’t happen with them sooner I just need to a dip out for like a month or two and go do some soul-searching thing to figure out what my next steps are. I need to be doing this food that I’m so passionate about.” It was hard.
I was very hard on myself as well. I’ve dealt with depression my entire life, and I needed to do this. I feel like it’s a race to preserve all of this information and to start creating all of this stuff for a community that’s dwindling and falling apart and pretty much on the brink of not existing. So I put the weight of the entire community on my shoulders. Nobody asked me to. I was like, I need to do this. You don’t want me to represent you, but I got you. Let’s go.
ROSE: It’s such a perfect fit for Maydan, because I think some of our power is that we don’t just pull from one culture. North Africa and the Caucuses and even Oman and the Persian Gulf—that’s a lot of different spices. The current recipes that we use were determined by ancient migration patterns—people that moved for war or because of famine. This is a refugee culture. It’s a nomadic culture. And Marcelle’s family story is in line with the cultures that we study.
When we actually talked, I was like, “Do you just want to take over the whole kitchen at Maydan?” Surprise! I said taking over Compass Rose as well was optional. But you were like, “No, I’ll do both.” The thing about both restaurants—they do high volume for small spaces. Bluejacket had much more square footage, and I knew if you could do that, you could do both these kitchens. When I heard the number of covers they were doing at Bluejacket during baseball season—
MARCELLE: We did 2,500 covers on a Saturday.
ROSE: That gives me anxiety. But at Maydan, we studied the spice trade path. We knew by going to Oman that we were going to incorporate chilies from Southeast Asia, because of the way the trade from Southeast Asia docked in Oman to get to the peninsula. Oman now has all these beautiful ingredients that my mother or her mother would never have touched, like tamarind. Ask my mother about tamarind. She’d be like, “I wouldn’t touch the stuff. Not with a 10-foot pole.” We can use tamarind because we visited Oman and it is in the Middle East. It’s the far reaches, but it shows the diversity of this region. We like to say it goes Tangiers to Tehran, and from Batumi to Beirut.
Marcelle’s family story is one of migration and refugees from Turkey because of genocide. Now that story involves the survival of a nation that has been involuntarily displaced. So of course they’re going to get smaller. That goes into the narrative of the restaurant—it tells the story of a region that typically you only hear about in America when bad things happen there. We want to preserve that story, and show people we think of it in a different way. There’s lots of positive, beautiful things happening outside of the wars and the conflicts.
MARCELLE: Our community is very close. I was very sheltered growing up. I wasn’t allowed to have friends or go to people’s houses. I wasn’t allowed to go on field trips. They were really, really strict. I’m the oldest of four girls. I think they were terrified, because within the community itself they live in fear. There’s something about preservation that’s really important to them. And I think that seeing their own children being raised in this country scared them, as much as they want to say, “We’re American. This is who we are.” There were a lot of things they didn’t want us to be a part of. I don’t think they’ve understood it. Whenever I would ask to do something, they were like, “Oh, we don’t do that.”
ROSE: Do you think they were afraid you would marry outside the community? I know there was always a fear with me and the American boys.
MARCELLE: Yes! It goes back to preservation.
ROSE: That’s what their brains were like. If you’re with Americans too much, you won’t marry within the community, you won’t reproduce within the community. There is this death fear.
MARCELLE: I’m still trying to dig through it because they all lie. It’s crazy. It’s really strange. There’s denial and there’s lies. I don’t know.
ROSE: Some of what we’re told is inaccurate because of stubbornness. A lot of the Christians in the Middle East look down on the Muslims. They would tell you a historical fact incorrectly, if that fact would make Islam look good. My family’s the same way.
MARCELLE: There’s a clear lineage through my dad’s mother, who died when I was very young. Her family was Arab. I took my DNA tests to figure it all out. It’s true. She’s Allepan. They’re Arab. There’s somebody from the Gulf, or close to it. There’s somebody from Aleppo, probably her parents. It’s very different than my other grandparents.
ROSE: My mom tried to tell me that Lebanon is a majority Christian country. I’m like, no, it’s not. That’s just not true. And she says, “No, it is, Rose. We’re the only Christian country in the Middle East.” That’s just not true. When she said that I laughed, because a lot of people don’t understand when I say that Middle Eastern families are famous for lying to their kids. So when we finally do our trip to the region, we’ll start by interviewing our parents.
MARCELLE: It’s going to be hysterical. We’re going to talk to them about the family history. I’m just so curious as to what they’re going to say. My mom could be like, “No, we’re from New Jersey.”
