The most remarkable thing about Geoff Tracy’s restaurants is how unremarkable they are.
There’s nothing in the room or on the plate at any of his four places in DC, Maryland, and Virginia to make you stop and take notice. No nods to prevailing fashion, no gestures toward the latest trends and concepts. And that’s precisely as Tracy has scripted it. At a time when the restaurant scene has exploded but a great meal out is an uncertain bet, his places trade on the comfort of the familiar and simple thing done well.
You’re unlikely to remember your meal two weeks later. Heck, you might not even remember it two hours later.
None of which is put forth as criticism.
Tracy himself would be the first to point out that his restaurants are successful not because he’s a creative mastermind. His mission statement is writ large on his awnings and menus: “Great food, libation, merriment.” The phrase dates to 2000, the year he opened the first of three Chef Geoff’s. The message: No aspect of the dining experience should stand above the others; all three are equal. It’s a far more populist sensibility than you might expect from a restaurant with the word “chef” in the title. That’s Tracy.
One of the greatest compliments you can pay him is to tell him you loved your recent dinner at one of his restaurants but you can’t recall what you ate, who served you, or even, come to think of it, where you dined. Consistency and seamlessness of experience are the enduring virtues of Tracy’s restaurants, the reason he has managed, in a little more than a decade, to build a company on its way to becoming a small empire.
Like most successful restaurateurs, Tracy credits two decades of experience, endless hard work, and a commitment to improving that borders on obsession. But unlike most restaurateurs, Tracy places his faith in a highly unorthodox system that confounds many of his brethren in the business, a system that invites comparisons with the corporate tech world in its devotion to data collection and with baseball’s current crop of Moneyball GMs in its reliance on metrics and efficiencies. You’ve read about artist chefs, businessmen chefs, and even CEO chefs. Meet the chef as engineer.
Six-fifteen PM, Chef Geoff’s in Upper Northwest DC: You slip into a corner booth. Elizabeth, the server, is agreeable in her smart tie and pressed apron, the Pinot Gris is crisp and cool, the salmon with lentils is perfectly cooked, the water glasses are kept filled, the check comes without asking. Were you dining at one of Tracy’s spinoffs—Chef Geoff’s in downtown DC or Tysons Corner, or even at the Italian-themed Lia’s in Chevy Chase—your night wouldn’t be appreciably different. Missteps in a Tracy restaurant are few. Things unspool smoothly.
Here comes Tracy from the kitchen now, making the rounds, ball cap cocked back on his head, his blue eyes gleaming. This is the public face of his restaurants, the fun-loving guy down the block who opens his home to the neighborhood for a nightly party.
It’s not at all a front, but as in his restaurants, what matters most is what you can’t see. Compared with the level of detail with which Tracy and his team watch your night unfold, you’re looking at a black-and-white Philco and they’re staring at a high-def flat-screen.
Did Elizabeth bring your Pinot Gris within three minutes of the time you ordered it? Were your appetizers delivered within seven minutes, entrées within ten, desserts within seven? Were these plates described at the table before they were set in front of you? Were napkins refolded when you went to the restroom? Was non-bottled water referred to as “ice water” (correct) or “water” (incorrect)?
That couple sitting across from you picking at a plate of hummus might be catching a light bite before a movie, or they might be working secretly for Tracy. Once a month, he brings in anonymous reviewers from an agency in New York to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of each of his restaurants. One recent assessment noted ten small errors: A dessert recommendation was offered only when the customer asked, and the plate took ten minutes to arrive instead of seven; the sink in the women’s room needed cleaning; bottled water wasn’t offered. Still, the restaurant scored 93 out of 100 points.
When Tracy is in the kitchen he, too, is gathering data, snapping photos of the tuna tartare appetizer on his iPhone to share with managers at his other locations to make sure the plating is consistent, the baked-wonton garnish jutting upright the way he wants. From the kitchen at Tysons, his roving director of food and beverage, Wil Going, is performing the same quality control, shooting pics of the shrimp and grits, the bestselling item on Chef Geoff’s menu, and the mushroom ravioli, the most profitable.
On this night, a member of Tracy’s team is finishing up her exhaustive, bimonthly sweep of the original Chef Geoff’s on New Mexico Avenue, Northwest, assessing the staff’s performance on 800 “standards” that break down the daily business of a restaurant into discrete measurements. Are all items chilled to 70 degrees before being placed in the walk-in refrigerator? Are wines by the glass dated to ensure freshness, and are they less than two days old? Is the dishwasher’s final rinse set at the proper temperature?
Tracy’s team converts this information to numbers, which are then crunched to compile weekly reports and later monthly and a quarterly report cards.
All this orchestrated oversight to keep a low-key neighborhood restaurant—a place that sits several rungs below the pampered refinements of Citronelle or CityZen—running smoothly?
“Consistency,” Tracy says, “is a lot harder than it looks. It might just be the hardest thing of all to achieve.”
When members of Tracy’s management team talk about their time in the business, they speak of two distinct periods: before Tracy and after Tracy.
These are industry veterans who have worked for some of the biggest names in Washington, yet listening to them compare their experiences, you might think they had come not just from different companies but from different industries.
“When I came to work for Geoff, I thought I knew how to do my job,” says one. “But then I came here and learned I could do it differently and better. And I grew.”
“Does it sound like we’re all drinking the Kool-Aid?” another asks, laughing. “Well, we are. There’s a lot to drink.”