Everywhere at Once: Chef Geoff Tracy’s Data-Driven Empire

Geoff Tracy couldn’t clone himself. But as his restaurant empire grew he did the next-best thing, creating a complex, data-driven system to ensure that his employees always do everything—from plating a salad to setting the dishwasher temperature—the Chef Geoff’s way.

By: Todd Kliman

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 credits his brother, Chris, with bringing new order to company operations.

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.”

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.

The Chef Geoff's Way

A sampling of the 800 standards on which he grades his restaurants.

All items must be chilled to 70 degrees before being placed in the walk-in refrigerator.

Wines by the glass must be dated to ensure freshness, and they should be less than two days old.

If a candle goes out, it must be relit within two minutes.

The dishwasher has to be set at the proper concentration and temperature.

Whenever new employees start work, they should receive an introductory e-mail before their first day.

Tea should be served in a cup with a saucer that has a teaspoon and lemon wedge on the rim.

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.”

A nanny and an au pair help, but so does Tracy’s willingness to take time off. Among the many benefits of having an efficient, high-functioning system is that it enables him not to have to be around all the time. Tracy takes frequent advantage, recharging at a “destination club” owned by former AOL chair Steve Case, called Exclusive Resorts. The club’s initiation fee is $170,000 and permits executives to rent properties for $1,000 a day in places such as Vail, Colorado, and Los Cabos, Mexico. Tracy used all 30 days of his membership last year and recently signed up for the company’s new, cheaper offshoot, Portico, to increase his options.

In upper Northwest DC, he’s something of a folk hero for a recent stunt that landed him in the gossip columns. A newly installed speed camera nailed his Lexus three times in three days for exceeding the posted limit. In all, 11,000 tickets and 20,000 warnings were issued to drivers in the first two months the camera went up. “All y’all that live in upper Northwest DC and drive on Foxhall Road . . . watch out for the new speed camera,” Tracy wrote in an e-mail blast to his customers. “It’s on a downhill so it gets you every time.” He wrote checks for $425, then hired a guy for $1,200 to stand on Foxhall Road with a sign alerting motorists to the trap. The back of it read: HAPPY HOUR AT CHEF GEOFF’S.

“I’m incredibly lucky,” says Tracy, who’s married to CBS’s Norah O’Donnell. They have three kids and live in a seven-bedroom Colonial in DC’s Wesley Heights neighborhood.

Does it trouble Tracy that he gets written about mainly for being his wife’s date at high-profile functions and for his efforts to help his fellow citizens avoid tickets?

He laughs.

Or the fact that none of his restaurants has ever made a Washingtonian 100 Very Best or Cheap Eats list?

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” he asks. More laughter.

To make either of those lists, he knows, would require ratcheting up the level of sophistication on the plate and in the room or, alternatively, scaling back to deliver the sorts of values mom-and-pop and ethnic restaurants do.

“I know what I am, and I know what kind of restaurants I want,” he says. “I’ve never wavered on that.”

In other words, he minds the middle. And he minds it as few in this city ever have.

“I’d be lying if I said I expected any of this,” Tracy says, eating a crabcake lunch at Chef Geoff’s Downtown. “I honestly never dreamed there’d be more than the one restaurant.”

This aw-shucks aspect is one of the things that make Tracy so likable. He’s a bracing palate cleanser compared with the complex stews offered up by many chefs, with their unchecked egos and unslakable thirst for attention and validation. Mr. Smith, minus the passion and ideology.

Tracy arrived in Washington in 1991 without the slightest clue about what he wanted to do, much less become: “Direction? The last thing I contemplated was direction.”

It put him out of step with his careerist classmates at Georgetown, who four years later were bragging about the jobs they’d landed at companies like Lehman Brothers. “What’s Lehman Brothers?” he recalls asking.

But Tracy wasn’t without some foundation. He had worked at a student-run store called Vital Vittles selling Triscuits, ice cream, and other college necessities, working his way up from stock boy to general manager of the campus organization that ran the store and other student enterprises, overseeing a business of 85 employees that made $2 million to $3 million a year.

In high school, he had bussed tables at the bistro Max on Main in Hartford, and when a fellow busboy was canned for dealing cocaine, Tracy went to owner Richard Rosenthal with an offer: “Rich, I can handle the whole restaurant. You don’t have to hire anyone else.”

Rosenthal was skeptical, but Tracy made good on his promise.

When Tracy was headed off to college, Rosenthal sat him down for a talk: “You did really well. You’re gonna go on and become a doctor or lawyer, and that’s great—you should. Stay the f--- out of the restaurant business.”

“Why?” Tracy asked.

You’re very dedicated, Rosenthal said. You’re nice. The business will chew you up. It’s harder than you know.