Meeting you was exciting, because I thought you were the only other Middle Eastern person doing food like this in the DC area. I didn’t care what it was you wanted to do together. If it was food-related—the two Lebanese women of DC should definitely be doing it together.
ROSE: And now, in the beginning of this pandemic, we were one of the restaurants that decided to close preemptively before the city made us. We’d had a crazy busy weekend. I woke up that Sunday and I could feel it. I was like, “This is it. We can’t do it. That was too many people.” It was the hardest thing I’ve done since either of these restaurants opened. I told everybody that we were going to close both restaurants and furlough 50 people on Monday, leaving some staff at both restaurants. DC let us know right away that we could stay open as a to-go business. But neither restaurant in any way was a to-go business. Of course, we’re one of those places who didn’t want you to take your food out.
I can’t say how proud I am of Marcelle and the whole team, because we just turned on a dime. In a few hours we had put a Google form together and were selling to-go. I think about it now and I’m like, “Wow, that was insane. Why the hell did we not just close for a couple days?” But we didn’t. We just went into it, and we were able to keep 20 people working at Maydan and about 12 at Compass Rose. We very quickly started to-go five days a week.
We partnered with World Central Kitchen right away. We trialed the independent restaurant program with them. José Andrés said he wanted to make sure they were paying independent restaurants to make meals. But Maydan was the first restaurant they did it with.
We went through trial and error, figuring out how to package the stuff. We quickly started doing hundreds of meals. We ended up partnering with two other nonprofits, so we’re doing a community kitchen on top of the to-go business for three different nonprofits. So we’re keeping busy.
MARCELLE: Our first instinct with the food was to adapt and protect and do what we can. It was really important that we were able to provide a service, not just the need to maintain what we’re doing, but rather because people are going to need to eat. We still have staff that we can keep employed. So what are we going to do to adapt and create a situation that’s safe?
We were sitting on a hefty amount of food. So first and foremost, we had to respect what we had and move the inventory. We learned some things really quickly as far as to-go service was concerned. You can’t adapt the exact same system that we had in place. We had some interesting services in the beginning.
ROSE: My entire adult life I’ve worked in a restaurant or bar. One of the top three worst services of my life was our first Friday service.
MARCELLE: I really pride myself on my expediting skills. It’s something that I have at the top of my resume. But that night I crashed. I crashed and burned.
ROSE: It hurt so bad. We’d been doing so well. We’d all been feeling like, “We got this. We’ve been going for two years.” Nothing prepared us for what happened. Now, in retrospect, I can tell you that a lot of other restaurants did not change over so quickly, so there weren’t that many of us doing it. The first couple of days—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—they’d been chill. We had it. We thought we had it. It was horrible.
We had the orders open. They opened right at 5, just like a regular service would. We just thought, we’ll make the food and people will come. You order, and 30 minutes later you’re at the door and you get your food. We normally cook food in that amount of time. But what we did not understand was that we were going to be inundated with hundreds of orders in 10 minutes, We couldn’t stop it fast enough. Everyone else thought the same thing, like, “I ordered 40 minutes ago. I’ll just show up.” We were intending to call everyone and give them a pickup time so that we’d only have five people at a time. At one time, we had probably 20 people in the alley, distancing socially, but absolutely furious.
MARCELLE: It felt apocalyptic.
ROSE: They were like zombies. Everyone is in shock, because the world just flipped upside down. While some of them were so kind, some were so mean. It’s that nightmare that you have as a server that you forgot a table. I still have that nightmare. I’ll wake up like, “Oh my God, I didn’t go back to table three.” That service was nightmare on repeat, to the point that I made my husband come over, and I made him start going outside because I couldn’t emotionally do it anymore. There was a girl named Trisha—and for the rest of my life, anyone I don’t like, I will call Trisha—she was just so mean. She walked in—we were trying to keep everybody outside, mind you—she walked right in and she’s crying and she looks at me and said, “I just don’t even want the food anymore. This is my nightmare.”.
MARCELLE: We’re like, “This is your nightmare?”.
ROSE: I couldn’t even keep it together, and I’m the one who’s supposed to keep it together. I look at her, and I’m like, “Trisha, this is my nightmare.” But we got through it.
MARCELLE: We did it.
ROSE: We probably gave back more than we made, because we comped everything for everyone. But we had no idea.
MARCELLE: We learned so much from it. We learned everything from it. We really evolved so much from there. It was pretty traumatic. And of course we didn’t take little things into consideration. If we’re feeding 100 people, how many to-go boxes is that? How much more does that add to the actual service, having to pack everything?
