To go to work in one of Tracy’s restaurants is to join one of the most organized, forward-thinking, technologically advanced operations in the local industry.
Most restaurants train employees for two weeks. At Tracy’s restaurants, education is constant. Every dish at every restaurant—more than 1,685 items—is digitized, with links to recipes and information for servers. There are custom-made training videos on everything from how to tourné a potato to how to enter an invoice. The emphasis on doing things precisely is one reason you’ll never hear a server say, “Are you finished with that?” The gracious “May I clear the plate?” is drilled into all waiters.
Tracy finished first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America—after graduating from Georgetown—but half of his cooks have no formal training. Most staffers on the floor have either limited experience or came from systems antithetical to Tracy’s.
Tracy’s team has broken down his operation into 70 training courses—from cost control to “Wines of Italy”—along with comprehensive tests and rigorous study sessions for those tests. Anyone scoring more than 90 and in the top three in their class earns a $500 bonus.
“Empire” sounds like a grandiose word for a guy as unassuming as Tracy, but he says volume has always been a core component of his vision.
Until very recently, that meant the size of his restaurants and not the number. He’s eager to see whether his ideas, his system, will translate to a bigger operation. Next month, he opens a Chef Geoff’s in Rockville. There are plans to add another five restaurants by 2020, a number that would bring him close to that of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which currently owns 14. The idea of becoming a recognizable local brand drives him. But for the head of a small company with no investors, it also brings moments of despair.
Expansion has already made it harder to adhere to his original vision of high-volume restaurants with the sort of details in the dining room (white tablecloths, servers in ties) and on the plate (high-quality ingredients, a globally inspired menu) associated with fine-dining places while pricing himself competitively with the likes of Applebee’s.
With a single restaurant, it was possible not only to run the kitchen but also to make the rounds of the dining room, checking up on servers, offering diners the personal touch that distinguished his restaurants from the corporate chains. Friends and coworkers still laugh at stories of Tracy in the early years, watering the garden at midnight after a 15-hour day in the kitchen.
Two restaurants—he opened the downtown one in 2002—meant shuttling back and forth constantly. Three, which he undertook in 2006, nearly broke him.
The fact that number four, Tysons in 2009, went relatively smoothly does nothing to assuage his unease about number five.
Not that you’d see it under the cover of his dude-on-the-patio smile.
Tracy, 39, didn’t burn to be a chef. He didn’t burn to be anything at all.
He was a Boy Scout growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, three blocks from a golf course. Rebellion amounted to sneaking onto the course at night to practice putting and guzzle beer. He excelled at boarding school and had an array of interests but lacked a focused passion. At Georgetown, he majored in theology and spent his time pondering the nature of happiness, inspired to contemplation by Professor Joseph Murphy’s course “The Problem of God.”
Turns out Tracy could give a practical seminar on the subject of happiness.
“I’m incredibly lucky,” he says. “I won’t ever say that I’m not.”
He married his college sweetheart, Norah O’Donnell, now chief White House correspondent for CBS News. They met his freshman year. Catching sight of her and her roommate in line one day at the cafeteria, he and a buddy from boarding school spent several minutes in anxious consultation, wondering what their “angle” was going to be.
No angle necessary. The angle was niceness.
Tracy and O’Donnell have been together more or less ever since—21 years now. It is, by all accounts, a storybook life.
They have three adorable kids and a seven-bedroom, nine-bath Colonial in DC’s Wesley Heights, near American University. They bought it for $3.2 million in 2010, the same year they published Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler, a bestselling cookbook. If he wanted to, Tracy could walk every day through tree-canopied streets to work—his small suite of offices is upstairs from the Chef Geoff’s on New Mexico Avenue.
The couple has been spotted working out at the gym together, holding hands between sit-ups. Many nights, Tracy can be found not in one of his kitchens but by O’Donnell’s side at a prestigious gala or dinner party. One of Washington’s A-list couples, the duo is in high demand from September to May.
Tracy confesses to frequent pinch-me sessions: “Have I gamed the system? Are you supposed to be having this much fun? And making money doing it? I’ve got great, healthy kids and a phenomenal wife who’s exciting to me. Because of her, I get to hang out with the President of the United States, or the Vice President. And doing charitable events. And getting recognized in grocery stores. As a kid, I dreamed about being shortstop for the Red Sox, but you know? This is up there.”
Many of his fellow chefs struggle with the guilt of rarely seeing their children—sometimes naming their restaurants after them to compensate—but there’s none of that tortured tone in the way Tracy talks about his kids. He’s not not-around; he’s there. He’s involved.
“I’m envious of him,” O’Donnell says. “Geoff is a good manager at work, and he’s also a great manager of his time—managing his daily schedule to work out every day the way he does, and work hard and run the restaurants and be with the kids.”