After Georgetown, Tracy and O’Donnell, over the objections of her Catholic parents, moved into an apartment together in DC’s West End and began looking for work. On his cap at graduation, he wrote: will work for food. It turned out to be a case of truth in jest.

Tracy worked his connections to snag a job as host at the Old Ebbitt Grill—the raw-bar emporium is owned by the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, whose president, Tom Meyer, is a family friend—then moved on to Clyde’s in Chevy Chase, where he worked the fry station, manned the grill, plated desserts. At lunch he waited tables at Cafe Deluxe. It was a grind, as Rosenthal had said. But more exposure didn’t dim his eagerness. When he wasn’t working, he was reading cookbooks. He was wowed by what some chefs could do.

He entered the Culinary Institute of America in 1996. Tracy quickly learned his limitations, but also his strengths. Other students could do things at the stove he couldn’t, but he had a gift for seeing the needs of the entire operation.

When, during a business course, an instructor bewildered a class by defining a restaurant as “a business open to the public that serves food and beverage for the sole purpose of making money,” Tracy was the only one nodding along and not asking, “But what about the chef as artist?”

“It struck me as profound,” he says.

Halfway through CIA, he served a three-month externship at Roberto Donna’s Galileo, at the time one of Washington’s top restaurants. To be the best, Tracy thought, you have to learn from the best.

Galileo was an education—in what not to do. Purveyors were strung along with a hundred excuses as to why they weren’t being paid. Shelves of high-priced food were going to waste. The kitchen was tense, full of shouting.

I don’t want to run a place like this, Tracy thought. There has to be another way.

He might never be a great chef, but he knew what he could do—and in the end, he suspected, that might be more important. He understood how to lead people, and he understood how to create a system.

After graduation he worked as floor manager at 1789, also owned by the Clyde’s group.

One day he approached Meyer. “How many years should I work in kitchens before I open my own place?” he asked. “Five? Ten? Fifteen?”

“I usually talk people out of the restaurant business,” Meyer recalls. “But Geoff just had a passion for it, and he was really smart and really talented.”

“The time is right now,” Meyer told him. “If you wait 10 to 15 years, you’re gonna have a wife, a mortgage, a dog. What’s your net worth?”

Tracy wanted to laugh. Or cry. “Fifteen-hundred dollars,” he said.

Meyer advised him to forget about opening the sort of place most sous chefs dream of—the intimate bistro where they can express themselves at the stove: “You’ll be working six nights a week and burned out in five years.” Instead Meyer urged him to open a bigger, high-volume restaurant where Tracy could take full advantage of his understanding of operations.

In the winter of 1999, Tracy agreed to take on the debt of one of Donna’s satellites, Dolcetto, complete with a freezer of rotting meat and a rear-wall mural of the chef framed in ivy and flanked by cherubs. It had just gone out of business.

Three of Tracy’s CIA classmates—including a current executive chef, David Pow—leapt at the chance to work for him, despite being warned that they wouldn’t be paid until after the place opened.

Tracy was blessed, also, with an eye for talent. A guy he’d hired to work the salad station turned out to be an exceptional cook. Tracy promoted him twice, making him executive chef overseeing the kitchen at Chef Geoff’s downtown. Great chefs often speak of a grueling apprenticeship in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris followed by several years of study in a succession of four-star restaurants in the States. But after only a couple of years under Tracy, a 24-year-old Johnny Monis struck out on his own and open DC’s acclaimed Komi in 2003.

Tracy’s obsession with systems was born not of the forethought and planning on which he now prides himself but of necessity. Really, of desperation.

Lia’s, which opened in 2006, was the first restaurant he launched that didn’t take over an existing place, a mistake he vows never to repeat. Build-out costs exceeded estimates, and the job dragged on. Lia’s struggled in the first few months, and the two Chef Geoff’s were struggling, too. He worried about keeping all three places afloat. Some nights, he hardly slept. It was, he says, the worst time of his life, “a total meltdown.”

He cursed his younger, cockier self as he recalled the words of his commencement address at the Culinary Institute of America: “When things become too comfortable, that’s precisely the time to change and do something else. When your heart’s pumping and you’re really scared, that’s when you’re really living life.”

His heart was pumping, all right. It had never pumped harder. Scared? He had never been more scared in his life.

His father, Dan, heard it in their nightly phone conversations. A retired CPA from Arthur Andersen who gave the books a once-over every month, he listened to Tracy pour out his frustration and fear one night. He told his son, “You need to hire your brother.”

My brother? Tracy thought. I should hire a teacher?

