How entrepreneurs built a few of D.C.’s top eateries

Opening a restaurant is notoriously risky. So many factors have to line up perfectly -- the location, the food, the funding -- but when they do, an eatery can be reap rewards from media praise to lifelong loyal guests. Washington, D.C., is home to several such success stories, made all the more impressive by the fact that their founders had never opened a restaurant before.

Compass Rose owner Rose Previte earned her Master’s Degree in Public Policy before shifting careers to open the eatery inspired by the street food she’d seen on her global travels. Chris Brady and Andrew Dana -- co-owners of Timber Pizza -- met at work post grad school and moonlighted with their mobile pizza oven before leaving their jobs to pursue pizza full time.

None of them has a culinary degree or foodservice experience outside of bartending and catering jobs, but their vision and perseverance paid off in the form of two successful restaurants. Brady and Dana opened a brick-and-mortar location of Timber Pizza in 2016, and the following year Bon Appetit named it “Pizzeria of the Year”. This year, Timber made the 2018 Michelin Guide “Bib Gourmand” list and Dana launched a new eatery, a modern Jewish deli concept called Call Your Mother. Previte parlayed the success of Compass Rose into the launch of Maydan, which has racked up accolades including the title of second-best restaurant in the country from Bon Appetit. The restaurant, which features Middle Eastern cuisine cooked over live fire in a central hearth, was a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant of 2018.

The three entrepreneurs recently sat down with Daniel Pink, the author of business books including “To Sell Is Human,” at an event in Washington, D.C., to discuss what it takes to succeed in the restaurant business.

Stay hungry -- both literally and figuratively

While none of them had experience running a restaurant, Previte, Brady and Dana all share a passion for food and hospitality. Previte worked at her father’s sausage cart while growing up, and tended bar while in graduate school. While in business school, Brady’s final project was a business plan for a pizzeria that eventually ended up inspiring Timber.

In addition to a love of food, anyone planning to open a restaurant has to have an appetite for hard work and long hours, the founders agreed. When Previte opened Compass Rose, she lived above the restaurant. “You have no idea how much you work when you live above the business,” she said, recalling long winter nights spent in the unfinished restaurant with a space heater to make sure the pipes didn’t freeze.

Follow your gut

It’s easy to get discouraged on the long, winding road to opening a restaurant, but the panelists agreed that there were moments along the way that let them know they were onto something good. For Previte, finding the coffee shop space that would eventually become Compass Rose made her vision seem like a real possibility. “When I say trust your gut I know that can sound really trite...but I knew in my gut,” she said. Brady echoed the importance of a gut feeling when selecting their storefront for Timber, which was once a church. “When we walked in, we had that moment,” he said.

Count on your community

The factor in their success that all three panelists seemed to mention most was the importance of having a strong support network. Funding from the founders’ families was instrumental in the creation of both Timber and Compass Rose. Previte urged any hopeful restaurateurs to enter into funding discussions -- with family or otherwise -- with confidence. “Why would you think anyone is going to give you money if you don’t believe in yourself?” she said.

In addition to relying on their family networks for funding, Previte, Dana and Brady turned to the local D.C. culinary network to staff their kitchens. Dana and Brady met Timber’s chef, Daniela Moreira, at a local farmers market back when they were still making the pizzas themselves. Moreira gave Timber’s menu the spark it needed to succeed, incorporating produce from her rooftop garden into inventive pizzas such as the Green Monster made with pesto, feta cheese, zucchini and kale.

Previte found Compass Rose’s first executive chef through Craigslist, and later borrowed a chef from another local restaurant. She praised the members of D.C.’s tight knit restaurant community for supporting one another and always being generous with their time. She credited her business partner Mike Schuster as being her mentor -- one of many whom she sought advice from when starting out.

“I also spoke to a lot of women, because it’s not lost on me that not a lot of women do this, so there has to be a reason, right? I had some really amazing women help me and get really real about ‘how does this affect your marriage?’ and ‘if you want to have kids you should be thinking about that,’” she said. “I had some really great advice, and my recommendation is to sit down with anyone that will talk to you and ask, ‘what did you do, how did you do it?’”

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