We interviewed James Waterhouse, general manager of the beer garden and restaurant Garden District, Washington DC, to hear about his management tips to stay open in 2020 and stories of working in one of the city’s most renowned locations to enjoy craft beers paired with a delicious bbq menu.
What were the main changes for Garden District during the crisis?
For the first two or three months, Garden District was offering to-go food only. We didn’t jump on the phase one allowances right away because we didn’t feel ready to have guests. However, since the re-opening of our patio a couple of weeks ago, we’ve had a large increase in sales. At the moment we can’t use all of our tables or have a standing room for our guests. But we are lucky to have our outdoor space and legally have 12 tables with up to 72 possible clients, in theory.
We’ve created a small sealed barrier inside the building to maximize safety for guests and people working here. Also, we made everything disposable and kept no more glassware or paper menus. People can now order directly from their phone on a new dine-in section on our website.
What would be your best tip for other businesses to stay open in 2020?
Everyone should have good plans for to-go & delivery. Even in DC, with lots of restrictions on reopening, people don’t feel completely safe to eat out yet. Also, a lot of businesses have started selling wholesale products— the same for us: we were offering our 4-packs beers of haze or IPA. So, if you can keep this mix, it should be good..but let’s see. I’m honestly a bit worried about the restaurant scene in DC. This week two businesses in our street closed.
How did you decide to pursue a career around food?
Before running our beer garden, I had no experience of working in food service. It started as a second job to pay my rent and bills, but soon it became something that I love. Also, my parents joined the Slow Food movement in California when I was a teenager and we started going to really good restaurants more often. Eating out with them was like doing small vacations and that time really helped shape my palate and understand quality.
What was the first dish you ever cooked?
The first ambitious dish I cooked was inspired by the Californian tradition of tri-tip from the Santa Barbara area. It’s an unusual cut of beef, similar to sirloin but smaller and it’s usually discarded. I remember buying one, marinating it, serving it with asparagus. It was many years ago, but I was very proud of my first grilled steak.
How was your first day working at Garden District?
I had never worked in a restaurant or similar things. The beer garden was so busy and every table was full. It was totally exhausting and I even forgot to eat. I remember sitting on the stairs at the end of my shift and my former business partner found me. He came to say that I did a good job and offered me a pulled pork sandwich.
The first bite of that sandwich I was like: oh my God, these guys know what they are doing. It tasted so good.
What was the most rewarding day of your career?
That night this guy gave me the pulled pork sandwich. He was my business partner for years, as well as my mentor and friend. Unfortunately, he passed away unexpectedly a couple of years ago, and at that point, I had to take responsibility in the kitchen as well. It was something I had never done and not even sure I wanted to do.
But it needed to happen for our business to survive. It’s been two years now and I’m proud of how things are going at Garden District. We also got featured in an article in the Washington post on the best bbq spots in DC. We hadn’t been on that list for some years. It is a great achievement for us because there are a lot of great spots in DC and it’s very competitive.
What’s the biggest challenge in running a restaurant?
Learning to have boundaries, I think. When you are in charge of every aspect of restaurant management, it’s kind of hard to delegate, especially when you are proud of your product and want it to be perfect every time…it’s hard sometimes to give people the authority and responsibility. Therefore, it’s important to build a team of people you trust and rely on and to be able to take time off your work and relying on your team as well. It’s challenging, but rewarding at the same time.
Which food culture inspires you the most?
Hispanic cuisine, especially the one from El Salvador and Mexico. It’s what we cook for our staff. They are more familiar with this. To me maybe it’s more exciting because it’s different.