Chris Tracy had worked for Teach for America; had taught English as a Second Language at DC’s Shaw Middle School at Tenth and U streets, Northwest; and had just abandoned a PhD program at Johns Hopkins in sociology. He was uncertain what to do with his life, and while that meant he’d likely be available, nothing on his résumé suggested he would be an asset to the company.

But Tracy trusted his father in business matters, and the more he mulled the idea, the more he thought Chris might be useful.

In September 2006, Geoff brought his brother aboard for what he figured might be six months, until Chris grew bored or restless. But the restaurant novice was a quick study, and he liked the work, the gamesmanship, the idea of competing every day. It was one of the few things the brothers had in common.

Geoff was a big-picture guy. In college, he had loved the intro courses, the big ideas, but got bored when he was forced to delve deeper into a subject. Chris, on the other hand, lived to, as he puts it, “drill down into the details,” examining the contradictions of things, exploring their many shades of gray.

Geoff wasn’t so proud that he couldn’t admit that where he was weak, Chris was strong. Also that where Geoff was weak, the company itself was weak. He couldn’t keep doing things the old way. He needed a new system. It would be like starting over again.

Forced to reckon with the kind of restaurateur he wanted to be, he would forge a new kind of company. Out of the chaos would emerge a new order.

Chris Tracy sits staring at his two computer screens at 9 am one morning at company headquarters while Sarah Murphy, the company’s “executive director of profitability,” feeds him numbers from a sheet of paper filled with so much data, so minutely recorded, that she has to use a ruler to make sure she’s read the correct line. By the end of the hour, he’ll be bleary-eyed. By 2, he still won’t have had lunch.

Downstairs, Geoff makes the rounds of the kitchen—sampling dishes, snapping pictures, asking after his cooks. He’s performing one kind of control: a human, tactile interaction. Chris performs another: detached, numerical.

“We’re both analytical guys, but we’re different analytical guys,” Geoff says. “I barely understand the things he’s doing.”

To see Chris preside over a meeting is to see a manner more classroom than corporate. Lean, dark-haired, and intense, he could hardly present a more obvious contrast with his brother. His authority derives less from his need to assert his power than from his willingness to listen. He doesn’t assert; he asks. He encourages. He challenges. If he’s reluctant to give the impression of being “top-down” in his management style, he has no such qualms about being perceived as a wonk. He speaks excitedly of “data points.” The words “super-actionable, super-precise data” roll off his tongue.

The numbers Sarah gives him to punch into his spreadsheets enable him to compile a weekly report for managers at all the restaurants. The report is a distillation of what he discovers in the surveys completed by diners on the website OpenTable, along with a graph tracking the trends at each restaurant (in food, in service) that he distributes to all managers and an update on the progress they’re making toward their budgets.

“I don’t think just measuring is what differentiates us,” Chris says. “What differentiates us is that we share that information with our managers in a way that is actionable, so that they can drill in and find out what’s wrong and make intelligent decisions.”

Recent scrutiny of a spike in bar-supply costs at one restaurant revealed that a manager had been spending too much on mints. A small cost, perhaps, but it’s minding the little things, Chris suggests, that distinguishes a successful company from a struggling one.

Later will come monthly, company-wide progress reports—one for hospitality, one for profitability—and an even more comprehensive quarterly “report card.”

The report-card numbers are gleaned from three sources. The work of the New York-based company, Coyle Hospitality Group—hired to visit each restaurant anonymously every month and assess each aspect of the dining experience—is converted into hard numbers. The same conversion is made for the OpenTable surveys. (A diner’s 4, for “very good,” is recorded as “80%.”) The third set of numbers is taken from the spot checks performed by members of Tracy’s management team using the 800 standards. From the 26-page score sheet, it hardly seems possible that Chris might have overlooked some detail of the restaurant operation.

Chris believes it’s simply not possible to measure too much. Measurements matter. They improve performance. It’s not a stretch, he seems to suggest, that if your burger or salmon is cooked right and you find the staff friendly and attentive, numbers played at least some role.

The numbers are important in other ways, too. The company’s incentive program is tied to the stats Sarah Murphy feeds him. Servers who score a 90 or above from the converted Coyle numbers earn a $250 bonus. Among the managerial staff, the crucial number—the one they all anxiously await—is the score on the quarterly report card that measures the rate of profit relative to the previous year’s quarter. A positive number, and the managers take home 40 percent of the profit growth; one year, a manager earned $30,000 for three months’ work.

I spoke to several chefs and managers about the Chef Geoff’s model—its reliance on data, its elevation of numbers over the “eye test.” None had heard of anything like it. Some reacted with wry amusement, some with “hey, whatever works” astonishment.