ROSE: Now we have an order window during the day for a couple of hours. We know a couple of hours ahead how many we’re making. Everything is super organized and lovely now. As far as transitional learning experiences, we’ll never forget that one.
MARCELLE: We’re all a bunch of go-getters.
ROSE: It was honestly fight or flight. I think that every single person on this team’s reaction was, we’re gonna fight.
MARCELLE: It reminds me of this thing that my wife says about my driving. She says that I’m “aggressively confident.” I feel we were all a little aggressively confident in terms of what we could do.
We’re still right on track with the idea of the food. That hasn’t changed. The feeling behind it’s the same. We just had to narrow it down to the fact that we have to sell it as a package. So we’re still doing kebabs. We’re still doing spreads. We’re still doing our condiments. We’re just being really seasonally conscious. We have to adapt to make sure that we’re helping out our local economy as well, supporting farmers who have invested all this stuff into their land and all of a sudden have an abundance and can’t move it because restaurants aren’t open.
ROSE: One example of a change—our lamb shoulder has been a signature dish since we started. We quickly realized that it wasn’t the most efficient. It takes a very long time to prepare overnight. Then we can only sell so many because it’s however many we made. So we changed the preparation. We kept lamb, because staples like lamb in a Middle Eastern restaurant are incredibly important. So we just change the preparation. We’ve been experimenting with things like that—how do we stay true to our roots, but change?
MARCELLE: Certain items, like the duck, couldn’t really translate. Or the halloumi wouldn’t really translate as a to-go item. We’re trying to maintain the integrity of what we’re doing, while making sure it translates to what guests expect.
ROSE: We are doing this because we have to. We’re finding a lot of joy in seeing our food in people’s homes, because it’s bringing them joy in a really hard time. We know this because of Instagram videos and pictures that they’re posting, which really help us understand that this is something that the city needs right now. So we feel like we’re giving back in that way, which feels good. And being able to do the meals for World Central Kitchen felt like we were giving back. We get to be open, we get to be healthy, so we can give this to people who might not be able to get out of the house.
But the minute we can go back to the way we were, I will be fine getting rid of to-go, because so much of what we do is the experience and being inside and the service. We’ve gotten great feedback that even through to-go, they’re getting good service. We have great personalities, the people that are accepting orders and doing drop off, but it’s just not the same.
I built this place to be something so different. It’s the opposite of what we’ve had to morph into for a little while. It’s really hard. As long as we’re only at partial capacity, we will have to-go, but as soon as we’re at full again, which I believe will be after there’s a vaccine and we stabilize a little bit, then we would just go back to the way we were.
MARCELLE: I agree with that for sure. We have to acknowledge if there is a culture shift with people’s perspectives. For instance, we have a provisions section right now that we just put on last week. That’s something that we discussed even before all of this started happening. That’s just the fun little staples to take home. We have our marinated labneh in these really beautiful jars and stuff like that. That’s something that could help, if there is demand for it after the pandemic.
ROSE: We could keep provisions, like a grocery store, something to take home. But it wouldn’t be hot, to-go food.
ROSE: I can tell you with a lot of confidence that unless something really radical, really terrible happens and surprises us, we’ll be able to open both restaurants when the pandemic passes. I can say that because I’ve thought about this ad nauseam. I think it’s because our models were already a little different.
I do think that the restaurant industry was already on the cusp of changing. A lot of the traditional full-service models in cities are not sustainable with the way rents have been going, and with the way labor costs are going, especially in DC. We’re one of the few money-making industries in the city, aside from the federal government. We are constantly hit with new burdens.
We’re already thinking about fewer servers, less contact. As we’re reopening, we’re realizing that’s labor we can save going forward, which means more money in the restaurant if we actually don’t rehire for that position.
I talked to a guy at a coffee shop the other day. He realized that by going to an online ordering system, he eliminated a whole very expensive position. He said, “Look, even though the city says I can open back up, I’m not replacing the person. I’m going to keep making people order online.” I think you’re going to see less labor, because that’s really in what gets us as far as margins in full-service restaurants. I think we’re going to start getting people to pay ahead of time so that they don’t have contact with the server or sign their checks or do any of that.
I do think we’ll see more fast-casual or quick-serve concepts, because they can pivot to takeout much faster. People are not going to feel safe for a long time, and they’ll want food to-go at home. As more restaurants go back to not doing to-go, guests will turn to quick-serve. They are going to get rid of their full-service sit-downs, and they’re going to move to take-out or a quick-serve concept. But it needed to happen, honestly. There’s a lot of changes that are happening now that I think are good and will actually benefit us in the long run.