“Numbers are just tools,” Chris Tracy says when we sit down to lunch at Chef Geoff’s downtown. “The idea is to get better. To constantly improve.”

He emphasizes that the numbers grow out of questions, that the struggle to become more efficient is what propels the data collection, not the other way around. It’s not, in other words, measurement for measurement’s sake. Quite the opposite: He’s looking to turn what’s commonly perceived to be instinctive into something that can be broken down and quantified.

Chris says they have yet to reach the goals they set several years ago: a 15-percent profit margin and a score of 95 or higher on the Hospitality Report Card (a number calculated over the course of the year and encompassing the scores of all the restaurants). The company ended last year with a 10.2-percent profit margin and a score of 89.5.

A disappointment, Chris says. One that drives him and the team.

But there’s no doubt, he adds, that all this number-crunching is worth it.

In 2001, in its first full year, Chef Geoff’s made just over $132,000. Last year, the four restaurants earned a profit of just over $1.1 million. In 2008, the year Coyle began its anonymous visits, the company-wide score was 80. Last year: 89. The OpenTable surveys have steadily improved, too, since Chris and his team began tracking them, rising from 75.3 in the second quarter of last year to 79.5 in the first quarter of 2012. All four restaurants are profitable, and none carry debt.

When Rockville opens, the company will have about 70 more employees to oversee and a 20-percent larger company to manage. It will be harder than ever for Geoff or Going to visit all the company’s restaurants in a day, which means it will be harder to maintain daily contact with the kitchen, to give the constant oversight that helps ensure that dishes are sent out the same way every time. It means more product to order, more employees to hire and train, more data to crunch.

And that means trusting as never before in their systems, even as those systems are being tested as never before.

With Rockville very much on his mind, Chris sits down with Murphy and Courtney Fitzgerald, the head of hospitality, one recent morning for a conference call with a software company called iCIMS headquartered in New Jersey. They huddle around his corner desk. A guy named Jim is on the other end.

The idea that there exists a single program that might fit all their number-crunching needs has long haunted Chris’s thoughts.

“One of my frustrations right now is with our managers’ logs,” he tells Jim. “There’s a ton of great information that goes into those logs but not a lot of great analysis.” His managers are doing a good job of recording pertinent details of their operations. But there’s no easy way to process that information and make use of it. He concocts a ridiculous for-instance of the kind of data collection he’s interested in seeing—a nightly “weather report” from each location.

“Sure,” Jim says with a laugh, “that’d be possible.”

“And you’re saying you could run reports on the number of cloudy days?”

“Agreed.”

This pleases Chris, and he looks around the room at the others, nodding; iCIMS appears more attractive than he anticipated.

Could iCIMS tailor a program to their specific needs?

It could.

And a different program for each restaurant?

Sure thing.

“What we would do,” Jim says, “is we would have to build those documents for you. We give you five forms free, and you can go from there.”

Five forms? To measure everything they need to measure? To analyze what’s selling on the menus and what’s not? To record the time between when a dish is ordered and when it arrives, and how long it takes between appetizer and entrée?

“I’m envisioning about 342 forms,” Chris says.

Jim, hearing hyperbole, laughs.

Chris isn’t laughing.

Geoff breaks into a grin when the conversation is relayed to him later.

His response underscores an essential difference between the brothers. What for Chris is a source of frustration is for Geoff one of those instances in which the seeking is as important as the finding. His sunniness seems to say: We will find the answer eventually. What’s important is that they not accept the status quo, that they’re constantly looking for ways to become more efficient, more consistent.

They sit across from each other in the office, Geoff leaning back in his T-shirt and ball cap, Chris leaning forward in his crisp, collared shirt.

Chris is intent on making clear to me that he doesn’t believe they’ve created a perfect system. They never speak of the structure in place as if it’s inviolable, complete unto itself—as if they’re content that they’ve found The Way.

“There is no way,” Chris says. “And that’s the frustrating thing, obviously. But it’s also the fun of it.”

The fun of it?

“The challenge of it—that’s fun.”

Geoff says, “Figuring it out, like you have to figure out a game. I think that’s what keeps it interesting.”

“Definitely,” Chris says.

They could be back at their childhood house in Hartford, a couple of boys bonding over some brotherly interest only they understand. Rockville looms, and beyond it, five more restaurants over the next eight years, but they have a yin and a yang to control the chaos.

“I always say,” Geoff says, “if I’m not enjoying it, I’m not going to keep doing it.”

“Exactly,” Chris agrees.

“It’s work. It’s constant. It never ends. But it’s got to be fun, too.”

Fun: the 801st standard?

The brothers roar.

Todd Kliman, the magazine’s food and wine editor, is a James Beard Award-winning food critic and author of “The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine.”